MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And finally today, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but we think you might just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we visit with a diverse group parents for their common-sense parenting advice.
Today, we get some hard-won advice from a dad - a pretty tough dad, a former professional player and later broadcaster, Rodney Peete. Now in his years of professional football, Peete has taken his - Rodney Peete has taken his fair share of shots on the field.
His wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete is also used to rolling with the punches, as it were, as she's made her way in the entertainment industry. But nothing prepared the couple for the words that would change their lives: Your son has autism.
When he first heard those words, Rodney Peete did not know what to do or where to turn, so he decided to write a book for other parents like him. It's called "Not My Boy!: A Father, A Son, and One Family's Journey with Autism." And Rodney Peete is with us now. Welcome.
Mr. RODNEY PEETE (Former NFL player, Author): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: First of all, what is autism? I know a lot of people, we hear this term a lot - more than we used to, certainly. But I'm not sure everybody knows what it is. So what is it?
Mr. PEETE: Yeah, it's a neurological disorder that affects the brain in several different ways. And the best way to describe autism is it's a spectrum. Certain kids on the one end of the spectrum could certainly be classified as Asperger's, in which they're very, very brilliant and they can look at a series of numbers and tell you exactly what the numbers are or look at a math equation and just tell you what exactly what it is. And then there's kids that are totally nonverbal that can't say a word, and our son kind of fell right in the middle.
MARTIN: How did you figure out, or how did you and your wife figure out that there was something going out with R.J.?
Mr. PEETE: Well, I give a lot of credit to my wife, because women's intuition is a powerful thing and it's a real thing. And I say it to all dads, you know, if the wife and the mother of your kids has mommy-gut instinct, then you better trust it. And that's what happened with us. It was a mommy-gut instinct that something was going on with our child, and at around two and a half, three years old that he stopped really looking us in the eyes, stopped responding to his name and there were certain things going on. And then we had him tested, you know, a few times and finally took him to a specialist, and the specialist said that he had autism.
And at that point, I had no idea what it was. You know, I hadn't heard of autism, didn't read up on it, wasn't educated at all. And at that point, I was, like, this is wrong, because at that moment, the specialist gave us this grim hope that he would never do so many different things: He would never look you in the eye again and say I love you. He would never mainstream in school. He would never play organized sports. He would live with you guys the rest of his life. And, you know, as an athlete, that's like the curse word. You never say never to an athlete, and that's kind of the way I took it.
MARTIN: Well, let's stop right there, if you would, because that's in way, that's what the title refers to. It's like you got this diagnosis, and you thought that couldn't be right. Not my kid.
Mr. PEETE: And that's the reason why I titled it "Not My Boy" is because that's the way I felt when I got that diagnosis. You know, this is not happening to me. This is not my boy. I had all these expectations of what I wanted him to do. I grew up - you know, my father was a coach and he took me in the locker room and he showed me things and we hung out together, and that's what I wanted for my son.
I was a professional football player. And before I had kids, the one thing I wanted to do was bring my son into the locker room and give him that edge so he could go back to school the next day and say I got a chinstrap from Barry Sanders or I got Emmett Smith's, you know, wristband and things like that. And, you know, when we got this diagnosis, all of my expectations had to change.
MARTIN: And, you know, you write very movingly about a couple of things. I want to talk about them individually. First of all, you write about how hard it was for you to - in the beginning - to accept the severity of your son's diagnosis. And I also want mention that your son is a twin.
Mr. PEETE: Yes.
MARTIN: And so that was probably part of the dynamic. And you had two kids and you were - you know, I'm a twin mom, so I know.
Mr. PEETE: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: It's kind of hard, at first, to stop comparing. You say well, this one's doing this and this one's doing that.
Mr. PEETE: Oh.
MARTIN: But why do you think you had a hard time accepting the severity of it? Do you think in part just because you're an athlete yourself and you thought, genetically, this can't be right?
Mr. PEETE: Well, I think it's a lot of those factors. I think genetically, I think that because I was an athlete and I had all these expectations of my son and because he was a twin. And, you know, when they were first born, she was born a little premature, and we always thought that she was going to be the one that had the issues, and she had some poor muscle tone early on. So we were, like, focused on her and being able to stand and walk. And he was meeting all of his milestones and all of a sudden, it kind of changed in him and he wasn't. And then after that point, we started to really focus in on him.
And my daughter, God bless her soul, because she is a great child and she wrote a book on her own called "My Brother Charlie," which she talks about having a sibling and a twin brother that she can't really identify with or speak to or be friends with because he has autism. But she's been great because she's been his keeper all along for the 12 years of his life, because she's been there for him and she's been great.
But yes, you start to neglect that other child because you really have a limited time and limited window of time to really get your son or your daughter into all the therapies that are necessary to bring him out of that world.
MARTIN: You also wrote very candidly about the strain on your marriage. You had such a great marriage, and all of a sudden you're, you know, you're pretty honest about this. You kind of checked out. There are probably other men who are reacting that way.
Mr. PEETE: Yeah.
MARTIN: But why do you think you did?
