Tavis: (Laughter) You had to see this. So Rodney was sitting at the far end of the couch.
Holly Robinson Peete: Yeah. I was like, “Hey.”
Tavis: And Holly said, “Why are you sitting so far away from me?”
Rodney Peete: Come on, honey.
Robinson Peete: We don’t have a lot of time to just sit and hug and chill like this.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Peete: There you go, baby, how’s this? How’s this? This good?
Robinson Peete: That’s better.
Tavis: Is that close enough.
Robinson Peete: That’s better, yeah.
Tavis: All right. It’s a family show, now – it’s a family show. (Laughter) Anyway, pleased to have Rodney and Holly Robinson Peete on this program. April is National Autism Awareness month and they are both out with two new projects about the subject.
Their son RJ has been living with autism for several years now. Rodney’s book is called “Not My Boy: A Father, a Son, and One Family’s Journey with Autism,” and Holly’s book, written with their daughter Ryan, is called “My Brother Charlie.” Rodney and Holly, good to have you both on this program.
Robinson Peete: So good to be here.
Peete: Thank you.
Tavis: With as busy as y’all are with the kids and your mother and all kind of other professional commitments, y’all found time to write two books when?
Robinson Peete: In between having kids and birthday parties and – no, you know what? Actually, it was a really ironic scenario that our books came out at the same time, because Ryan and I started writing “My Brother Charlie,” I want to say almost two years ago. We got a delay because we had to wait for this unbelievable illustrator named Shane W. Evans – bad cat. We had to wait for him, and it was worth the wait. Then that sort of led into Rodney’s book, which I nudged him to write.
Peete: She nudged, man.
Robinson Peete: Gently nudged him to write for many years.
Peete: Yeah, no, no, it was a hard nudge. She said, “You need to write this book. You need to do it. There’s fathers out there, you remember when we got our diagnosis there was nothing for you to go out and read, there was no magazine talking about a dad’s journey or what dads go through.” So she said, “You need to write this book to help other fathers,” and she was right because the response has been great.
Robinson Peete: Yeah.
Tavis: You have a whole book that talks about this, Rodney, but top-line for me what it is that a father has to endure, because you’re right – when we think about autism, we think about – no slight to fathers – mothers are leading this campaign, they’re talking about these issues all the time. But the title itself, “Not My Boy,” that comes from – that’s the title why?
Peete: Well, because as a father you have all these expectations that you want for your son. I grew up in an athletic family, I played sports and played in the NFL, and my dad was a coach and he was around, and I wanted to give my son the same opportunities and all the things that I thought that helped me grow up and mature, the discipline.
Making friends was easy because I was on sports teams. I wanted him to have that, and when we got the diagnosis all that had to change. I had to reevaluate what my expectations were for him and really come down to his level and figure out okay, now I’ve got to figure out what he can and cannot do.
Tavis: Did it make you feel less of a man or like you had failed him in some way?
Peete: Initially, yeah. Initially, yeah. I thought part of it was my fault. I thought I could fix him. I think a lot of males think we can fix any problem and I thought I could fix my son, which kind of stuck me in denial for a long, long period of time, which was difficult not only on our son but also on our marriage.
Tavis: You got the diagnosis how, Holly, about RJ?
Robinson Peete: We saw him make a major change at about two years old. He was hitting all his milestones alongside his twin sister, and then there was like a moment when the lights went out, okay? So there – it took us about a year to get a diagnosis. We got the diagnosis through a developmental pediatrician who saw him, evaluated him, and basically said, “Yes, your son has autism.”
We were like, “What is that?” We were both educated people, but didn’t really know what it was. So that began this journey. Nowadays if you get that diagnosis you have some people talking about it and you have some resources, but we really didn’t see anything.
I actually ran out to buy a book for my daughter because I wanted to explain to her what her twin brother had, and it didn’t exist. So the irony that now 10 years later we’re writing this book I think is really sweet, because I want children to understand what autism is and sort of move away from the stigma and recognize how beautiful and unique and special these kids are.
But we were told he wasn’t going to do a whole laundry list of things, not the least of which was ever be verbal.
Tavis: He’s doing those things now?
Robinson Peete: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: How is the sister, Ryan, his twin sister, and especially given that they’re twins, how has Ryan come over the years, now that she’s a budding author? (Laughter) How has Ryan come to accept that?
Robinson Peete: She’s really feeling herself, yeah. (Laughter) Being an author at 12.
Tavis: At 12, yeah.
Robinson Peete: That’s a big feat for her. But in essence she came home and said, “You know what, Mom and Dad? We need to advocate for RJ, because kids in school don’t know what he has, don’t know what’s up, and if we explain it to them.” So we went down to school and we had a little laundry list of Ryan’s bullet points, and the first one was “Don’t say anything to embarrass us.”
We sat in front of 50 fourth-graders and we basically had this conversation. We said, “What are the things you do great, what are the things you’re not so great at?” One kid said, “I’m really good at soccer and I suck at math.”
