Jeneé Osterheldt

Actress Holly Robinson Peete’s biggest role: Autism advocate

They’re twins. You can see the resemblance in their brown almond eyes, curly hair and beautiful brown skin.

But as much as Callie is like her brother Charlie, they’re different. She’s two minutes younger. She’s chatty and affectionate. He’s quiet. Giving kisses and saying “I love you” don’t come easy.

“Charlie has autism, but autism doesn’t have Charlie,” Callie says in “My Brother Charlie,” a children’s book by actress Holly Robinson Peete, illustrated by Kansas City’s own Shane Evans.

Callie and Charlie might be fictional, but their story is inspired by Holly’s own twins, daughter Ryan Elizabeth and son RJ. The book was published almost six years ago and is still on Amazon’s Top 100 list for children’s books that deal with difficult discussions.

On Tuesday, Holly, who starred on TV’s “21 Jump Street” and “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” will come to the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library to talk about autism and the ongoing relevance of the book, which she co-wrote with Ryan.

One day when Ryan was 12, she came to her mama and said they had to write a book. RJ was having a hard time making friends, and Ryan wanted to share their experiences. He is autistic. She is not. Some days are harder than others.

“She told me nothing like this book really existed, and she wanted to write a book for kids about accepting kids with autism and kids who are different,” Holly tells me from Los Angeles.

Holly did some research, pitched the idea to Scholastic, and the adventure began. They gave her some illustrators to choose from. She wanted Shane Evans, but there was a two-year waiting list.

“I couldn’t wait that long,” Holly remembers. “But I wanted to work with him. His work resonates beautifully, and I just can’t sing his praises enough. So I reached out to him directly and told him what the book meant to me and why it was so important. I charmed him into bumping me to the top of his list. I broke the rules.”

It paid off. “My Brother Charlie” went on to win an NAACP award and remains a powerful tool for talking to kids about autism.

Jennifer Smith, executive director of Autism Society — The Heartland, says the book and Holly’s dedication to speaking out help normalize the conversation.

“Early diagnosis is so important, and the more we talk about it, the more people will get diagnosed,” Jennifer says. “The book opens up a dialogue for kids to better understand autism. It gives permission to ask questions. It’s OK to ask. It’s all right for us all to be different. We made a movie that served that same purpose, ‘Just Like You.’ When we share and listen we help level the playing field of understanding.”

It’s important to detect autism at an early age, but Jennifer says it’s important to talk about autism in teens and adults, too.

“For so long the focus has been on young kids, but you don’t grow out of autism. Autism grows up. It’s going to be with us. And it’s so important that the discussion is happening every day about what we can do in our community to be proactive and give support to those affected.”

Holly’s next book, “Same but Different,” tackles just that — autism in adolescence. Ryan and RJ are 18 now. This time around, RJ has a voice in writing the book, out this spring. It’s told in diary form and, again, is inspired by their experiences.

“Ryan said we have to get real and we have to be a resource for other families. She’s 18, and she knows everything, so I just follow her lead,” Holly says, only halfway joking. You can tell she takes her daughter’s ideas and experience seriously.

“When kids speak to other kids, there is so much less baggage than when adults speak. Kids are just really able to connect with one another. They listen. And they are in high school now. The book reflects that,” Holly says.

“One passage is about a girl wanting to go to the school dance with her brother. Ryan wonders, does she know he’s autistic? Does she really like him? It deals with high school angst, social media and special needs. There are things all families with teenagers go through. But when you’re dealing with autism and puberty hits, it becomes another movie.”

Books have become a family affair in the Peete household. Holly’s husband, former NFL quarterback and Shawnee Mission South graduate Rodney Peete, also wrote about his son’s diagnosis. “Not My Boy!” deals with his personal journey and hardships accepting the diagnosis and learning to change his expectations and help his son.

“There is a stigma about mental health and learning issues across the board but especially in the black community, even in my own family. My in-laws had a hard time even saying the word ‘autistic,’ ” Holly says.

“There’s denial when it comes to autism. People think maybe if you discipline this way or talk this way it can be fixed. For my husband, a macho guy, a former football player, it was hard. And when he speaks on his journey and testifies what it was like, it is powerful.

“I almost kicked him out of the house. He had to father up and get on board with accepting his son. When Rodney shares his story, it helps so many people and men of color to have this conversation and recognize a problem that is prevalent in so many communities. I am proud of him.”

The husband-and-wife duo operate as ambassadors for the cause. They run HollyRod Foundation, dedicated to providing support and resources to families affected by autism and Parkinson’s disease, which afflicted her father. They’ve been known to give tablets and books to autism outreach groups, host workshops and donate money.

Holly initially focused on her experience and what they needed as a family as she tried to raise awareness for autism.

“It didn’t work that way. I have learned to ask what people need and not assume what people need. … Listening has helped me learn.”

And reading “My Brother Charlie” is helping kids learn something just as important as listening: compassion.

Meet Peete

Holly Robinson Peete and Shane Evans will discuss autism and the NAACP award-winning “My Brother Charlie,” and sign books at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Plaza Library, 4801 Main St. For more information, visit kclibrary.org.

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