November 13, 2015
Holly Robinson Peete says she knew next to nothing about Autism Spectrum Disorder when her son, RJ, was diagnosed with the disorder 15 years ago.
"My only reference to autism was 'Rain Man,' the movie," Peete said. "We're talking about a complete puzzle to me. Now, I feel like I know so much about it because I've been on this journey for a long time."
That journey took the actress to The Center for Autism, where she spent Friday morning reading her book, "My Brother Charlie," to a group of seven children affected by autism. The center will honor Peete at its 60th Anniversary Gala Friday night, awarding her its Small Miracles Award in recognition of her advocacy efforts.
Peete's HollyRod Foundation donated 35 tablets with preloaded apps so the center can create a space, dubbed RJ's Place, for children to freely use the devices in between appointments or during afterschool programs.
"Autism's best friend is technology," Peete said. "There are kids that are nonverbal that never would have the opportunity to have their voices heard if it wasn't for tablets. ... What we're doing is installing these technology rooms with the tablets and computers around the country in what we're calling RJ's Place. The idea is just to get more and more children access to children to help them communicate."
Peete and her husband, former Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete, started the HollyRod Foundation in 1997, initially to assist people with Parkinson's disease. After their son's diagnosis, they expanded its mission to support families affected by autism.
A new study, released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates 1 in 45 children in the United States are affected by autism.
Peete said receiving the diagnosis can be scary for parents, who immediately may wonder how to best care for their child.
"There's a whole litany of things you need to know how to do and if you don't have access or you don't have resources, it's very difficult," Peete said. "That's why I love The Center for Autism. They focus on getting services, evaluations and treatments to kids who need it the most."
The Center for Autism serves about 1,500 children per year, including evaluations, outpatient therapy and daily therapy, Chief Executive Officer David Maola said. The nonprofit, founded in 1955, has grown from about 25 employees to 200 in the last 10 years.
"What's so key about autism treatment is the earlier you get a diagnosis and the earlier you start treatment, the more effective that treatment will be," Maola said. "You don't want to lose any time. If you have a two- or three-year-old that you think might be on the autism spectrum, you want to try to get treatment as soon as possible."
Peete said people often approach her to ask what she might have done differently. She tells them she should have moved beyond the initial denial faster.
"There's a mourning process when you get this diagnosis," Peete said. "You go through that. That's all time that you could spend intervening with your child and getting your kid on a regiment. I probably would have been more proactive."
Her son, RJ, was diagnosed at age three. But Peete said she could tell he was acting differently than his twin sister as early as age two.
Peete and her daughter, Ryan, later wrote "My Brother Charlie" to help young people understand autism and recognize their "unique and beautiful" peers.
"Autism is everyone's issue," Peete said. "The more the community at large understands acceptance, tolerance and compassion, the better for everyone."