In 2007, when Holly Robinson Peete decided to speak openly about how her son RJ was diagnosed with autism, there was no road map in place.
“At the time, I didn’t see a lot of people advocating for autism awareness,” Holly, 53, tells PEOPLE.
It was eight years after RJ’s diagnosis, and the Peete family was still so unsure about how he would grow and develop.
“That was such a difficult time,” Holly says.
But the 21 Jump Street star felt that it was important to tell his story and bring more awareness to autism, so she wanted to talk to PEOPLE for a story in the magazine — even if her husband Rodney disagreed.
“My husband did not want to do that article. He thought it was labeling RJ and putting him on blast, and he wouldn’t be anything but this kid with autism and it was going to limit his possibilities in life,” Holly says. “I was this total opposite, I said we HAVE to talk about this, because we have this platform to talk about autism and reach so many others.”
Holly says she saw an immediate impact from sharing their story.
“I remember after the article came out, this family came up to us at Disneyland and they had two daughters with autism and they said it made them feel more hopeful. I started crying, because this is why we did this,” she says. “When RJ was diagnosed we didn’t have anything like that as a role model.”
Now, Holly says, it’s “wild” to look back at the article because of much RJ has progressed in the last 11 years.
“When I look back and see RJ, this strapping young man who’s 20 and has a job — he’s doing all these things that I was told he would never do,” she says. “It really makes you emotional, because I can’t believe he’s come so far, and I’m still so blessed.”
RJ is now a clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Dodgers — “his dream job,” Holly says — and made it through some tough years of bullying in middle school.
“He never had any friends and now he has a whole dugout full of friends,” she says. “I was so blown away when he was hired.”
She’s also thrilled to see how much autism awareness has changed in the 18 years since RJ’s diagnosis, particularly with TV shows featuring characters with autism like The Good Doctor, Atypical and her family’s Hallmark docu-series Meet the Peetes.
“I’m going to toot my own horn, and say that I didn’t see a lot of people advocating for autism awareness, and I think Rodney and our whole family have done a lot,” Holly says, adding that with Meet the Peetes, she wanted to show what it really looks like to have an autistic child in the family.
“He’s such a genuine kid,” she says. “I wanted people to see that and fall in love with RJ, and then they wouldn’t be so scared of autism. I think he’s a great ambassador, and I knew his spirit and personality would come through.”
Holly adds that RJ still struggles with things like oral hygiene, which is why she partnered with Colgate on MagnusCards, a free app to help people with autism learn tasks like proper tooth brushing. She says the key for parents of children with autism is to research and “advocate like crazy.”
“I wouldn’t change RJ for the world, but I would change the world for RJ,” she says.