Mr. PEETE: Well, I think it's innate in men, especially. We believe that we can fix everything. And we have our own goals for our children, especially sons. You know, we're out there on the athletic field and we want them to be better than we are. In the classroom, we want them to be better than we are. And it takes its toll. And I did check out because I wasn't able to connect with my son, who was my first born son, who had my name and all these things that I wanted to do for him and wanted him to be had to be reevaluated. So yes, I was in denial about what he had, what the doctor was telling us, and it was a dark time for us.
And it was, you know, a time in which my wife, after the crying and tears after the diagnosis said okay, let's roll up our sleeves and let's get him into speech therapy, occupational therapy, floor-time therapy. Let's check his diet. Let's do everything we can while he's three years old to try to get him where he can mainstream. And I was still stuck in I don't believe what the specialist said. I don't believe the diagnosis.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Rodney Peete. He's the former NFL player, former sports broadcaster. He's written a new book about his son and his family and how they coped with his son's diagnosis of autism. It's called "Not My Boy."
So how did it turn around? How did you all get out of that space? I think a lot of couples would not have survived that.
Mr. PEETE: And they don't. You know, unfortunately, there's a 75 to 80 percent divorce rate when it comes to children with special needs. I do give a lot of credit to Holly. I mean, she stuck around. She rolled up her sleeves, like I said. And, you know, I did have the somewhat of the escape of playing football.
But as my son started to get a little bit older, there were different types of treatments that needed to be done on a regular basis. And one of them was floor time, which I talk about in the book, is, you know, you get on the floor, you kind of get down to his level and you really figure out what he's playing with, what he's doing and you try to interact with him on his level rather than trying to get him to do what you want him to do.
And I didn't really understand that concept, so we had a meeting with all of his therapists at one point, where they all were in the room, Holly was in the room, and I came in and one of the therapists - the specialist in floor time asked me to get on the floor with R.J. and start interacting with him so they could evaluate him. And I got down on the floor, and it was just a disaster. He didn't look at me. He was playing with a fire engine at the time. He just kept turning the wheels around and around and really didn't pay any attention to me.
So I got up after five minutes kind of disgusted and disappointed. And then the specialist got down and he started basically speaking in tongues. He started talking to her. He started responding to her. He started laughing, smiling. And afterwards, it was see, this is how it's done and this is what you have to understand of how to talk to your son.
And I was angry. I said, you know, who are you to tell me how to talk to my son? I was angry at Holly, and that was the moment that I did get away with the Scotch and the cigars and really became distant for a few days. But really, after a while - and then dropping him off at school and seeing him in the corner by himself flapping his ears, I really came to the realization that I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't know what I was doing, and in order to save him, in order to connect with him, I better get on board with some of these therapies and what's going on with my son before it's too late.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, there are, I think, some interesting things in this book that will be of interest to people whose children are not on that spectrum, some of the things that you learned about how to be a dad. I got a kick out of this one section on discipline where you said, you know, I'm the parent, you know, these people - you see these people trying to reason with their kid in the supermarket who's having a tantrum. You say, oh, these wimps. You know, I'm the parent.
Mr. PEETE: Right.
MARTIN: Child will listen to me.
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Mr. PEETE: And then you realize that that was not working well. So, will you just tell us what some of the life lessons that you learned that might be of help to other parents?
Mr. PEETE: Oh, just a tremendous amount of patience. I think that's the biggest thing that I learned. But also, each parent needs to treat their child as an individual and really come down to their level, go into their world, understand their world from their point of view and really not try to put the pressure on our children to be what we want them to be. Not every kid's going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, a football player.
The sooner we understand who our child is and what he wants to do, the better we're going to be at communicating with our children and understanding our children. And that was the biggest lesson I had to learn. I had to throw out all of the expectations that I had for my son prior to him being born and prior to the diagnosis because none of that worked, you know.
And now I look at him at 12 years old, and he's in a mainstream school. He plays on team sports. He loves music. He can play the piano. He looks you in the eye and says I love you. He does all the things that this specialist way back in the day some eight years ago said he would never do. So there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope, and that's what I want to get across with this book.
MARTIN: And what about for people who aren't as - forgive me - as resourced as you and your wife are?
Mr. PEETE: That's the challenge that we continue to fight for. You know, so often that, you know, we look up and thank God we had the jobs that we did to get our son into all of these treatments. But they're a lot of other things that you can do, as well. You can analyze his diet. And I think that more so than anything for us, more so than the speech, more so than the occupational was really, you know, analyzing him and what we put in his body that helped him come around more than anything.
You know, he was allergic to a lot of things early on, allergic to gluten wheat, allergic to diary, things that we didn't know right out of the gate that affected his behavior. So those things we can do. But yes, autism, you know, at the end of the day, they did a study I believe, that it's going to cost you for one family or one child with autism, it'll cost you over $3 million through the lifetime, and that's very, very expensive.
So we're working with the HollyRod Foundation, my wife and I started some 10 years ago, to really create opportunities for families that don't have the resources to provide for their children. But there are other alternative things that you can do. But the number one thing is really early detection.
MARTIN: Rodney Peete retired from the NFL in 2004. He was a host of the Fox Sports Net show "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" until 2008. His new book, "Not My Boy!: A Father, A Son, and One Family's Journey through Autism" is available in most bookstores now. And Rodney Peete joined us from our bureau in New York.
Rodney Peete, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PEETE: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: And our best wishes to your family.
Mr. PEETE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.