Tuesday, August 6, 2013

HollyRod Foundation's 'My Brother Charlie' Carnival Supports Families Living with Autism

CC and I at The HollyRod Foundation's "My Brother Charlie" Carnival.
I have seen several moms tear up when they talk about their child who has autism—and one of those moms was actress Holly Robinson Peete, whose teenage son is on the spectrum.

The 21 Jump Street actress and former co-host of The Talk was both down-to-earth and feisty when she hosted a small reception in Beverly Hills in May to raise awareness about autism and The HollyRod Foundation, an organization she and husband Rodney Peete launched to benefit autism and Parkinson's Disease.

She wanted to get the word out about the disorder and she wanted to help—not just her son, but all families who have sons or daughters with autism. Because, as she said, even getting a simple haircut for a child on the spectrum can be an agonizing experience.

That's why Holly and Rodney created the "My Brother Charlie" Carnival, which just celebrated its fourth year, at Culver Studios in Culver City this weekend. CC and I were invited to attend, and it was an amazingly welcoming event for all families, but especially those who live with autism.

There were bouncy obstacle courses, a petting zoo, a dunk tank, a mobile aquarium from Aquarium of the Pacific, face painting, live music and more. There were also buffet lines, where families could grab a bite to eat—everything being inclusive in the ticket price. It was a gorgeous day and so family-friendly and relaxing.

Holly Robinson Peete welcomes everyone to the carnival.
Also on hand was presenting sponsor Fuhu, Inc., which makes the child-friendly nabi tablet—and offers the device at half-price to kids who have autism.

The "My Brother Charlie" Carnival is named after the book of the same name that Holly wrote with her daughter, Ryan. It was inspired by Peete's son, R.J., and explains that Charlie's brain works in a different way, which makes it harder for him to make friends. But while he might not be great at certain things, he's amazing at others.

I had a chance to sit down with Holly in May to talk about autism, misconceptions about the disorder and what it was like to write a book with her daughter.

L.A. Story: What's the biggest misconception about autism?

Holly Robinson Peete: There are so many, but probably the biggest is the concept of the spectrum. What is the autism spectrum? It starts down here with children who are nonverbal, sometimes almost like a deaf child where they have no response no interaction but they do hear you and they have a lot to say. And that's why you have tablets like the nabi—these are ways for them to express themselves.

And then you have the other end of the spectrum, where you have children who are highly verbal, brilliant, closer to Asperger's and just can't look you in the eye and make a friend.

L.A. Story: What was it like writing a book with your daughter?

Holly Robinson Peete: My daughter was 12 when we wrote the book together. It was very cathartic because she had so many emotions that she needed to express that I wasn't really aware of. Just feeling so connected to this boy and taking on a lot of his issues, however also feeling very neglected herself.

That was really difficult for me to hear. She said, 'Sometimes, Mom, I wish I had autism so that you would pay more attention to me.' But yet she takes on all of his issues and his problems. So I learned a lot about her feelings about being a sibling.

L.A. Story: Do you think she realized it before you and your husband?

Holly Robinson Peete: No, she just accepted him for who he was. We were all rookies at that point.

L.A. Story: You mentioned that if you asked your son if he has autism, he would say no. What does that mean?

Holly Robinson Peete: He at 15 does not want to be labeled. He's struggling to fit in and doesn't want to be different. And that's very typical for any kid, even if they have ADHD, or Asperger's, or dyslexia. Whatever it is, it's very hard for them to navigate the teenage boy waters—how do they run with the pack?

L.A. Story: I saw a video of you and your daughter talking about the book and explaining to kids about autism and that your son had memorized all the presidents.

Holly Robinson Peete: You talk about the deficits and strengths, and that really brought forward a lot of good information. It made (the kids) go, 'Oh yeah, I have my issues, too.' And that really leveled the playing field.

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