Actress and longtime autism advocate Holly Robinson Peete has money, fame and a hit TV show, but there’s something the married mom of four doesn’t have: peace of mind. On the second season of her family show, For Peete’s Sake (OWN), she invites viewers to walk a mile in her shoes as she and her hubby, former NFL great Rodney Peete, work to keep their teenage autistic son from becoming a police shooting victim.
As Told To Tomika Anderson
Every member of my family is going through major transition right now.
My 19-year-old daughter, Ryan, is headed to college. My 14-year-old son, Robinson, is facing a middle-son crisis. And my little guy, Roman—well, we just have to watch him. Plus, Rodney is dealing with post-football health issues and I’m trying to make sure a brotha sees the doctor.
But the biggest change happening in our household is definitely in the life of my oldest son, RJ, who is autistic. At 19, like his twin sister, RJ is becoming an adult. He’s looking for a job and trying to figure out if he’s going to be able to drive. This is a big deal because when RJ was 3 years old, Rodney and I were told he would never be able to do any those things. He’d never be able to work, he’d never have any friends—he wouldn’t even be able to speak. They just gave us a grim diagnosis and prognosis for him. Now, it’s about walking RJ through the possibilities of his life while trying to prepare him for racism and the all the ugliness of this world.
I stay up at night worrying about RJ. I envision him walking down the street, at the wrong place and the wrong time, and not being able to process the cues from police if he is ever stopped. Like many autistic children, RJ makes jerky motions. Will one of them get him killed one day?
On this season of our show For Peete’s Sake, airing now, we bring some former cops to our house and walk our sons through a mock [confrontation] in case they are ever stopped. I got the idea while on vacation last summer, when I was reading a story about a man in North Miami, Fla., Charles Kinsey, who was a therapist for a young man with autism. Kinsey was shot trying to protect him. The young man was in crisis and sitting in the middle of the street spinning the wheels of a toy truck, which is something RJ used to do. Kids with autism often get obsessed with spinning wheels. Someone called the cops saying there was a man in the street with a gun, which he did not have. The cops came, and with his arms in the air, Kinsey was shot while trying to talk to the officers and diffuse the situation. He did everything right and still got shot.
I get scared and enraged thinking about it today. And so on this season, we invite Mr. Kinsey onto the show to do a roundtable with us. Even though he has PTSD from that encounter with police, he was very gracious in helping us talk about some of the ways we can protect our autistic kids.
One of the things I believe we must do to protect them is push for autism training for police officers at a national level, while also engaging local departments in a more intimate way.
For instance, this season I learned there’s a position within the Los Angeles Police Department called the senior lead officer (SLO).
That person’s job is to engage with the community in healthy and productive ways. In reality, though, most SLOs here are barely engaged; no one goes to see them. There may be similar roles in police departments across the country, but people most likely don’t even know they exist. I believe we must form parents groups and ask for meetings with those charged with protecting our communities. We must take our special-needs kids to meet with them so they know who these kids are if they run into them in the street. My hope is that if these police officers have a head’s up that kids like my son have special needs, it will go a long way toward keeping my child or somebody else’s from trending and hashtagging.