Autism: Toss Out the Playbook

How former NFL pro Rodney Peete changed his game

In your memoir, Not My Boy!, you write about how you sank into a state of denial so deep when your son R.J. was diagnosed with autism that it almost wrecked your marriage with actress Holly Robinson Peete. Do you think fathers have a hard time accepting that their child is autistic? 
I do. Maybe it’s the male makeup and the way we’re wired, but we tend to look at a situation or problem and immediately try to figure out a way to fix it. When you’re dealing with autism, it can’t be easily fixed. Also, since autism affects boys more than girls, we’re dealing with the father-son relationship. There are so many expectations about what a father wants a son to be—whether it’s a doctor or a lawyer or an athlete. When those expectations seem like they’re not going to happen, it’s a tough thing for a dad to take. 

Before you came to accept the diagnosis, what was your strategy for changing R.J.’s behavior? 
I approached it like a typical coach: “I’m going to get into his space. I’m going to spend hours with him, and I’m going to stay on him until he gets it right. We’re going to do it my way and not his way.” It was getting us nowhere.

Any advice for a dad seeking to become a positive force in his son’s battle with autism? 
You have to educate yourself on how to communicate with your child and understand that this is all about his world and his goals—not yours. Take your ego and all your expectations and throw them out the window. Realize that your child is an individual, and he’s going to need you to be there and understand him. Once you do that, you can make a lot of progress.