According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1 in 270 people worldwide are living with an autism spectrum disorder, including 1 in 54 children in the United States. With such staggering statistics, the need to create a more autism-friendly global environment is and always has been, dire.
Actress Holly Robinson Peete has dedicated her life’s philanthropic work to advocating for children and families impacted by autism, spending the last 20 years on the front lines of the fight at every turn. As the parents of a son who lives with the developmental disorder, Robinson Peete and her husband, former NFL star Rodney Peete, know all too well the challenges that come with creating and fighting for more public spaces where families impacted by autism, and special needs in general, can have a great time without limitations or judgement. In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, ESSENCE caught up with the proud mother of four to check in on how inclusive travel provisions provided by Beaches Resorts have played a role in adding a little more sunshine to her family’s journey and the work she’s doing through her HollyRod Foundation to champion inclusive hiring for adults on the autism spectrum.
While she’s remained a vocal, active force of advocacy for the autism community since her eldest son RJ was diagnosed at the age of three, Robinson-Peete can certainly relate to the emotional and mental toll it takes on parents coming to terms with the diagnosis.
“Navigating all of it was hard,” she tells ESSENCE. “I didn’t wake up with a big smile on my face in the beginning like “Oh, we got this!” I spent a lot of time feeling very sad and defeated and hopeless for years. I would say, other people inspired and encouraged me. But mostly, it’s been by example. When we were told all of these things he would never do and then we started seeing him check them off that list, I mean, how can you not be encouraged by that? Every child is different, of course, but, just celebrating and being thankful for each milestone and even each small win is so important.”
For Robinson-Peete and her family, taking vacations with an autistic child was a particularly challenging aspect of their journey, namely due to much of world’s lack of understanding of the autism community. When she learned about the work Beaches Resorts has done to make their Turks & Caicos and Jamaica locations more inclusive as the world’s first and only resort company accredited by the Advanced Certified Autism Center, she was overjoyed.
“If you are part of the autism community in any way—if you have a child, or you love a child, or you know someone who loves a child—then you know that every person with autism is totally different,” she continued. “That’s why they call it a spectrum disorder, because it goes from one end to the other. And not necessarily “higher” or “lower” [functioning], just different ways in which you work within the world. What I love about Beaches is that they understand how important it is to understand our children. I’ve run into some families here at Beaches who have had such and amazing time with their children and their young adults. For the first time in many years, they can go on a vacation and feel relaxed and understood. RJ is twenty now but, when he was three years old, he got his diagnosis and there weren’t very many places we could ever go as a family where we didn’t have issues. The fact that Beaches is the first autism-certified property and resort like this is something that I want all autism parents to know about.”
Beaches is also set to launch a Sensory Stimulation Guide for guests with sensory needs in order to prepare them for what to expect in different areas of the resort. Thinking back, Robinson-Peete recalled a specific incident her family once experienced at a restaurant while on vacation that proved to be even more difficult because of the lack of understanding of the restaurant staff when her son was in the middle of a “sensory overload” moment.
“It was just so stressful because they just didn’t understand what RJ was experiencing as he was going through some sensory overload. If you talk to anyone here on the staff, they know what “sensory overload” means,” she says. “They understand what that situation is. For so long, my son didn’t have a lot of friends growing up and here, they have what are called Beaches Buddies, who are people that can spend time with your child and understand who he or she is while you enjoy your vacation. The way they relate to our families just makes us feel like we’re being seen and heard and that is just so important in the autism community.”
Another aspect of Beaches’ commitment to inclusive travel is their partnership with Sesame Street, which holds a particularly special place in Robinson-Peete’s heart. “I have a personal connection to the show because my dad was the original Gordon on Sesame Street,” she says.” So, it makes this property even more special to see [those characters] walking around—especially Julia, the newest Muppet with autism— really warms my heart.
On a broader scale, the 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper star also spoke candidly about some of the very real misinformation and stigmas that still exist around acceptance and acknowledgement of special needs and mental illness disorders in the Black community.
“Quite often in the African-American community, we do tend to shy away from these issues. We tend not talk about autism or special needs or mental health but, we have to really move past that as a people because mental illness and developmental issues are something that we should have big conversations about,” she says. “Not just with our girlfriends or our friends, but with our families. Because we don’t talk about it, some of our kids get diagnosed sometimes two to five years later than in other communities and that’s not okay. That said, you’re not always going to get your family to get on board. Sometimes your mama doesn’t understand, or your cousins don’t understand, or they have their own theories about what autism is and how to cure it. But, it’s your job as a parent to advocate for your kid in the best way. I always tell people to build a team around their child. I hate to say but, eventually, we all die so, when you’re gone, who is it that has your child’s back?”
One of the things Robinson-Peete says she looks forward to doing as the world begins to open back up is speaking at Black churches and churches in general. She hopes to continue sharing her story and urging autism parents there to pair their prayer with action through research and to not be afraid to fight for their child’s well-being. Asked what she’s learned most from her now-adult son through the years, her answer is “patience.”
“Easily, patience. I’m not a patient person but, I’ve learned that from him. I’ve learned to listen and shut everything down and look him in the eye when he speaks,” Robinson Pete added. “I’ve also learned to be less judgemental. One of the things that I really love about RJ is just the fact that he cares so much about the autism community and about his advocacy. He was a little reluctant at first to advocate because he didn’t want to always be know as “the autistic teenager” or whatever, but, he wanted to help other kids.”
In 2014, Robinson-Peete and her husband launched the initiative, RJ’s Place. An extension of their HollyRod Foundation, RJ’s Place provides resources to families affected by an autism diagnosis, including assistive technology to autism centers and children’s hospitals. In March of 2019, the foundation opened RJ’s Place Vocational and Family Support Services center to help teens and young adults on the autism spectrum complete their education, obtain vocational training and find gainful employment.
Now 20-years-old with a driver’s license and in his fifth year of employment as a Clubhouse Assistant for the Los Angeles Dodgers, RJ is living proof of what his mom says is one thing she hopes everyone will keep top of mind when thinking of the autism community this month and beyond: their endless possibilities.
“That’s what this month is all about,” she says. “It’s about telling people stories about our children and erasing the stigma and accepting who they are.”