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.”
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are terms to describe a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders, of varying degrees, are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. According to the CDC, people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in different ways.
Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization that funds research into the causes, prevention and treatments of autism. The group works to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders.
Social and language milestones
Every child is different and no two brains are alike. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s emotional and social development. In general, these are the social and communication milestones children reach by the following ages.
9 months old — Smiles and laughs while looking at you; vocalizes often with babbles.
12 months old — Responds by looking when name is called; enjoys playing games such as peekaboo; uses gestures such as giving, showing and pointing; uses consonant sounds and a few simple words; reaches for things he or she wants.
18 months old — Plays pretend with dolls or stuffed animals; imitates words you say and actions in play; uses at least 10 words; makes many different consonant sounds; identifies familiar people and body parts.
2 years old — Shows interest in playing with other children; puts many actions together during play (e.g., stirring, pouring juice, feeding a doll); uses at least 50 words; makes simple sentences such as “Mommy go outside” and “What’s that?”; identifies objects when named.
3 years old — Enjoys imaginative play with others; takes turns in conversation; responds to questions; uses longer sentences; follows two- to three-step instructions; uses speech that is understood most of the time.
Source: Marcus Autism Center
WHAT IS ASPERGER’S?
Asperger’s is a disorder that involves delays in the development of basic skills, such as socializing with others, communication and the ability to use imagination. The exact cause of Asperger’s is not known, but some research suggests it may be hereditary.
Common symptoms of Asperger’s
— Difficulty interacting with others and making friends; awkwardness in social settings.
— Eccentric or repetitive behaviors, such as hand wringing or finger twisting.
— Preoccupations or rituals they (particularly children) refuse to alter, such as getting dressed in a specific way.
— Difficulty making eye contact when speaking with someone, difficulty in using facial expressions and gestures and understanding body language. People with Asperger’s struggle to understand language in context and tend to take things literally.
— Children sometimes develop obsessive interests in a few areas, such as maps, weather, letters and numbers.
— Coordination problems.
— Many children and adults with Asperger’s are exceptionally gifted in a particular area, such as music or math.
Source: Web MD