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Writing the Book(s) on Autism

As we’ve discussed in this space before, actress Holly Robinson Peete, who came to national attention starring in such TV series as Family Matters and 21 Jump Street, isone of the more recognizable public advocates for autism awareness and activism. What we haven’t discussed is her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. This week we’re going to take a look at what the two of them are doing in the world of writing books which, six years after their releases, continue to be highly read and recommended by parents and their children with autism.

Starting with Rodney, over twelve years ago, he first learned that his son RJ, who has a twin sister named Ryan Elizabeth, was diagnosed with autism. His response was similar to many parents’ when they first receive news of a diagnosis: “This is not happening to me. This is not my boy. I had all these expectations of what I wanted him to do.”

It was that feeling of horror over a future seemingly deferred that led Rodney to pen his book Not My Boy! that retells his personal experiences and views about his struggle as a parent. RJ, who is named for his father, first began showing trouble at the age around two or three years old. As Rodney recalls, “He stopped looking us in the eyes. He stopped responding to his name.”

Seeking out doctors and specialists, the early diagnosis was rather grim, with both parents being told that RJ would never be able to attend a mainstream school, speak, look them in the eye, nor be able to say “I love you.” Understandably, Rodney went through a period of denial followed by a renewed sense of optimism, inspired by his wife Holly.

“We believe we can fix everything,” says Rodney. While he was in initial denial following the diagnosis, Holly simply replied with the positive response of “Let’s roll up our sleeves.” Now twelve years later, he has a much more optimistic outlook on RJ and life.

Of course, in a family in which a member has been diagnosed with autism, no one responds the same. One person who had a uniquely difficult time was Ryan Elizabeth, RJ’s twin sister. One day when Ryan was twelve years old, she went to Holly and said that the two of them should write a children’s book to help other kids and their parents deal with the challenges posed by having a child with autism.

The book has received unanimous way for the simple, yet nuanced way it depicts the nuances in the two sibling’s relationship. At one point, Ryan’s on-page persona, Callie, says “Charlie has autism, but autism doesn’t have Charlie.”

Six years on since its publication and Holly continues to travel the country giving readings and talks about the challenges she has faced as a mother. And it makes sense that she has followed up her book that looks at the twins’ relationships from the ages of six to twelve, her new book Same but Different looks at how the relationship evolved during adolescence, as both child is now eighteen. And based on Holly and Ryan’s outlook, there’s a good chance we’ll get another book in a few years chronicling the twins’ early twenties.

As Holly herself says, “Ryan said we have to get real and we have to be a resource for other families. She’s 18, and she knows everything, so I just follow her lead.” While Holly’s trademark humility is clear in this statement, it also serves as an inspiring statement of intent for other families looking to help others navigate what they have been through.