Autism Activist Holly Robinson Peete: More Than a Celebrity Apprentice

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Holly Robinson Peete's appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice has communicated one very clear message about autism parents: Don't get in our way when we're trying to help our kids!

Though her focus and drive have drawn criticism from viewers and from co-contestants such as Cyndi Lauper, Holly has always been frank in her determination to win the Celebrity Apprentice jackpot for her autism charity,  The HollyRod Foundation.

That drive is rooted in her family's autism story. Holly and her husband Rodney were told to keep their expectations low after their son RJ's autism diagnosis, but they refused to impose limitations on their boy. RJ is now a young teen, and while he still has autism, he also has friends, plays sports, and tells his family he loves them  - in defiance of the autism stereotypes his parents were told to anticipate.

So, Holly knows from experience that getting our children with autism the support they need can transform their quality of life. Her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice is only one part of her tireless efforts to get both financial and therapeutic support to the autism families who need it. She also runs a never-ending campaign for autism awareness and acceptance, constantly giving interviews and appearances, making songs and videos, and even writing books to teach parents and society to value children and adults all along the autism spectrum. She never stops encouraging parents to reach out, and to hold on to hope.

I have to say, I suspect the Celebrity Apprentice version of Holly is the product of careful editing. I've been talking with Holly for two months, both about her children's autism book My Brother Charlie and this interview, and she always remained kind and funny, even when her April Awareness Month schedule made me wonder if she had a clone. But you don't need my word when you have so many of hers:
 
You fought so hard for autism on The Celebrity Apprentice. How did it feel to play yourself on TV, instead of a fictional character?

It was awkward for me because it was my first (and likely only) reality show! It was scary to have my image in the hands of some editor whose sole mission is to make "compelling" TV! Yikes! But to win a record setting amount so that families wouldnt have to decide between rent and treatment for a child ... well that made it all worth it.

Did you know about controversial reality show contestant Hissa Hilal of Millions Poet (Saudi Arabian American Idol equivalent, her daughter is highlighted in the video but not the short article) who also competed on reality TV on behalf of her child's autism? Have you considered reaching out to her?

I hadn't!! Amazing! What bravery and courage ... in the face of such oppression.

Was it hard for RJ, your son with autism, to have you away for six weeks while you were on The Celebrity Apprentice set? How were you, being away from your four kids for so long?

It was hard on ALL four kids (and Dad!) but as  family they are all so connected to our mission -- they feel that HollyRod is their charity too and understood why it was important for Mommy to do her 'thang' for families affected by autism. My daughter [Ryan] has a mural on her wall in her room that features her favorite quote by Marian Wright Edelman "Service Is The Rent we Pay For Living!"

Your twins Ryan and RJ have two younger brothers, Robinson and Roman. Were they born after RJ's autism diagnosis? Were you worried about autism with them?

Autism can run in families so I was panicked for my younger boys and watched them like hawks when they were toddlers!!

We did plan conscientiously to have more children partly to build a bigger "Team RJ." We felt like Ryan has taken on so much of the responsibility of protecting her brother on her shoulders. It gives us great piece of mind to have these two extra little soldiers that have RJ's back when we are not here anymore.

My kindergartner Mali adores My Brother Charlie, your new children's book about autism that you wrote with your daughter Ryan. Mali wants to know when you'll be writing a book about her and her brother Leo. I believe she meant, "Do you plan to write a book for younger siblings of kids with autism?

Awww, Miss Mali! I am not sure about that but I do hope to make a series for MBC ... maybe we see Charlie go to Middle School, often a difficult transition for our kids -- one we are dealing with as we speak.

Your father was the original Gordon on Sesame Street, and you appeared on Sesame Street as a child. Have you ever thought about doing a Sesame Street segment on autism?

There have been some segments on autism on Sesame Street with Elmo which I was thrilled about! They asked Jenny McCarthy to participate. Maybe I will get the call next time ... Hello! Gordon's daughter here!

I really appreciated your recent Huffington Post article on how the media needs to redirect its attention regarding autism. You wrote, "We just need way more infiltration of autism information and support in minority communities." Are you finding ways to connect with the families you spoke of? Is outreach one of your HollyRod Foundation goals?


Social media has been a Godsend to make connections to the families in need! We are getting directly connected to programs and partnering up. That Jackpot I hit on Apprentice is already out in the community working.

My middle school daughter is making me ask this last question: Have you ever asked your former 21 Jump Street co-star Johnny Depp to participate in autism awareness and advocacy?

Monsieur Depp is  French now and rarely comes to the states! That's a long way from Hollywood, FL via Kentucky! Seriously,  I am not sure what his pet causes are...he is very private about it. But I'd love to involve him. He'd be an awesome soldier for autism.

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Though Shannon Des Roches Rosa is BlogHer's contributing editor on parenting children with special needs, she has written about nothing but autism for the past two months! That will change. She does write about more than autism on her personal site, Squidalicious.com.

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