Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm MHP and you're back with The Takeaway. We're revisiting my conversation from 2022 with someone my Gen-Xers may know from this tune.
Holly Robinson Peete: We never thought we'd find a place where we belong.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, it's from the 1980s cool TV classic, 21 Jump Street, and was performed by one of the show's stars, Holly Robinson Peete, who played Officer Judy Hoffs.
Holly Robinson Peete: I'm Judy Hoffs. That's okay, honey. My people don't do that anymore.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Classic. In the early '90s, Holly Robinson was hanging with Mr. Cooper as a regular on the ABC series, and she even received a surprise onset proposal from her NFL Quarterback boyfriend, Rodney Peete.
Rodney Peete: You're the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life. I love you with all my heart.
Holly Robinson Peete: Yes.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: 29 years later, Holly and Rodney are still going strong and continuing a family tradition of using celebrity status to contribute to the greater good. In 1997, Holly and her husband, Rodney, founded the HollyRod Foundation. Through HollyRod, she's helped many by bringing awareness and resources for children on the autism spectrum, a decision based on her family's journey with eldest son, RJ.
Holly Robinson Peete: My name is Holly Robinson Peete. I'm an actor, author, mom of four.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted to know how she and her family made the decision to speak publicly about her son, RJ's Autism.
Holly Robinson Peete: I remember very clearly those early days of the diagnosis. I remember the chaos that ensued. I remember feeling hopeless and helpless. I remember my husband, Rodney Peete, was playing football, he was a quarterback, and he was gone and he couldn't process it, and so it was really chaotic. Now people look at me and they go, "Oh, you're such a great advocate, and you just got the diagnosis, and you picked yourself up and started advocating." Well, no, I was a hot mommy mess in the beginning. It wasn't until probably when RJ was more like eight or nine that I was really able to talk about it, and process what autism was, and advocate publicly.
I did that because I didn't see anybody else doing it. I knew and was aware of other "celebrity" or famous people who had children on the spectrum but were hiding it or didn't want to talk about it. I knew that I could affect change in the autism community by having a public conversation. We sat down around a table, quite literally, and presented our cases. My husband was not for it. He did not want his son labeled as the quarterback and actress's son who had autism. He just did not want that for his life.
Because I wasn't seeing any representation in the media or anybody really advocating, I really knew that we had to do it. We really did a pro-versus-con situation and I won, because I win all the arguments in my family. That just comes with the territory. Quite frankly, it was a very, very thought-out process that we did. I'm so glad we did because now I look up all these years later and I see the advocacy we've been able to do and the awareness we've been able to raise, and I'm so glad. Those early days were really difficult, but in the end, sharing is really important. When people see what you're going through, it helps them feel less alone.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I am so personally grateful that you did. My eldest is 19, nearly 20, but our little one is 7, and we received the autism spectrum diagnosis, I guess, maybe two and a half, three years old. That sense of chaos that you talk about, for me, I think it was less chaos and more denial. My husband actually was the one who was like, "Oh, good. Now we have a thing, now we'll form the team, now we'll just move forward in doing all the supporting." I was like, "Are they sure? Are you serious? Is that really what it is? Couldn't it be something else? Maybe this is racism." Quite literally I was prepared to call it any other thing.
Holly Robinson Peete: Right. Listen, I am so glad you shared that with me. I didn't know that. I'm glad you shared that portion of it because a lot of times the dads get put in this corner of being the parent that always immediately goes into denial. Now, that did happen to be the case with my husband, he did, he was stressed about how his son wasn't going to be the next Heisman Trophy winner, and wasn't going to follow in his footsteps. When he would come to the football games he would stem, and flap, and twirl, and he just wasn't engaged, and it was hard for Rodney Peete. He was just devastated by this diagnosis, so he was a little paralyzed by it.
I did become the gangster mom, and rolled up my sleeves, and just went to battle for this kid. I still was in a little bit of denial myself, but I was more focused on getting that intervention early. Like your daughter, my son was diagnosed around three years old, but I knew it too and really just couldn't get the diagnosis. There was a lot of denial going on with my pediatrician, and my husband, and they teamed up and it was a whole thing. In hindsight, I'm really, really glad that he came around and really understood that I needed him on team RJ.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of why the diagnosis was so difficult for me is it's as though someone tells you there's a thing, but it's not a thing. My bet is that RJ and Anna are as different from one another as they are from typical processing kids. I'm wondering, as maybe we're talking to other parents who are first getting this diagnosis, how they can think about getting to know their child and not just a diagnosis.
Holly Robinson Peete: The hardest part about trying to explain it to my friends and my family is that it is a spectrum disorder, so the kids are going to be so vastly different in so many ways. The one thing that they do share in common mostly, I find, is the social piece. Is the inability or the difficulty in having friends and really just moving in the world in a way that everybody looks at and doesn't comment on. That was part of my journey, was to try to normalize neurodiversity. Trying to normalize effective, "Not everybody processes everything the same way."
