The Autism Stigma Holly Robinson Peete Wants to Put to BedThe longtime actress and advocate sits down for a mental health check-in.
Holly Robinson Peete has made a name for herself on series like 21 Jump Street, The Talk, and, most recently, Queens Court, the celebrity reality dating series she hosts alongside husband and former NFL player Rodney Peete.
Of course, Robinson Peete is also widely celebrated for her continued advocacy work around autism and Parkinson’s disease. “It's so important to support marginalized communities and people who are misunderstood,” she tells Wondermind. “Do your part to try to understand and come into their world. That is so helpful for everybody. It's so helpful for the greater good of mankind, and you'll get that back 50-fold. Advocate for others who don't have the ability to do things that you take for granted.”
Here, the star shares what she’s learned through nearly 30 years of marriage, parenting her four kids, and her work as a mental health advocate.
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Holly Robinson Peete: It's actually OK. I would just give it an OK only 'cause there's a lot of transition going on in my life with my kids. Transition is interesting because your mind gets so caught up in a routine, so whenever things are changing, you kind of have a response to it.
And then [you have to] really keep your expectations open because what if it doesn't end soon? Like, what if it stays like this? I think what I've learned in all my years at this big age is to be OK with change and let yourself go with the flow and not have any expectations of, It'll be over, it'll be over, it'll be over. 'Cause what if it isn't, right? What if this is the new normal?
WM: You recently released your new dating show, Queen's Court. As somebody who's been in a successful long-term marriage, what's the best relationship advice that you've heard so far?
HRP: For us, the best advice is to have a short memory. Don't hold on to stuff. You know, my husband was a quarterback in the NFL, and one of the ways that he was able to get over a bad loss and play the following week is to have a short memory. You take what went wrong, you process it, and you give yourself a time limit, and then you pick up and get ready to get back out there. It's the same in relationships. You go through some tough times or maybe some arguments or you're not on the same page. Then whatever you said to each other or whatever you might have gone through, forget about it and move forward. Sometimes that's hard, but that's the best relationship advice.
WM: Are there any emotions you've noticed are harder for you to express or work through?
HRP: We've been together for 30 years pretty much, and there's a lot of different emotions that are hard to express, but our relationship has had so many different seasons. In the beginning, [it was] expressing trust and expressing faith in your relationship and not being scared to let your feelings go [or] take a risk.
In our show Queens Court, Rodney and I were sort of mentoring the queens, and we were just saying, “You gotta be OK with failing. So you've had other failed relationships. The only way you're gonna find that one, that guy, that king, is to be open to failure. If it works out, it does. If it doesn't, OK. But you have got to be open to giving your heart.” And that can be really difficult, and we certainly experienced that early on in our relationship.
WM: While working on the show, did you notice any differences between dating culture today and when you were first dating Rodney?
HRP: It was night and day 'cause I met Rodney in the early '90s, and there was no social media. We had phones, but they were big old brick phones. We didn't have ways to find people, GPS. I mean, there are just so many things that you have now that if you are kind of insecure about someone, you could really go down some really ugly rabbit holes. It's hard to date these days because everything is on blast—everything is in front of you. I think it would've been difficult for me to have trust and comfort dating Rodney during these days.
WM: You're a huge mental health advocate, especially when it comes to speaking about autism and neurodivergence. When your son RJ was first diagnosed with autism, what was that learning curve like for you?
HRP: In 2000, there was absolutely zero awareness of autism publicly. One of the reasons why we really decided to take the mantle and have a conversation about it was because I didn't see anybody talking about it, but I did know famous people that had kids on the spectrum. And it's not everybody's business to talk about your kids like that, but we knew that it would help others to see us and to talk about it out loud and in public and to really advocate for others. But, man, it was hard back then. There were no books for kids. … There was no awareness. There was very little hope, and there were no resources.
Now, I counsel parents who get their [kid’s] diagnosis all the time, any chance I get. … I'm always trying to give words of hope, and the best news is you have so many resources now. That's the biggest difference from when he was diagnosed in 2000 to 2023.
WM: Are there any mental health misconceptions that you hope to continue to dismantle through your work?
HRP: We've come a long way, but whew chile, we got a long way to go. The number one stigma that I'd like to try to put to bed that my son is very adamant about is that people with autism are not intelligent, that they're not smart, or that they don't have emotions. They do. Sometimes they can't express themselves the way someone who's neurotypical might.
The biggest thing I'd love to do is just normalize neurodiversity and make it part of everyday life. That is something that is so important for us to do as a society. Maybe we don't try to bend and shape my son to fit the world. Maybe the world needs to fit him.
WM: As a busy mother to four kids, how do you get intentional about checking in with each of them?
HRP: We have a text string that is so helpful to just relay [messages] to them and check in with them. Sometimes I do it in the group text (and our family group text is hilarious, like most families) or sometimes I do it directly.
But there are some ways that I don't like texting. … Yesterday I had a little emotional skirmish with my son, and I immediately owned up to it via text, and then he texted me back. But when I tried to talk to him in person and call him, he was like, “Why'd you call me? We were doing so well texting.” I was like, “Alright, lemme hang up, and let's text again.” So I would say that even though I don't like that form of connection very much—I think you lose a lot—my children seem to thrive with it. So I'm meeting them where they are, and I check in with them via text every single day.
WM: It kind of takes the pressure off when you text.
HRP: And especially with my son RJ, he's non-confrontational with his autism, and he feels more comfortable having a conversation via text. I used to be super judgmental about that, but not anymore.
WM: What aspect of your mental health is a work in progress?
HRP: Oh, my ability to let things go, to not dwell on things that I can't change, and adjust to that. That, at this big age, I should be able to be doing. I tell my kids all the time to let it go and all this stuff. I thought I was doing better at [not] worrying about what people think about me, but then I have moments where I kind of fall back on that. Like, I'm like worried about, Well, did you see the way… or, What do you think that person thought?
It takes my husband to be like, “I know you're not sitting up here worried about what somebody [thinks]… What do you care?” It's always great to have someone sort of bring you back around. But just when you think you've conquered something that has kind of held you back or something you wanna let go of, you realize that's kind of still there. We're all works in progress.
WM: If you could talk to yourself like a friend, what would you say?
HRP: Don't be so hard on yourself. You've come this far. You've done a lot. You've been strong. You've seen the peaks of the hills and the valleys. You've done a lot, and now it's time to just take it easy on yourself.
Also, I would certainly tell myself to just be more intentional about finding time for you, [like] getting in some affirmational app time—I love these apps 'cause they're so good for getting some meditation in and not beating yourself up if you don't get through all of your to-do list.
And this is a big one: Surround yourself with people who lift you up, who make you feel good about yourself, and who value you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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