By Nneka Samuel
“I think we’re the family for this,” says actress Holly Robinson Peete, regarding her family’s docu-series For Peete’s Sake, the latest addition to the OWN network. Over the years, the mother of four has willingly and openly shared intimate details about her life and that of her family. But never quite like this.
Founder of the non-profit foundation HollyRod along with her husband of almost 21 years, Rodney, Robinson Peete has provided help and hope for those living with Parkinson’s, like her late father Matthew, and autism, which her now 18-year-old twin son RJ was diagnosed with in 2000. Holly recalls the emotional process she experienced after receiving the news. “I was so sad the first few years and then I became angry, and then I went on a mission and I’ve been on that mission ever since” – to raise awareness for the disorder that affects 1 in 68 children in the United States.
A lot of progress has been made in the 16 years since RJ was first diagnosed, particularly with technology. But many autistic children don’t have access to technological services. That’s why HollyRod provides much needed tablets to autistic children with low verbal skills, allowing them to better communicate. Autism is still riddled with unknowns, however, especially when it comes to adolescence. The journey from RJ’s childhood to young adulthood was a transition Robinson Peete wasn’t prepared for. Confronted with a different set of issues and hurdles, she likens the regression RJ experienced to being diagnosed with autism all over again. That’s why she continues to use her platform to aid families and shine a light on this incurable disorder.
“If I had just gotten a diagnosis yesterday and I turned on a show and saw a young man at 18 that was told he would never really do anything or be anything…Seeing him sort of breaking through a lot of those barriers,” says Robinson Peete, “it would have given me so much hope.”
That hope is part of the reason why this “un-Hollywood, Hollywood” family said “yes” to reality television after having been courted by numerous producers for roughly a decade. But, the actress asserts, there’s also something to be said for timing. With one child soon headed off to college, another about to enter the workforce, and the rest taking on sports like their former NFL star father, “Everybody’s transitioning,” says Robinson Peete. That includes her soon to be 80-year-old mother, Dolores, who “thinks she’s 40,” jokes the actress.
But no matter where they lie on the transition spectrum, all of Holly’s children have taken an active investment in sharing the story of their lives – mistakes, flaws and all. Protective, but not in a candy coated sort of way, Robinson Peete wants her children to be real about the issues they’re experiencing. That can be tough with a camera crew following their every move, but kids born or raised in today’s social media world are wired a little differently, she thinks. “I don’t know about you,” says Holly, “but when I was 10, 11, 12, I didn’t know what my own personal brand was, [or] even what that meant.” RJ, Ryan, Roman and Robinson are conscious of the fact that whatever they put forward when the cameras are rolling, is like a snapshot of who they are. And they’ve already learned valuable lessons, like how to be vulnerable and comfortable being wrong sometimes. Regardless of the challenges they face individually, “As a family,” says Robinson Peete, “we always work it through.”
Now, Holly admits she’s a different kind of mom than most might expect. “People think I’m the Black Doris Day over here. You know, June Cleaver. And I am not,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I am like Hurricane Holly.” Parenting aside, after holding down the fort at home for so many years, Robinson Peete says she’s no longer afraid to leave the kids and is finally ready to get back to work. That includes co-authoring her third book, “Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express,” with children RJ and Ryan. Written like a diary from the point of view of a teenager with autism, the book’s fictional characters are loosely based on her children and the story resembles that of real families they’ve met in recent years. One of very few books on the market that shines a light on the realities of autism and adolescence, “Same But Different,” is available for purchase in April, Autism Awareness Month.
Robinson Peete is also making a long-awaited return to episodic television with a role on one of her favorite shows, Chicago Fire. Her children, who weren’t yet born when she starred in popular shows like 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, couldn’t be more thrilled or supportive.