Chat With Holly Robinson Peete About Her Book “My Brother Charlie”
INTERVIEWS | Nirasha Jaganath | April 10, 2010 at 6:51 pm
Melanie: Sometimes an aunt might be slightly more objective than the parent. Do you have ideas as to how an aunt can talk to the parents about child’s developmental issues? How can an aunt help both a special needs child and a parent?
Holly Robinson: Well, there’s two – there are two aspects, I think or two ways that aunts – aunties can help. I mean, I don’t have a sister and, boy, I wish I did. But I do have a best friend who’s you know … pushing – who’s almost 50 and she doesn’t have kids and that’s just the way I like it. Because she comes over and she’s Auntie Terry and she is awesome. And yes, it’s so true that – and I hear this very often when I go speak or I’ll go to an autism conference; so often, aunties will come to me and say you know what, my sister’s in denial about what’s going on with her child and I can’t get them to acknowledge that clearly this kid is on the spectrum. And what do I do, because they’re defensive and what do I do?
So I always counsel them to find someone outside of the family, a third party to make a suggestion about how you should approach or maybe think about what’s going on with your child. And I’m not just saying this to promote our book, but I really did write with m y daughter, “My Brother Charlie,” with this in mind; how to talk about autism in a way that’s not scary.
The other thing that aunties can do to really help is just take those kids and give the – give the family a night out. That is the biggest thing that is so underrated. But when an auntie says you know what, I’m going to take your kids to the movies or they’re going to come to my house or I’m coming to your house; you and your husband go out, or just you go out if you’re a single mom. And so childcare is huge, because so many of us with special needs kids are very uncomfortable leaving our children with just anybody. And an auntie is a perfect person that can give us peace of mind. We can go out. W e can you know you know we can hang out and just have some me time, because that’s what parents need. They need time for themselves as well.
Shannon: How did you and Ryan go about creating this book? And how did you go about figuring out what to put in this book? And how much input did Ryan really have and how much did she bring her experience to it?
Holly Robinson: Well, it was all Ryan. She came home one day from school and said the kids do not understand what RJ’s going through; RJ’s her twin brother. And she said it’s really sad. I watch him you know he’s not connecting with the other guys. They think he’s kind of a jerk because he doesn’t say hi to them as soon as you know he’s spoken to. And she just said you know I think they don’t understand what autism is and I think we need to come down to school as a family and have this conversation, so that’s exactly what we did. W e went down to a fourth grade class and you know my husband’s played in Super Bowls, I’ve you know spoken in front of lots of people, but nothing was scarier than sitting in front of 50 fourth-graders, just having this conversation. But basically what we said to them was you know autism you know is something that makes your brain a little bit different, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t need friends, that you don’t need people to understand who you are, and then we talked about strengths and weaknesses. And kids, we asked them what theirs were and one kid said I’m great at soccer, but I suck at math. And another kid said I’m you know great math, but I’m terrible at football.
And then we said, well, our kid can tell you the name of every single American President, one to 44, if you just give him a number. He can tell you the name of every single player in the Major League Baseball; every single umpire’s name, practically. He is a wiz in sports; if you just ask him these questions he can tell you that; however, he’s terrible at making friends and it made such a difference. So that was really the basis of the book that we thought you know what, if we talk about how Charlie has these strengths and then focus on the things he can do great, then I think that’ll take the scariness away from autism and promote autism acceptance.
But it was all Ryan and she had a lot to do with doing – making this book. The two of us, we sat down, we talked about our goals and our objectives, and we wanted to make sure that we were able to connect with children and help them understand what autism is and help them be more accepting of it.
Ramesh: How did your son take this book once you published it? And before that, how long did you take to publicly acknowledge that he had autism?
Holly Robinson: We took a long time. It took us about six years to be able to talk about it publicly. It wasn’t a big – it wasn’t – put it this way; it was a difficult conversation for our family. My husband
didn’t want to pull him out as being the poster child for autism. We were concerned about how labeling him in the media might affect him. But really, it was a – it was something very – what’s the word? It was – it was extremely – something random that happened that made us decide that this was something we needed to do. And that was just basically, we were out at an amusement park and a family walked up to us and said you know we notice – we know who you are and we had heard – we hadn’t really come out publicly and talked about it in “People” magazine yet, but we had heard through the grapevine.
W e didn’t keep it a secret, but – and our family circle knew and people knew, but we didn’t make a big deal out of it. And anyway, the family walked up to us and said thank you so much for talking about it because it’s really helped us. And we realized that if we talked about it even more that we might be able to affect change. And getting to the point of what RJ thinks of this book, well, perfect example is we were in Philadelphia at an amazing museum called Please Touch Museum a couple weeks ago. And we shut down the whole place for just families and their kids with autism. And it was so amazing and kids – they were – about 2000 people were there and they got to run through there and families got to not – they didn’t have to worry about their children you know touching things. They could just be free. And we read the book and at one point a kid walked up to RJ and said hey, Charlie, and started calling him Charlie. And he said, “I’m not Charlie, I’m RJ, but Charlie’s a cool kid, isn’t he?” And so he really does get that he’s helping to put this message forward. He’s almost 13 and I’m loving that he really does get how important this is to have this conversation.
