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Why this Hollywood actress is shedding light on autism in new reality TV show

Dana Oliver
Beauty Director
Meet the Peetes! Dolores Robinson, Robinson Peete, Holly Robinson Peete, R.J. Peete, Ryan Peete, Roman Peete, and Rodney Peete. (Photo: Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Alexx Henry Studios, LLC/ Saam Gabbay.

Reality TV shows that positively portray black families are few and far between. But Meet the Peetes is trying to do just that through a docu-style lens, highlighting the ups — and not shying away from the downs — of what it’s like to be a black family in the U.S. today.

Starring actress Holly Robinson Peete; her husband, retired NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, their four children — Ryan, R.J., Roman, and Robinson — and grandma Dolores, this Hallmark Channel show chronicles their hectic lives. From juggling acting and activism to parenting a daughter who is in college on the other side of the country and establishing boundaries with grandparents, everything is out there for the world to watch — and critique.

Yet one of the most inspiring stories the Peetes have shared — even before the cameras were present — is their 20-year-old son R.J.’s journey with autism. Holly reveals that when he was diagnosed at age 3, she didn’t even know what the condition was because it wasn’t — and still isn’t — discussed frequently in black families. She also admits that people in her own family struggled with saying the word “autism” because they didn’t understand it.

“Many cultures have a stigma about cognitive issues,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So many families I know — especially African-American families and in Latino and Asian communities — we don’t tend to talk enough about what our brains are doing. And I get it, because it’s scary. But the fact is, we’ve got information now and you’ve got to get that information and you’ve got to get your child diagnosed. The earlier you intervene, the better chance you have to tackle life and that’s really important.”

Holly knows firsthand what it’s like to sit in a doctor’s office and have the physician tell you “900 things your kid will never do or be.” However, she strongly believes that getting treated early made a significant impact on R.J.’s development and life.

She explains, “That’s the one thing that we know that everyone can agree on: early intervention is key. Everything else — there is a lot of question marks.”

Ryan Elizabeth Peete, Holly Robinson Peete, Rodney Peete, and Rodney Jackson “R.J.” Peete promote “My Brother Charlie” and “Not My Boy” at Toys “R” Us on April 3, 2010, in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Motivated by the lack of autism information in the media, Holly and her daughter Ryan wrote a children’s book entitled My Brother Charlie, published in 2010, to make it easier to talk about autism awareness in school with kids.

“When you see media images of something that impacts you and that’s very difficult day to day, it really helps,” she says. “I binged [on] The Good Doctor the other day. It’s such a good show, and I’m so happy that they’re really trying to give us more examples because for the longest time all we had was Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. That’s ridiculous! Autism is too prevalent. It’s too large of a spectrum for us to have one or two characters.”

Holly Robinson Peete and her son R.J. Peete attend the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation Gala on May 16, 2015, in Chicago. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation)

After being told that R.J. would never work or live independently, say “I love you,” or have friends — and then turn around and “check these wins” off his list, Holly saw it as necessary to document their lives on television.

“The story of R.J. provides so much hope, and shows a family working as a team, and gives so much inspiration and a different perspective of family life,” says Holly. “Reality TV gets such a bad rap as being conflict-driven, and [people] don’t want to see anyone resolve anything. They just want to see a fight about it. We are not perfect. We are just people trying to get through life like everyone else. But we wanted to document that so we would be the example to help other people through some things.”

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