Health & Fitness

Fort Lauderdale doc-turned-author: All brains are different

MAKING HIS CASE: Dr. Harold ‘Hackie’ Reitman says schools and businesses need to recognize differences in the brain.
MAKING HIS CASE: Dr. Harold ‘Hackie’ Reitman says schools and businesses need to recognize differences in the brain. THE MIAMI HERALD

With a voice that could easily be mistaken for Robert De Niro portraying a charming wise guy, Harold “Hackie” Reitman, M.D., is a man of contradictions.

He is at once, the brilliant orthopedic surgeon and former Golden Gloves professional heavyweight champion who famously fought 26 bouts from 1989 to 2002, (13 wins, seven losses, six draws and 11 knockouts) only to give all the proceeds to children’s organizations, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Likened to the character Forrest Gump, Reitman has known a long list of legends in sports, medicine, business and entertainment. He recalls heavyweight champions from Joe Louis to Mike Tyson, and has been in a corner with the legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. He counts among his friends Tim Van Patten, director of the iconic HBO dramas The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

Reitman, who no longer practices medicine, has turned movie producer, director and most recently, author. His message: The sooner the world recognizes neurodiversity, and modifies how schools and businesses view diverse ways of thinking, the better off society will be. Neurodiversity is the idea that atypical wiring of the brain is a human difference like any other, and should be respected and understood.

“The big message I’m trying to get out is that all of our brains are different,” he says, seated in the Fort Lauderdale office of his production company, PCE Media LLC. “If you start adding up the numbers of people with OCD, ADHD, one in 58 kids with autism, people with Asperger’s syndrome, one in five Americans on anti-anxiety medications, depression, bi-polar. Guess what? The so-called neurotypicals, or nypicals as they’re called, are in the minority.”

Reitman will discuss his book, Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity, at 6:30 p.m. April 27 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.

Reitman wrote the book with his daughter Rebecca Reitman, 32, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and tutors learning-challenged students in math, and Pati Fizzano, an Exceptional Student Educator (ESE) in Boca Raton, who has mentored Rebecca and many other people with learning differences. Rebecca graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009 with a degree in discrete mathematics, and is working on a master’s in applied psychology at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

“Brains are like snowflakes…no two are alike,” Rebecca has said.

Reitman recognizes that his brain is not typical. As a kid, he says he had a “problem with authority” and was expelled twice, despite excellent grades. He has difficulty focusing on everyday tasks, but he was obsessed with medicine, which he says ultimately made him a leader in the field. Tech companies like Google and Apple have recognized the value of “hyper-interests” in hiring, he says.

Just as it has been important for society to embrace differences in race, culture, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, neurodiversity is another step toward a more tolerant, productive society, Reitman argues.

“As long as everybody’s being nice, it’s cool, but that’s where it gets tough, because we have not modified our school system and our workplace to recognize that one size does not fit all. It just doesn’t.”

In Aspertools, Reitman refers to anyone with these neurological symptoms as an “Aspie.” Rather than diagnosing all people with learning differences with Asperger’s, he instead uses the term to represent individuals who can identify with some or all symptoms highlighted in the book. Chapters also include an action plan, plus advice from Fizzano and Rebecca.

Reitman says he had no idea his daughter Rebecca had Asperger’s until she was an adult, and their relationship suffered because of his lack of understanding. Today, he says, his knowledge and willingness to put what he knows into practice has strengthened their bond.

One of the experts he says he is learning from is Michael Rizzo, Ph.D., a psychologist who has worked with children with neurological and learning differences in South Florida for 25 years. Rizzo, who is also dyslexic, is director of clinical and educational services at Child Provider Specialists, which has seven locations in South Florida, including Weston and South Miami.

“About 15 percent of kids don’t learn like other kids. They’ve typically just struggled and been ridiculed and felt inferior,” he says.

The book, he says, can be a teaching tool for people who are not professionals, but want to understand the symptoms and issues better.

“The people who are moving this field are either people who have experienced it personally or have a kid who has experienced it. I personally had severe learning disabilities in the ‘60s when I was in elementary school, and nobody knew it. They just called me weird or mental or said I had a piece missing. I got in trouble every day, and it was just so brutal to get through school. It’s a cliché, but the idea that one size doesn’t fit all is just so profoundly on target.”

Rizzo says an important takeaway from the book, is the reality that people with spectrum disorders have multiple challenges.

“They don’t happen in isolation,” he says. “You don’t just have Asperger’s — you have Asperger’s with a non-verbal learning disability, with ADHD or OCD. Sixty percent of kids who have so-called ADHD also have dyslexia. These things come in clusters. People tend to just want to treat one … the learning problem or the reading problem, the OCD, but they’re all linked. You have to kind of treat all the symptom clusters.”

While Reitman is arguably a showman, he stepped into the boxing ring after a nearly 20-year absence, became an author, a movie maker and documentary film maker because he was inspired by his daughter. When Rebecca survived brain surgery at age 3, Reitman says he made a deal with God that he would climb back in the ring and raise money and awareness about issues affecting children and the elderly.

His decision to write the book, along with his inspiration for the movie The Square Root of 2, which he wrote, produced and co-directed, also came from his Rebecca’s struggles to cope and get an education. A release date has not been set for the film starring Darby Stanchfield, who plays Abby, on the hit ABC television series Scandal, but a documentary companion to the book will be released later this year.

Meanwhile, Rebecca is doing what she enjoys, helping kids who struggle as she once did, and with great success. Do they know she has Asperger’s?

“ABSOLUTELY! I find once they understand they feel the real connection,” she says, responding by email. She also has high hopes for Aspertools.

“I hope this book will help all the Aspies to be accepted by the nypicals. I want them to understand the Aspies. Have patience with the Aspies. Learn the different Aspertools from the book… and most importantly, to understand that the Aspies have given so much to our society, so don’t ignore the Aspies. Accept them and learn from them.”

If you go

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman will discuss his book, Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity at 6:30 p.m. April 27 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables. The event is free.