For years, Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman pushed his daughter to do things she didn’t want to do.
Rebecca Reitman has a hypersensitivity to loud noises, is a stickler for routine, dislikes sitting next to someone she doesn’t know at dinner and avoids unfamiliar places, especially grocery stores with fluorescent lights.
It would be years before her parents realized she has Asperger’s, a form of autism that causes developmental delays in basic skills, particularly the ability to socialize and communicate effectively. Rebecca Reitman, now 32, wasn’t diagnosed until after she graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in discrete mathematics, the study of mathematical structures.
Harold and Rebecca Reitman, along with teacher Pati Fizzano, have written a new book that offers advice on managing the challenges caused by autism spectrum disorders. The book’s premise: No two brains are alike. The authors of “Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” (HCI Books, $14.95) say that is the first step in understanding people who learn and process things differently.
“If I’m a teenager today or an adolescent and my brain doesn’t develop from ADHD, how will I text, talk on the phone, listen to music, listen to my mom, listen to my friends all at the same time? It never stops now,” said Harold Reitman. “The actual wiring in our brains is changing. I’m a clueless dad who just learned this stuff from my daughter.”
Rebecca Reitman is a middle school math tutor in Boca Raton, Fla., where she works with special needs children. She knows they learn differently because she is one of them.
“In college I knew I could not understand some teachers so I stopped paying attention and turned them off, because I had a one-on-one tutor, which helped me immensely,” she said via email. “In high school I had a math teacher for two years, who also was hard to understand, and I had to get a tutor for that subject also. At Lynn University (where she is working on a master’s degree in psychology), I have matured and have used many strategies that I did not know how to do when I was at Tech.”
In high school, Rebecca says she had a group of friends, but didn’t socialize much. She ran track and cross country. What helped her at Tech was the university’s requirement that all students volunteer with a community service organization. Rebecca worked with Trees Atlanta, which she enjoyed immensely.
She was diagnosed after she did an internship at Cumberland Academy of Georgia, an Atlanta private school for children with autism.
“The school master met Rebecca for 10 minutes, and said to me, ‘You know, Rebecca is an “Aspie” as well.’ Thus began the journey,” Harold Reitman said. “We knew Rebecca had some ADHD and memory deficits, and had 23 brain tumors, the seizure problem and the two surgeries. But I had to learn, what was this thing called Asperger’s?”
Reitman is a retired orthopedic surgeon who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A documentary on his family’s journey and a movie, “The Square Root of 2,” based on Rebecca’s life will be released soon. Actress Darby Stanchfield (Abby Whelan on the ABC show “Scandal”) has the lead role.
The former professional heavyweight boxer and Golden Gloves champion said everything he learned about autism spectrum disorders comes from extensive research done by a parent trying to understand his child.
One in 68 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC based its estimates on the health and school records of 8-year-olds in 11 states, including Georgia.
The Emory Autism Center recently received a contract from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The project will help that state agency’s providers work with adults with autism. The Emory center has a program called MyLIFE. There is an apartment on campus where people with autism can practice life and social skills. It serves three age groups: 18- to 24-year-olds; 25- to 35-year-olds; and 36 and over.
Still, resources don’t meet the demands, said center director Catherine Rice. “We often have families ask, ‘What happens when we get too old (to care for those with autism)?’ Living independently and fully is the goal.”
That is Rebecca Reitman’s goal as well. She lives in an apartment but has help. She doesn’t drive so she takes buses. Her advice for parents and teachers of children and adults with Asperger’s?
“Aspies have eyes, ears and hearts — be careful what you say around them or about them. Have patience with us. Learn and understand an Aspie; we are a little different,” she said. “If an Aspie is bored in class it may be because the teacher is not structured or (there is) not enough work. … They are not the type of students that want to sit and talk to the person next to them.”