Celeb Q&A: Autism Advocate Holly Robinson Peete Answers YOUR Questions

Holly Robinson Peete and her son Rodney James (RJ). Photo Credit: Christopher Voelker

Last week, Family Circle interviewed actress Holly Robinson Peete about issues that were on our mind. This week, we interviewed her to get answers to what’s on your mind. That’s right, all these insightful questions came to us via our Twitter and Facebook accounts. Read about how a gluten-free diet affected RJ (Holly’s 15-year-old son with autism), ways to get employers to hire adults with autism and more.

Q. There has been such a surge in the number of autism diagnoses lately and many of us are looking for answers. @REALMOMMA2155 is curious if you think genetically modified organisms (GMOs) contribute to the diagnosis.

A. I’m not a doctor or scientist. I’m just a mom. But I do think there’s a genetic predisposition and there are environmental triggers. I feel like that combination, in my child’s case, is what resulted in autism. I also feel strongly that we’re not looking at environmental triggers. We’re not looking at each kid as a separate, genetic being. We line them up and say: ‘All kids should do this, eat that, get this.’ It’s important that we look harder.

Q. Speaking of what kids eat, Janeen Marie wanted to know if you tried putting RJ on a gluten free diet.

A. Yes. One of the best tips I got from another mom was to hurry and get him tested for allergies and food sensitivities. He tested off the charts for gluten and wheat. It was more difficult for him to connect when he was eating pizza and birthday cake. He functioned much higher when he was not on any gluten products. But that’s just my kid. Every parent should know what their kid is sensitive to food-wise.

Q. What about sleep? Kim Luallen was curious if your son is a non-sleeper and if you had any suggestions. My son does have trouble falling asleep and like any teenager he needs his sleep. We use melatonin. I never recommend anything, but that’s worked for us. We use it in very low doses and we find it gives him that little window to fall asleep. I know they’re still doing studies, but for our kid it has been a miracle.

Q. Donna Willis Coghlan wrote in asking about education: “How can we get schools to focus on the strengths of these kids? Many have unique skills that could be enhanced to give them an occupation someday, but instead they're continually forced to be like ‘typical’ kids,” she says. A.

It’s very difficult when schools fall into the cookie cutter mode. There are so many gifts that kids with autism have that need to be nurtured. Most times, that’s something you have to do on your own or enlist after school help for. Also, get connected with other parents who are experiencing what you’re going through. I know it’s easier said than done, but I know families that have moved to other neighborhoods or cities that are a little more autism- and special needs-friendly than where they were. It’s all about being an advocate, staying online and looking in your community for help.

Q. Kathleen Stuart wanted to know about outlooks for adult life: “If your child is fairly high functioning - but needs assistance - there isn't much out there in the way of adult programs or job assistance,” she says.

Yes, there isn’t much out there. The unemployment rate for adults on the autism spectrum is hovering around 90%. It’s high and that’s another message we have to get out. These people can not only be great employees but they can be your best employees. They’re loyal, have a sense of purpose, want to be somewhere every day, love routine.

I always find out very specifically about corporations who hire special needs adults. At my agency there are several. I always say I’ll be a great patron if you hire these adults because they need this and you need them. We’re getting a database for the HollyRod Foundation site of companies that work hard to employ adults with autism. We also have a tremendous amount of excitement about the fact that we’re going to be opening a compassionate care center in another year and will have a restaurant run by adults with autism there.

Q. On top of your foundation work, you’ve also co-authored the children’s book My Brother Charlie with RJ’s twin sister, Ryan. @Patti_pmbelo tweeted us wanting to know if you plan on writing another children’s book on autism.

A. Yes. Ryan and I are writing a follow-up to My Brother Charlie about autism and adolescence. We’re writing about the struggles people don’t talk enough about, the difficulties children have when they cross over into adolescence, the surge of hormones, puberty. It’s a different set of challenges when they’re on the autism spectrum. In some ways it’s like getting the diagnosis again. You have to come up with a new game plan. We’re hoping for a April 2014 publishing date.

Want to hear more of Holly Robinson Peete’s thoughts on autism? Click here.