Because basically, I tell you, he became a rock star in his classroom after we started talking about his strengths and kids started looking beyond his weaknesses. And I think that’s all it takes is just to have more conversations like that.
Fred: How did your husband respond when he discovered that your son had autism? And could you explain what their relationship is like?
Holly Robinson: Well, he was devastated at the diagnosis. First of all, he was a quarterback and he understands you know plays and executing plays and you know and strategizing and he’s you know been an athlete his whole life and he – at a high level and so he’s very strategic and scripted about things. So it was this whole – the m ystery of what autism was and not being able – someone not really being able to explain it to him properly; it just, it wore him out. I’m telling you; it was really difficult, Fred.
And he knew – he knew that – he knew he could fix it. He knew he could make it go away. And then when he really realized that he couldn’t, well, that presented a lot of different problems for both of us, because he stayed in denial for quite a period of time. And it was difficult and very hard on our marriage. I give him the credit that you know I – that we stuck it out and that he really did come to terms with understanding that he had to tweak his expectations for his son, that no, he wasn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy; no, we wasn’t going to be the first-round draft pick. But he was going to have all these other great things and he was going to do all these other beautiful things. He was going to be a loving, terrific boy and a great member of society, but just not in a way that he had imagined. So you know how you guys are. It’s hard to change those expectations and you just want it to go away and when you can’t fix it, it gets frustrating. But I have to say, I was really proud of him because autism carries a very high divorce rate and we were almost at that point. And I credit him for coming around, really in the nick of time, because I couldn’t take care of him and his issues and deal with what I had to deal with m y son. And we came to the brink and we were able to survive the statistics status and I’m really happy about that.
Fred: That’s great. So how is his relationship with his son?
Holly Robinson: Yes, that was your second question. Yes, it’s great. I love watching them because now you know they told us – they told him, my husband that his son would never play organized sports; no Pop W arner, no little league. I mean you know why don’t just take a knife and just stick it in his stomach? You know that was – those are the hard things to hear.
But the fact is that he has defied those odds and through a lot of compassion and understanding with coaches and in different leagues, he does play on a basketball team and he does play football. But it’s because people in the community have accepted him and have lifted him and he’s excelled. So there’s a really great connection between the two of them and it’s not just on sports, but it’s also just on how beautiful his brain works with sports. I mean, I was saying earlier, I mean, there’s not a college team this little guy does not know about. He knows all the rosters of these teams and you know how much they change. I mean, he’s brilliant when it comes to sports facts, so I think they connect on that and they have a beautiful relationship and it’s really lovely to watch. We’ve come a long way.
Shannon: Have you ever encountered people who did treat your child, RJ, with less than compassion and what have you done in those situations? Or if it’s just theoretical, what would you do?
Holly Robinson: Well, of course we have. Every single parent who has a child you know over the age of three or four, certainly school age that is on the spectrum has experienced some, whether you’re – whether it’s at school or whether you’re in the supermarket and your kid goes flat on his back in the aisle and someone walks past you and either verbalizes or gives you that look like why can’t you control your kid?
I mean so we’ve all experienced that and I certainly have, and especially on airplanes. That’s always fun, the airplanes, because he’s so much better now, but boy, when he was three, four, and five, he used to just – his favorite thing was to keep pushing the call button for the flight attendant. And if he couldn’t do it, he would kick the seat in front of him, so it was one or the other. And so (we used) to have to try to disable the call button. People got so angry and really just you know you know how people are on planes with just typical kids.
Abigail: How have your other children, namely Robinson and Roman, adapted to having a brother with autism?
Tags: autism, autism games, games for autistic children
Holly Robinson: Well, first of all, thank you – thank you for bringing up Robinson and Roman, because they’re like where is our book and how come we’re not in the book? They want to know why they’re not in the book. Let me tell you something about these little guys. They are like little unpaid therapists for their big brother, because part of getting a child in the spectrum to connect socially is to – you force them to have interaction. And nothing is more annoying and forces you out of – can force you out of the autism world than an annoying kid brother.
And these children have brought out so much from their big brother. Oftentimes it’s even when they’re fighting. But – and it’s kind of a crazy moment, because when we start seeing him; like one of the boys took his LEGOs and he went nuts. And he was like give me that back. And he was – and it sort of became this tug of war. And I didn’t take it; yes, you did.
Now the – now that sounds for – to a regular parent you know parent of typical kids, well, they’re just fighting and get me out here. But to see our son have – connect back and forth with circles of conversation is a big deal. So I think Robinson and Roman have been just key to helping their big brother become more typical and connect more with their world and he’s been – they’ve been very helpful. And I have to say the other thing is, when – we purposely decided we were going to have more kids. Four kids is a handful, but I know from – I worry so much about RJ and Ryan takes so much on. She’s like Mother Teresa; she’s always getting her brother’s back. And I want him to be surrounded when, God forbid, we’re gone, by this you know family unit that really knows who he is, knows his likes and dislikes, and will be around with him.