Holly Robinson-Peete on autism and obesity: Get kids moving

Holly Robinson-Peete and her husband, Rodney Peete, are a can-do team — not so surprising for a successful TV actress and a former NFL quarterback. And the busy parents of four remain proactive. This year their reality show "For Peete's Sake" aired on OWN and Robinson-Peete’s book “Same but Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express” ($17.99, amazon.com) hit the shelves. They also focus their drive on social and health issues, including their HollyRod Foundation, founded in 1997, dedicated to helping those with autism and Parkinson’s disease live their best lives. The causes hit close to home. Robinson-Peete’s father, the late Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr. (the original Gordon on “Sesame Street”) had Parkinson’s disease and her 19-year-old son RJ has autism. Now the couple is shining a light on the prevalence of young people with autism spectrum disorder who also struggle with obesity. And they’ve decided to be part of the solution to help these kids lead fit, healthy lives.

Robinson-Peete talks about her experience with autistic kids and fitness:

Have you noticed obesity among kids with autism as an issue?

So many of the kids we’ve served with our foundation and the families we’ve come across are absolutely struggling with that. I mean big time.… Here’s the thing about autism — people don’t really think of autism as a physical issue.… It’s not just about their brains but their entire bodies and getting them to eat well and exercise.… When kids with autism and special needs become obese it brings on all sorts of health problems that any typical kid would deal with, but it also brings on bullying and other social issues that compound the problem of autism and adolescence.

Does RJ love fitness? If so, how did you help that happen?

My son loves to jump. He lives on the trampoline and it’s a way he self-regulates and self-stimulates the endorphins.… He has stress and anxiety and that’s how he works it out. And he is in flawless shape. We all looked at him one day — he jumps on that thing for an hour at a time, just nonstop, and comes off completely sweating — and we said when did you get that six-pack? … When you see kids running around with autism and they are flapping their arms and moving their head in a funky weird way that’s them trying to regulate their own bodies. If you can do that in the form of exercise it’s a win-win.

How did your partnership with Elite Performance Spectrum Training come about?

We met Harut [Tovmasyan] at Elite Performance EPX last year or so when we started working out with him on family fitness.  He was the one who came up with the idea. He said, “You know what? I know a lot of families who are dealing with kids with autism who are dealing with obesity. They’re not getting up and moving, they’re sedentary.” He said he found that when he works out with them all of a sudden they’re happier and more comfortable.

What is your vision for exercise programs for young people with autism?  

I don’t think small. I always try to think as big as possible because it’s a big epidemic how many kids have autism. It’s a large community to serve. My vision is to reach out to kids who are on different places on the spectrum, including nonverbal kids.… Often some of the kids who are struggling more to function are the ones in the most need so we have to reach them too.… I want to gather kids in the inner city who don’t have access to gyms and gym equipment.…I think the sky’s the limit with this autism exercise program.

What advice do you have for people who want to start an exercise program for kids with autism in their own community?

If someone wanted to start a program like this I would find a trainer that has passion like Harut … and I would find someone who is versed in autism and maybe start small, maybe start with a class of three or four. I would also try to implement this at school or start with a home fitness program. For us, it’s all about the trampoline at home.… There are also trendy trampoline centers … maybe go to a local gym and see if they would donate a space and incorporate as many of the professionals that take care of your kids as possible. Here’s the thing with autism: Every child with autism is totally different. That’s what we say in the autism community … if you’ve met one kid with autism you’ve met one kid with autism.…Everyone has their own program that they have their kid on, their own curriculum, their own immersion therapy, so it’s good to consult with the doctor.… It’s just basic, everyday fitness, getting your heart rate up and getting these kids up and moving. 

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