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Exclusive: Holly Robinson Peete’s advice: ‘surround yourself with a positive support team’

Holly Robinson Peete and Nik Sanchez on the set of Our Christmas Journey
Holly Robinson Peete and Nik Sanchez .Pic credit. Courtesy of Hallmark.

Hallmark star Holly Robinson Peete has long been a fierce advocate who is focused on the health and well-being of her children.

When the devoted mother of four received the autism diagnosis for her eldest son, R.J., she went into overdrive as his advocate, something that transformed his life. Now, she’s doing the same for Ryan, her only daughter (R.J.s twin sister), who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

“It was extremely frustrating to have behaviors that you can’t control and then get put down for them, or get talked about, or not have a friendship because of it, or your mom’s nagging at you because of it,” Peete exclusively told Monsters & Critics.

In addition to her family focus, Peete is thrilled to be starring in Our Christmas Journey, her first Hallmark Christmas movie about a main character who has autism and is played by an actor who has autism.

Peete says if there was one thing that helped her through her journey with both R.J. and Ryan, it was having a strong and active support team built around each of her kids.”The game-changer was surrounding myself with positive, like-minded people who are rooting for you and your family,” Peete said.

“It doesn’t have to be a big group, but you’ve got to have a couple of people that you can have your back during those crazy kinds of lose-it moments; people who really understand your journey,” she added. “Always having a nice gaggle of supporters around me is the way I get through anything that I face in my life.”

Monsters & Critics: Having a strong advocate is so important for all children and teens, especially those with autism and other special needs because so often their teachers and naysayers focus on all of the things they can’t do.

Holly Robinson Peete: Yes, exactly. It’s all about what they can do and about possibilities. We all need to change the conversation.

M&C: So, tell me about how you got involved with More to ADHD, how Ryan is doing, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with this awareness campaign.

Holly Robinson Peete: Well, ultimately, I missed the signs of ADHD for my daughter, and I was sharing the story because I felt like maybe other parents might see some of the signs I missed. As you know, RJ has autism, Ryan is RJ’s twin sister and that basically was her whole narrative as a young girl. That she was the twin that didn’t have autism and she was very protective of RJ. It put a little bit of stress on her. 

We thought when we were seeing her exhibit some of these behavioral issues that she had, her inability to complete sentences or to be kind of spacey in her thought process, and her inability to have really strong social relationships at school, we just thought it was because she was just being; that’s who Ryan is.

We have come to find out that they were things she could just not help and that she was sort of suffering in silence and white-knuckling it through life as she became a teenager. So, we realized it when she was about 14, that we went and had her looked at by a doctor. She did a bunch of testing and a lot of appointments; it turned out she has ADHD. It was a giant piece of the puzzle that was missing for our family.

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M&C: Do you think once you got the diagnosis, it changed things for her in terms of her education and her social skills?

Holly Robinson Peete: Yes, it changed the whole game because she got answers to why she was the way she was. Getting this diagnosis really helped her, especially when she applied for college. Because one of the things that she didn’t do well in school was test-taking because it was hard for her, being so inattentive it was really difficult for her to test.

So, she found schools, or she was able to apply to schools that didn’t require SAT or ACT scores, which oftentimes doesn’t always give the exact right child or teenager to come into your school because you might be missing out on someone who’s creatively amazing but also just doesn’t test well. So that helped her, and she went to NYU, she’s a singer-songwriter. She really is in a better place because she was able to get the answers about her ADHD.

But ADHD often goes overlooked because kids get labeled lazy or they’re just people that don’t do much. I think ADHD and ADD are something that is a little easier to not diagnose or to misdiagnose. I think that the spectrum for autism is so wide right now that I would not like to see ADHD or ADD on that spectrum with autism. 

M&C: What has it been like being on the same calls with Ryan and spreading this message for people with Ryan at your side for some of it?  What’s that been like, the mother-daughter piece of it?

Holly Robinson Peete: It’s been great because we’ve really been able to show people firsthand the dynamic. The mother-daughter dynamic is tricky sometimes, and so she and I have been able to really carry our messaging out about ADHD, I think, in a really relatable way. Because I missed it, I didn’t see the signs. She had to be RJ’s savior all the time and she felt extra pressure to do that. She also really wasn’t doing a lot of self-care. That was definitely something I think was really helpful to the campaign.

M&C: So, what do you want to tell parents to help them understand and navigate all this?

Holly Robinson Peete: This is just one mom’s opinion of someone who has a child with ADHD and a child with autism. With autism, obviously, there are character traits and every kid with autism is different. Whereas with autism, sometimes kids will be obviously nonverbal or sometimes they’ll struggle in ways that present themselves differently.

