Many people want to be famous, while some are committed to keeping their personal lives private. However, some famous people choose to share their personal experiences and issues that they care about to shed light on important causes that do not only impact them but others without the celebrity spotlight.
Celebrity culture emphasizes that famous people are just like us who struggle with the same things, and the more a celebrity reveals about their personal life, the more it rings true, especially when it comes to family ups and downs.
On the flip side, individuals who are struggling with health disorders do not face the same level of empathy and understanding that famous people do. Without a platform and without famous people connected to their challenges, the journey toward acceptance and treatment can feel lonely.
This is especially true for those dealing with health disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), notably their parents. For generations before us, having a child on the spectrum is viewed as a burden and a reflection of failure as a mom or a dad. Many historical figures likely fell on the spectrum, but society’s biases against them led to many cases going undocumented or being kept a secret.
The truth is, no one should feel ashamed of having an ASD diagnosis. Here is a list of celebrities – most of them parents of children with ASD, who support autism awareness and are open about their personal experiences:
Sylvester Stallone, a well-known Hollywood action star famous for portraying Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, has a son diagnosed with autism. Sergeoh Stallone, who was diagnosed with ASD in 1982 at three years old, started to show signs of autism after posing for the cover page of People magazine with his father.
While Sly and his family decided to keep their son out of the spotlight, they also established a research fund administered under the National Society for Children and Adults with Autism. Stallone told People magazine for a 1985 cover story, “I use my films to have premieres that raise money for the fund.”
John Travolta and Kelly Preston
Hollywood power couple John Travolta and the late Kelly Preston had Jett as their eldest son. Born in 1992, Jett had a history of seizures since age two and was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease before being diagnosed with autism. Sadly, Jett passed away in 2009 at the age of 16 during a family vacation in the Bahamas. Apparently, Jett experienced another seizure and hit his head on the bathtub, which caused his untimely death.
After Jett’s death, Travolta and Preston opened up about autism and have since then become public supporters of autism awareness and research. They also established the Jett Travolta Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on helping children with special needs.
Comedian, actress, and host Rosie O’Donnell has been candid about her journey with her daughter, Dakota, who was diagnosed with autism in 2016. Dakota was two and a half years old when she got the diagnosis. At first, Rosie was scared and worried about how her daughter would make it in this world, and she also worried about her longevity because she didn’t know who was going to understand her child the way she did if she died.
In an essay for People magazine, O’Donnell called her daughter a “gift.” She opened up about her personal experiences raising a neurodivergent child and how extraordinary Dakota is. She focused on being grateful – not taking away from the pain and hardship that an ASD diagnosis brings – but expressing how it’s a gift to experience the highs and lows of the world of ASD. It’s a refreshing kind of honesty that helps so many more parents feel seen and can make them appreciate the unique things to love about their child.
Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete
TV actress Holly Robinson Peete and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, have four children together. Ryan and RJ are their oldest children, and they are twins. While both twins were hitting all their developmental milestones on time, RJ stopped at two and a half years old. He stopped making eye contact and responding to his name, and when they had him checked, he was diagnosed with autism. Holly has openly talked about the extensive therapy that she and Rodney sought for their son, and she felt she needed to advocate for autism awareness using her platform as an actress.
The couple founded the HollyRod Foundation to support individuals and families with autism or Parkinson’s disease. They aim to improve the lives of families affected by these diseases by providing resources and grants. The foundation aids Parkinson’s disease patients in partnership with the Center for Parkinson’s Research and Movement Disorders at the University of Southern California.
Known for her portrayals of headstrong and complicated women, Kate Winslet has a heart of gold in real life. She’s listed twice in the 100 most influential people in the world in Time magazine – in 2009 and 2021. She puts her fame to good work by lending support to several charities and causes, along with financial donations.
While she doesn’t have a child with autism herself, she co-founded the charity Golden Hat Foundation, which aimed to create autism awareness. Winslet narrated the English version of an Icelandic documentary entitled A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, and she was inspired by the subject: a mother whose child has non-verbal autism. She personally teamed up with the mother to create the organization and used her influence as an ambassador for the luxury brands Lancôme and Longines to raise funds and awareness for the foundation. She even wrote a book about autism, The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism, which was featured by the United Nations during the World Autism Awareness Day ceremony in 2012.
Standup comedian D.L. Hughley has always been vocal about his son Kyle and his condition. When Kyle was a child, doctors diagnosed him with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and at times, Hughly seriously discussed how that disorder affected his son’s life. As a Black father, the comedian was particularly scared that his son’s defiant behavior could be misconstrued and get him killed.