We said, “Well, RJ can tell you the name of every single major league baseball player in the entire league. You give him a number between one and 44 and he’ll tell you which president that was and who the vice president was. But he’s terrible at making friends.” You should have seen it, it was like this cloud lifted, and we thought, “Oh, wow, we’re advocating for him and look at what’s happening.”
So Ryan really wanted to do that for her brother. She has always had his back, and what people don’t know about siblings of children with autism is that it’s very difficult to – you get your play dates cut short, vacations cut short.
Peete: Dinner cut short.
Robinson Peete: There’s so many things you can’t do because you are at the whim of whether your brother’s going to stretch out on the floor or not.
Tavis: So much about – this is me saying this, not Holly or Rodney – but we all live in this town, of course, and you are in the thick of Hollywood; certainly you as an actress. So much of getting around about this town is about fitting in and friends and the hook-up and, to your point, play dates and who’s doing this and who’s doing that.
When you’re in this world as an athlete, as an actress, and your son doesn’t fit in so easily, how does that impact the family?
Peete: Oh, it’s difficult, very difficult, early on. Regardless of what city you live in, you want your kids to make friends and have a lot of companionship, but in this town, like you mentioned, it’s intense. So when I would go to school and I would see all these other kids playing on one side of the playground and I’d see my son all by himself, alone, kind of turning in circles, I used to sit in my car and cry because it was a hard thing to take, to know that your son was not connecting with other kids his age.
Tavis: Autism, to be sure, is colorblind.
Robinson Peete: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: But I wonder, given that you happen to be both African-American, how Black folk are dealing with this issue? Because if it’s like anything else there’s always a unique challenge that people of color have to face.
Robinson Peete: Yes, unique –
Tavis: Starting with the money y’all spend for treatment.
Robinson Peete: Oh, my goodness. Oh, yeah, the treatment is unaffordable, basically. That’s the first thing about autism and that doesn’t discriminate. But the other thing that’s really important to mention is that in the African-American community the children are getting diagnosed too late. They’re getting diagnosed two to five years, on average, later than other communities, and that’s unacceptable.
So Rodney and I have gone and we’ve spoken in front of churches and different congregations, because the church can really help out here. But it’s very, very important, because there is this window of time that is really an ideal option to get in there and help bring these children from this autism world, if you will.
There’s a little stigma, too, Tavis. People have issues about things that have to do with mental health and growing up you had those cousins who were like, “Oh, that’s just Cousin Jo Jo, he don’t talk.” But he might need intervention. So I think we need to get that word out and lift the stigma, and that’s one of the reasons why I love this children’s book with these little brown babies on the cover, because maybe that might help.
Tavis: I get the sense, knowing the two of you as I have over the years, that I think as is always the case, that whole notion of every dark cloud having a silver lining. The silver lining in this cloud, one of them has to be the HollyRod Foundation, your foundation that does so much work on this and other issues. So tell me the good that’s come out of RJ having autism.
It’s been really a blessing in some ways. We never thought we’d get to the point where we would say that, but it has. That’s because we’ve had the opportunity, friends like you that let us come on and have these conversations, and we are able to see how valuable and beautiful these children are and talk about the positives of children with special needs. There are some – there’s an up side.
But HollyRod started because my dad had Parkinson’s and that came on my dad – Gordon from “Sesame Street.” I uploaded some Roosevelt Franklins on Twitter today. (Laughter) Just as a shout-out. But he had Parkinson’s and compassionate care was important for that, and we did that down at USC, at Rodney’s old alma mater.
But also with autism, as that came into our lives we realized that autism is crazy expensive. So that’s what we’re doing now with HollyRod. We are really raising money to help families be able to afford treatment and other treatments that they would never have access to otherwise. It’s been really gratifying. Whenever you get these situations and you could make something good out of it, you’re able to help a family.
Peete: Right. It wasn’t easy for us to come out. It was a big family discussion to start talking about our son, because obviously you don’t want to make him out to be a poster child for X, Y, Z situation. But once we made that decision, the feedback that we got was great.
There was a time we could not go to Disneyland, and we go now and there are other kids that come up to us and say, “We want to meet RJ. RJ’s been such an inspiration to us because I heard you guys talking about him and what he’s been able to do. After that doctor told him ‘Never,’ we were able to do this and that and that.” So the feedback’s been unbelievable.
Tavis: It’s a subject that many Americans are wrestling with these days and I’m so honored that Rodney and Holly chose to come on our show to talk about it. They are the authors – the co-authors of two new books with their kids. “My Brother Charlie” is the first children’s book from you, first one?
Robinson Peete: Yes, mm-hmm.
Tavis: Written by Holly and her daughter Ryan, one of the twins. And “Not My Boy,” written by Rodney Peete, with a little assistance, I’m sure, along the way from RJ. Anyway, Holly and Rodney, good to have you both on the program.
Robinson Peete: Thanks, Tavis.
Peete: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. Tell your mama I said hello.
Robinson Peete: I will.
Tavis: Please do. I’ll tell her myself – hi. (Laughter)