Holly Robinson Peete on Fighting Son's Autism

The former 21 Jump Street star opens up about her struggle with the heartbreaking diagnosis

When Holly Robinson Peete and NFL quarterback husband Rodney Peete welcomed their twins nine years ago, theirs was a happy family.

But things changed dramatically when son Rodney – called “RJ” – was 2 and diagnosed as having autism, the former 21 Jump Street star, 42, tells PEOPLE in its new issue.

At his most uncontrollable, RJ would begin throwing tantrums. Over time, the couple invested $500,000 in treatments (some of them bogus). But his mother would never give up on RJ.

“I used to wake up in cold sweats visualizing my child walking around homeless,” she says. “My dreams were so scary, they pushed me into action. After trying countless therapies, we settled on something called Floor Time. We get on the ground and get up in RJ’s face to force him to interact.”

She also turned to other mothers who have children who have autism, such as Jenny McCarthy and Tisha Campbell-Martin. “Jenny called me after her son was diagnosed. She said, ‘I’m sorry to call you, but . . . ‘ and six hours later we were both laughing.”

Of RJ, Peete says, “Never once did we think about sending him away. I chose a proactive, crazy-mama approach. …We are very goal-oriented. At 6 years old, our biggest goal for him was to have a conversation from start to finish. I say, ‘Hi,’ and RJ would say, ‘Hi, Mom. How are you?’ I say, ‘I’m good and you?” and he would say, ‘I’m good too.’ Now RJ sets goals for himself.”

It’s been a long road, and the journey is far from over. But says Peete: “I am just so proud of my boy. He is a happy 9-year-old about to enter the fourth grade at University Elementary School, a mainstream school. He struggles valiantly with subjects like math and reading and loves to write.

“Thankfully his classmates accept him just as he is. He blows us away with his ability to communicate now. The other day he said, ‘Mom, I know my name is Rodney Peete, but I don’t want to play football. Is that okay? I want to play piano.’ I could barely get him to discuss his day with me two years ago.”

For more on Peete and RJ’s journey, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

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