In 2015, Hughley spoke with pride about Kyle graduating from college in Oprah: Where Are They Now segment and shared a touching story of how emotional he got when Kyle unexpectedly wanted to divert from his usually regimented schedule. Kyle is now well into adulthood, and Hughley makes Black parents seen as he opens up about his own struggles in his efforts to keep his son safe.
Tisha Campbell’s son Xen was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, and since then, she and her ex-husband Duane Martin have dedicated their lives to helping raise awareness and tolerance about ASD, especially among the Black community. Along with D.L. Hughley’s wife, Laurie, she established a nonprofit organization called Colored My Mind. They teamed up with four other mothers of children with autism to produce a short film that addresses issues like the fact that most African-American children get diagnosed later than their Caucasian counterparts.
Campbell also authored a children’s book entitled My Brother Doesn’t Want to Play to help other children cope with having a sibling who is different from most kids.
Boys II Men R&B singer Shawn Stockman calls parenting their son with autism one of the most challenging things he had to face in his life. He had twin sons, Micah and Ty, and he noticed something change with Micah around their first birthday. After visiting with pediatricians, Micah has been diagnosed with autism. He and his wife Sharhonda were understandably distraught at first, but they also felt blessed because they could afford the best doctors, therapists, and services.
Shawn has been honest about one thing: money. Having your son go to special schools, therapists, doctors, and all the right care can be expensive, so they established a foundation called Micah’s Voice to support other families in need who are raising children with autism. The nonprofit foundation aims to build a community for families to gather and support one another, raising money and giving them the ability to help the kids throughout their lives.
Singer-songwriter Toni Braxton’s second son Diezel has been diagnosed with autism and has been vocal about his son’s struggles with it. In 2006, Braxton broke down in tears at a Las Vegas concert while announcing to the audience that she had just learned that her son had autism just before the concert began. Braxton has also been outspoken about her doctor’s failure to diagnose Diezel’s condition earlier, believing that if he had been diagnosed earlier, he could have received treatment earlier.
Since her son’s diagnosis, Braxton became involved with Autism Speaks, serving as their international spokesperson. She has been very active in raising awareness and supporting his son, who has made remarkable progress through intervention and treatment. Diezel is now a model and enrolled in Howard University.
Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan was diagnosed in 2005, and the actress-model has been vocal about it ever since. When Evan was two and a half years old, he started having seizures and was initially diagnosed with epilepsy. But when McCarthy was still worried, she took her son to a neurologist for a second opinion, and there, he was diagnosed with autism. “It felt like death… I felt each membrane and vein in my heart shattering into a million pieces,” McCarthy said in her 2007 book, Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism.
She has been a spokesperson for Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) from 2007 to 2008 and participated in various fundraisers and other activities for the nonprofit organization to help families affected by ASD. She appeared on different TV shows about the subject, like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live, and shared her controversial views regarding vaccines and autism.
Doug Flutie, former NFL player and Heisman Trophy winner, spent 21 years playing professional football. But he admits that his son Dougie Jr.’s childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) diagnosis was the biggest fight he has ever faced. Along with his wife Laurie, Doug established the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism to help support families affected by autism spectrum disorders. The organization aims to provide families with the same opportunities, therapies, and programs they are fortunate enough to afford.
Now an adult, Dougie is low-functioning and living with his parents, but he is thriving during the day. Doug says his son taught us to keep their lives in the right perspective, to not take anything for granted, and to appreciate everything about their life.
Deron Williams, a former NBA player, has been a voice for spreading awareness about autism and advocates for early diagnosis. While he was prepared to ship off to Turkey in 2011 for a stint at Besiktas during the NBA lockout, his adopted son D.J. was diagnosed with autism at 22 months old. Through therapy, his son is living as normal a life as he can, and seeing the benefits of quick intervention is what pushed Williams to promote autism awareness.
He also established a foundation, Point of Hope Foundation, to support children and improve their quality of life, as well as their families. When he founded his foundation, it focused on single parents and offered support for a variety of diseases. Williams is also an ambassador for Autism Speaks.
Why Advocacy for Autism is Important
For children with autism, advocacy becomes a crucial lifeline, ensuring they receive the support they rightfully deserve. Whether it’s a parent offering personal assistance or vocal support when needed, advocacy plays a pivotal role.
The autism community deserves ongoing awareness, acceptance, and advocacy in every available form. Increased public awareness and more open conversations can help more families manage the challenge of having a child on the autism spectrum. Famous parents have tremendously helped the public reduce a stigma that should have never been part of the diagnosis in the first place.