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Rodney Peete's Journey To Accept Son's Autism

Former NFL player Rodney Peete is pictured with his daughter, Ryan Elizabeth; wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete; and sons, Rodney James "RJ" (back right, next to his mother), Roman and Robinson.
Former NFL player Rodney Peete is pictured with his daughter, Ryan Elizabeth; wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete; and sons, Rodney James "RJ" (back right, next to his mother), Roman and Robinson.

Rodney Peete was an NFL quarterback. His wife, Holly Robinson Peete, had been through the rough-and-tumble of Hollywood as an actress.

Nothing prepared the couple for the words that would change their lives:

"Your son has autism."

That was 12 years ago, and Peete did not handle the news well. From those dark days comes the title of his new book, Not My Boy! which offers a personal view of a parent's struggle.

"That's the way I felt when I got that diagnosis," Peete tells NPR's Michel Martin. "This is not happening to me. This is not my boy. I had all these expectations of what I wanted him to do."

RJ, named for his father, began showing signs of trouble at age 2 or 3, Peete says: "He stopped looking us in the eyes. He stopped responding to his name."

They sought out doctors and specialists, and were told that RJ would never be in a mainstream school, would never speak, would never look them in the eyes, would never say "I love you."

Peete says he went into "denial," in part because of his own expectations as a man and a father.

"We believe we can fix everything," he says. "We have our own goals for our children, especially sons. I wasn't able to connect with my son, who was my firstborn son, who had my name. I was in denial about what he had, what the doctor was telling us. It was a dark time for us."

His wife's response, he says, was positive: "Let's roll up our sleeves."

His was not.

"I was still stuck in 'I don't believe the diagnosis,' " he says.

Things began to change when a specialist asked Peete to get on the floor with his son. The idea was to try to interact with the child on his own level.

"It was just a disaster," Peete recalls. "He didn't look at me. He was playing with a fire engine at the time and kept turning the wheels around and around and really didn't pay any attention to me. I got up after five minutes, disgusted and disappointed."

Then the specialist got down on the floor and RJ started responding to her, with laughs, smiles and attempts at talking.

First, Peete got angry.

"That was a moment when I did get away with the Scotch and the cigars and really became distant for a few days," he says.

Then he had a bit of an epiphany.

"I came to the realization that I didn't know what I was talking about," he concedes. "I didn't know what I was doing. I [had] better get onboard with some of these therapies and what's going on with my son before it's too late."

After eight years of work with specialists, RJ now is in a mainstream school, plays team sports and plays the piano. And he does tell his parents "I love you."

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he says to other parents with autistic children. "There is hope."

Dealing with autism is expensive. Rodney and Holly Peete have created the HollyRod Foundation to help families who lack the resources to deal with their child's needs.

But Rodney says that some of the lessons he takes from his experience could be helpful to any parent, regardless of his child's abilities.

"Each parent needs to treat their child as an individual and really come down to their level ... and really not put the pressure on our children to be what we want them to be," he says. "The sooner we understand who our child is and what he wants to do, the better."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.