Accepting My Son

UPDATED 04/12/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/12/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT

The wake-up call came three years ago via a shock bulletin from their then 9-year-old daughter Ryan: Kids at school were making fun of her twin brother RJ. "Maybe it'll go a long way if you and Dad come down to school and talk about it," Ryan told her mom, actress Holly Robinson Peete. The "it" she had in mind was RJ's autism. And the challenge, especially for her dad, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, was formidable. "Rodney's played in the Superbowl," says Holly, 45, "and I don't think he's been more nervous than sitting in front of 50 fourth graders." For 30 minutes the parents explained certain basics about RJ, like "how he may not answer you when you call his name, so tap his shoulder," Rodney told them, and how he's a genius at rattling off the names of pro baseball players but not so good at making friends. "They got it," Rodney says. "After that," Holly adds, "a group of kids started inviting him to sleepovers."

The classroom success has inspired the Peete family to reach out to a broader audience. This month My Brother Charlie, a picture book co-written by Ryan, now 12, and her mom, lands in bookstores. At the same time Rodney, 44, is aiming his hard-earned wisdom at other fathers of autistic kids with the memoir Not My Boy!, which details his painful journey from denial to acceptance of his son's autism and then on to staunch advocacy. "As men, you just want to fix it," he says. "We sometimes want our kids to be who we want them to be [rather than] let them be who they really are."

For Rodney, that meant letting go of his fantasy that if he spent enough hours teaching RJ to kick a soccer ball, it would overcome what he thought of as his son's "bad habits." "Your first boy, he's got your name, things you envision even before he's born ... I wasn't willing to put my ego aside and step back," Rodney says. What he calls his "pride, but more ignorance" continued until shortly after RJ's autism diagnosis at 3. By then Rodney was easing his disappointment with Scotch, and Holly was reaching the end of her tether with his refusal to face reality. "Our perfect fairy-tale marriage had started to come unraveled," she says. One day at RJ's therapy session, the therapist asked Rodney to demonstrate the connection he claimed to have with his son. "I got down and started trying to interact," he says. "That was the biggest embarrassment in the world, because I couldn't do it. Two minutes later his therapist gets down and he's opening up to her and speaking."

Since then Rodney has forged a strong bond with RJ. The pair routinely go out for sushi, attend basketball games and spend hours playing with RJ's beloved Legos. In sixth grade at a mainstream school, RJ has made huge progress. A whiz at baseball stats, he was just chosen to appear on a new Fox sports show called KidPick. He has lots of friends, and, Rodney says, "he's able to articulate his feelings now." As is his dad. Parenting RJ has made the former pro athlete not only a more patient father, "it has made me a better person," Rodney says. "And a better husband," Holly adds.

Recently the family was stopped in a Toys "R" Us by the parents of an autistic girl eager to meet RJ. "RJ said, 'Why do they wanna meet me?'" Holly recounts. "I said, 'Because you inspired them with your story.'" "Does that make me a hero?" RJ asked.

"He connects with the fact that he has given people hope," Holly says. "That's a place we never thought we'd be."

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