HONEST PORTRAYAL OF TEEN EMOTIONS WITH A SPECIAL NEEDS SIBLING
Holly Robinson Peete, best known for her television roles on “Hanging with Mr. Cooper”, “21 Jump Street,” and now, OWN network’s “For Peete’s Sake”, visited Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville to share her powerful new book, Same But Different; a personal story, written along with her teenage twins, Ryan and Rodney (RJ).
As it is, being a teen is challenging in itself especially when you're up against dating, parties, sports, body changes, and school. Each chapter is each child’s viewpoint of how they are feeling about many real life situations while throwing Autism into the mix. Holly decided to co-author the book about teen life with autism because “there was no such book that existed”. The book is candid, powerful, and shares some very deep genuine and authentic emotions, that will pull on your heart strings whether you have a teenager in the house with special needs or not. “The only way we could write this book efficiently is through a lens of complete transparency and authenticity,” Holly shares. “The audience it's geared towards either knows this journey or is just learning about it; either way it is important to be true to the experience. Keep it really really real.” And real it was as her typical teen daughter, Ryan, shares her honest feelings on how her brother, RJ, seems to get it all, and the world completely revolves around him from food selections in the house that need to be gluten free, to vacations that must be choreographed to ensure RJ does not have a meltdown, to students in school who pretend to be her brother’s friend only to take advantage of him; and of course, the complete embarrassment she often feels about his habitual behaviors, such as putting his hands in his pants.
Although the book is based on just 50% of their real life, using semi-fictional characters, the stories are a compilation of real life happenings. The chapters portraying RJ’s viewpoint were “harvested thoughts through interviews, through recordings of his feelings, through presenting him with scenarios and asking him how he was feeling about certain situations and also by reminding him of specific experiences while getting him to reflect on them again,” Holly says. “It was not easy to get him to express himself in this book but it was mandatory that we hear his voice. We are always hearing about children with autism and rarely from them.”
Holly has come to the realization that parenting is hard in general, special needs or not, and writing these books and sharing their personal journey is an effort to advocate for all kids.
Photo by Lynn Logan
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FULL Q & A INTERVIEW:
The Book: Same But Different
By Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, RJ Peete
About This Book (Scholastic.com)
Being a teen is hard enough. But when you have autism — or when your brother or sister is struggling with the condition — life can be challenging. It's one thing when you're a kid in grade school, and a play date goes south due to autism in a family. Or when you're a little kid, and a vacation or holiday turns less-than-happy because of an autistic family member. But being a teen with autism can get pretty hairy — especially when you're up against dating, parties, sports, body changes, school, and other kids who just don't "get" you. In this powerful book, teenagers Ryan Elizabeth Peete and her twin brother, Rodney, who has autism, share their experiences of what it means to be a teen living with autism. Same But Different explores the funny, painful, and unexpected aspects of teen autism, while daring to address issues nobody talks about. Same But Different underscores tolerance, love, and the understanding that everybody's unique drumbeat is worth dancing to.
Ryan’s voice is portrayed by a character named Callie
RJ’s voice is portrayed by a character named Charlie
1. Whose idea was it to write the book? Yours, Ryan, RJ’s?
It was my idea to write a book about teen life with autism because there was no such book that existed.
2. How much of the book is based on your own personal family's life? 25%, 60%, 90%?
3. I have 2 teenage daughters.....Ryan's (Callie’s) candid spirit as presented in the book is spot on for any stereotypical teenager. #TheTeenYears #TerribleTeens #WhatAboutMe #MeMeMe #SMCIA. Many of my own friends with special needs children and typical kids say their typical teen is more difficult from 12-17 than their child with special needs. Does it help knowing Ryan’s (Callie’s) feelings are probably just a normal phase of life?
It doesn't really help to know that she is experiencing this normalcy because the autism doesn't go away from her life. Often times with teenagers they grow out of these feelings but as you become an adult if you have a sibling with autism you always have a sibling with autism.
4. “The Hey,You, Why Me?” Chapter ....oh my heart strings....so vulnerable....so honest and authentic - so relatable and helpful to other teens with special needs siblings. How did you/Ryan (Callie) get to a place to feel comfortable sharing her genuine feelings in the book?
The only way we could write this book efficiently is through a lens of complete transparency and authenticity. The audience it's geared towards either knows this journey or is just learning about it. Either way it is important to be true to the experience. Keep it really really real.
5. From Ryan (Callie): "My brother with Autism has it all?" But I would never want "that" From RJ (Charlie): "Noooo, I have Autism. I never get what I want. The A word does have me" To Holly: What's your perspective on these comments?
Autism is something that person has. It is not who the person is. There are very many families that are OK with describing their child or loved one as "autistic". I believe in child-first language and I rarely ever use that word. No offense to anyone who does but my child is so much more than this disorder.
6. RJ’s (Charlie’s) feelings were also shared very candidly in the book. The book shares that he is verbal, but hardly ever talks about his true feelings because he often doesn't have the right words to describe them. How did RJ (Charlie) express his raw emotions to share in the book?
RJ does not really enjoy writing like his twin sister does. We harvested his thoughts through interviews, through recordings of his feelings, through presenting him with scenarios and asking him how he was feeling about certain situations and also by reminding him of specific experiences and getting him to reflect on them again. It was not easy to get him to express himself in this book but it was mandatory that we hear his voice. We are always hearing about children with autism and rarely from them.
7. “The Charlie Show” chapter....why can kids be so cruel? I personally wanted to punch Steve & Justin. How do you (Ryan/Callie) contain that raw emotion and remain composed (mature) when such things happen?
It's really hard to respond to people with grace and dignity and when their spewing such ignorance and disregard but we found over the years that the more compassionate you are with someone's ignorance the more they take away from the situation. It's the old honey and vinegar analogy.
8. Ryan (Callie) talks a lot about being 'exhausted' from having to think about how to avoid the next crisis of "The Charlie Show".... I'm sure you too have felt plenty of exhaustion over the years. How does it make you feel when you hear moms with typical kids complain about how tired they are?
At first it made me nauseous to hear parents of typical children complaining about things that I wished my son could do. Over the years I've become more compassionate and tolerant of what all moms and dads go through. Parenting is hard. Special needs kid or not. But for sure in the beginning it was almost torturous to hear the things that my friends complained about when all I wanted to do was get my son to say I love you to me.
9. It's shared in the book that your husband and RJ’s (Charlie’s) connection is shared through football stats since RJ is not a fan of actually playing football. What is your personal one-on-one connection with RJ?
I am connected to RJ on every single level. Music sports travel you name it.
10. The honest reflection in the book begs the question....did RJ read the book and how does he feel about Ryan's chapters filled with raw emotions?
Of course he read the book! He likes it because he understands that the characters are semi-fictional. His sister has a tremendous amount of compassion for him and rarely complained about him her whole life. He understands how blessed he is to have a sister who advocates fiercely for him and is so selfless. She's about to go off to college now and it's her time to spread her wings and focus on her and not be worried about what happens to him. It's difficult for her to let go but it's her time to shine. RJ always understands that writing these books and sharing our journey is an effort to advocate for other kids and he appreciates that.