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, for neurotypical parents and siblings, loving and living with an autistic young person can mean having to modify expectations of how kids show love and learning to respect sometimes surprising boundaries that autistic children need in order to feel comfortable. It's a process that requires enormous time, patience, and attention. Now, Holly talked with me about what this kind of parenting meant for her family.
Holly Robinson Peete: The battle has been constantly guarding this boy's heart. Now that he's 24, trying to establish some independence and self-identity, and self-advocacy, I found out that I was standing in his way a little bit. My husband had to call me off and just say, "You got to let him go. You got to let him fail. You got to stop being his bodyguard." That was hard for me to do, but once I did it, I did notice some great things happening to him. As moms, our job is to protect our kids, and so we're on it. We're on it 24/7.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, RJ is not your only son. You are the gangster mom times four. Talk to me about how jumping into action, parenting RJ, being focused on doing the work to create the team that is necessary also affected, impacted, maybe improved, or made more difficult some of the work of parenting your other kids.
Holly Robinson Peete: Oh boy, that's the part. I don't have a lot of regrets in our 20-year autism journey, but I do wish I had-- RJ has a twin sister, so I do wish I had given her a little bit more one-on-one attention so that she was not identified as being his sister, the sister-- the neurotypical twin, the one that doesn't have autism. She's just graduated from college and now she's feeling the brunt of that now. I always counsel parents, I say if you have other kids, make time, find time to just be with them one-on-one.
Look them in the eye, ask them, don't bring up the affected sibling or the issues that you're having, don't even say the word autism, just take your child to the most random place and have an experience that they can call their own that doesn't surround your child with autism. If I had to go back and do all that again, I probably would've done that differently and been a little bit more patient, and kind, and understanding, compassionate with his sibling, his twin sister.
Now, the other two are a little bit further apart, so they're-- now they're 24, 24, 19, and 16, and so they bonded, the two younger ones, but they're amazing advocates for their brother, but they weren't as defined by autism growing up as Ryan, his twin sister, was. I look at the family as they're all advocates. They love RJ. They love him in a way that is so strong and so beautiful and they protect him in a way that is amazing. They've been unbelievable members of Team RJ, but I'm always counseling parents to try to incorporate the other siblings, the other kids, in ways that have less to do with autism so they're not so defined by that experience.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to take a quick break and be back with more with Holly Robinson Peete in just a moment. Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're continuing my conversation with Holly Robinson Peete. Holly's a second-generation actor. Her dad, Matthew Robinson, was the original Gordon on Sesame Street and the voice of the first Black Muppet on the show, Roosevelt Franklin. I wanted to know how Holly felt about the new Sesame Street character, Julia, who has autism.
Holly Robinson Peete: Oh, my gosh, Melissa, we're talking about a full-circle moment. They asked me, Sesame Workshop asked me to come to Capitol Hill and introduce Julia when she first came out. We needed a big press conference, and the full circleness of that moment was so powerful that they would ask me to be a part of Julia's unveiling if you will. That was just one of the best days of my life because I felt my dad in the room because if my son had a Julia on TV when he was growing up, that would have been a game changer for his life.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: For all the challenges that there are in parenting and navigating for kids who are neurodiverse, what are some of the gifts?
Holly Robinson Peete: These kids are so amazing and think outside the box and process the world differently and see things differently. That diversity of thought is so powerful. When that gets embraced, great things happen. We have a foundation called HollyRod Foundation. One of the things that we do and focus on are job placement and job training for young adults. Adults on the spectrum doesn't have to be a young adult, but adults working age, trying to match them up with corporations to really get their worth and their value.
My son, RJ, who was told at three year that he would never do a whole lot of things, one of the things that she-- the list that she ran down, she said he would never have meaningful employment. One of the reasons why I wanted to share RJ's story, and long before he got this amazing job with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a clubhouse attendant and he got a world series ring and all those amazing things. Long before that even happened I wanted to share the journey because I believed that that would help people see and understand that this is a spectrum and it is a journey, and there are so many beautiful things that they can do. There are amazing gifts.
To your point about the curing piece, I just don't like to pass judgment on anybody who's on this journey who wants it to be eradicated or want it to be cured, or there was recently a famous autism mom who announced that her son didn't have autism anymore. I felt some kind of way about that, personally, but then I had to check myself and say, "You know what? If that is that person's journey, that's fine." My journey is to celebrate who these people are and to embrace their autism and not focus on curing it or trying to eradicate it.
Embracing their neurodiversity, embracing the way that they are, normalizing their behavior in a lot of ways. Trying to give them the tools to make it through this world, but at the same time making sure that people understand how beautiful and valuable they are as they are, as God put them on this earth. It's such an amazing question, Melissa, and I sit on the middle and allowing I had to get to this point, wasn't always there. I had to work myself up to this point to be a little bit more understanding and compassionate to people who really just want to say, get rid of autism, and hopefully it'll never exist. My feeling is that embracing it brings some pretty cool things. That would be my thought on that.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, and compassion for everyone on every part of this journey. That sounds right to me. Holly Robinson Peete, actress, gangster mom times four. Thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Holly Robinson Peete: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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