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I feel that the concept of embracing neurodiversity is something that we have to get behind. So if your kid thinks differently or processes things differently, they’re neuro-diverse. We don’t all walk through life the same way. That’s something I really loved about being part of the More to ADHD campaign, is the notion of embracing neurodiversity, embracing how our children learn differently, and think differently, and process the world differently. 

The more we do that, I think the more empathy and the more compassion we’re going to have for people with ADHD, ADD, autism, or any other special needs.

M&C: Ryan is still living in New York, right?

Holly Robinson Peete:  Yes, she loves living in Brooklyn. I do, too. We went to a Broadway show recently, and it was so great to be there and see it. We saw a play called Pass Over that our friend Blair Underwood produced, and it was intense. It was great being back in the theater.

How is R.J doing?

Holly Robinson Peete: RJ’s so awesome and I’m sure to do everything I can to make sure he stays that way, too, my gosh,

M&C: I just finished the most recent Christmas in Evergreen where you got engaged and it was so sweet that I cried. I think everyone wants to move to the fictional town of Evergreen.

Holly Robinson Peete: Oh, yeah, I cried, too, because I wasn’t able to get support. I’m still not married like this mayor’s got to get married. They didn’t do Evergreen this year, so she’s still Mayor Michelle, who remains unmarried. Hopefully, this man will come to marry her at some point.

M&C: Right, you told me her guy couldn’t get away for that last one.

Holly Robinson Peete: Nope, he had to give us a scene on Facetime, which I guess everybody understood that during 2020. I am still hoping and praying that they have a big Evergreen wedding,

M&C: Tell me what’s going on with the HollyRod Foundation?

Holly Robinson Peete: The HollyRod Foundation struggled a lot during the pandemic so we’re really focusing on fundraising. But we do have RJ’s Place back up and going, which is an autism service center where we have job training. 

We just had our first in-person job fair recently, and our goal is to place young people with autism in jobs and really highlight what amazing employees they can be. Hopefully, we’re going to be doing our fundraiser again in June 2022, so we can get back to the fundraising piece.

M&C: Have you watched the Netflix show Love on the Spectrum about adults with autism dating and looking for love for the first time in their lives? I was touched by it.

Holly Robinson Peete: Yes, I binged it. I love that show. It’s one of my favorites.

M&C: I felt like if the typical population was a little bit more like these men and women with the flowers, and the candy, and the picnics, and the little gifts, then everybody would be a lot better off.

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Holly Robinson Peete: Oh, I totally believe that. Even looking at my own son, who is 24 now, has never had a girlfriend, and he’s never had a romantic relationship. Sort of scared about it, apprehensive about it because he knows that there is so much nuance and that’s not something he’s good at. 

I tried to get him to watch Love on the Spectrum, he watched like one episode with me, and then he took off. He just was not interested. But yeah, it’s a beautiful show. It is one of my favorites.

Still from Our Christmas Journey
Pic credit. Courtesy of Hallmark.

M&C: Tell me about your new Hallmark movie, Our Christmas Journey?

Holly Robinson Peete: In Our Christmas Journey, I have a son with autism, played Nik Sanchez, a wonderful young actor who has autism. It’s just a bucket list project that I’ve been trying to do for a while so I am super excited. Hopefully, it will be really well received. We’re very happy with it.

M&C: When did you make this movie?

Holly Robinson Peete: We finished it in October and then they turn them around so fast, it will air on December 4.

M&C: You’ve been with Hallmark a long time.

Holly Robinson Peete: Yeah, it’s been about seven years now and I’ve made about 13 or 14 projects with them. I love all my Hallmark movies, but this one with the autism theme obviously has my heart. I’m also an executive producer and helped develop the concept. So, I am loving all of that.

M&C: Are there family traditions you do no matter where you’d find yourself at Christmas?

Holly Robinson Peete: Well, we always write down what we’re thankful and grateful for. And we write down a serious answer and a funny, crazy answer. And we put it in a hat and people reach in and read it and try to see who wrote what. That’s always fun. We shift the focus to gratitude on this holiday.

Still from Our Christmas Journey
Pic credit: Photo Courtesy of Hallmark.

M&C: What are you working on now?

Holly Robinson Peete: Mostly promotion for Our Christmas Journey. I’m also doing a lot of fundraising. Then last night, we did a big Hallmark Channel drive-in promotional event that was pretty cool. A rooftop concert and a Christmas drive-through, it was pretty cool.

So, I did that last night and just most of the stuff I’m doing has really been based around trumping up support and press for this movie. I’m really trying to galvanize the autism community to get behind it because it’s the first time they’ve ever done a Christmas movie about autism, but we’ve never seen a young man with autism actually playing a lead role in a movie about a kid with autism. You never see that representation, and so I’m really working hard to get as many eyeballs this movie as possible.

Our Christmas Journey premieres on Hallmark’s Movies & Mysteries on Saturday, December 4, 10 p.m.ET.

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