Autism awareness, what does this really mean? Logos, colors and symbols that represent autism awareness are prevalent during the month of April. People equate the symbols with the autism spectrum. However, being aware that autism exists and comprehending what the autism spectrum is composed of, the challenges faced by families, children and adults who live with autism 12 months out of the year is a totally different and pressing issue.
By Harold Reitman, M.D.
I’ve never forgotten the day my mother, Evelyn Goldberg Reitman, told her nine-year-old youngest son as she was pumping gas at the family gas station in Jersey City, “You have a moral obligation to work up to your full potential with the gifts that G-d has given you, to help yourself, your family, your friends, and those less fortunate. And to have a good time doing it.” She always emphasized the last part, and added, “Never lose your sense of humor.”
Everyone called her Ev, and through her example, I became an avid reader at a young age. In time, one of my favorite writers would be Erma Bombeck, whose newspaper columns and books focused on the lighter side of suburban home life. While the suburbs were not Jersey City, Erma reminded me of my mom in many ways. First of all, she offered true pearls of wisdom wrapped in humor. And like my mom, Erma was ahead of her time – a more than equal member of the household, a well read working woman who could more than hold her own in conversations with educated men. Not surprisingly, both women were early proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment.
I’ve never forgotten Ev’s words, “Never lose your sense of humor.” So this morning, as I’m re-reading my favorite Erma Bombeck piece, why am I crying? It’s because as I struggle to understand neurodiversity through Different Brains, the experience of it becomes more poignant by the day. So I’m going to share with you, for your reading pleasure and inspiration, one of Erma Bombeck’s all-time classic articles.
In memory of my wonderful mother Ev, who passed away in 1986.
“The Special Mother” by Erma Bombeck
Did you ever wonder how mothers of disabled children were chosen?
Somehow I visualize God hovering over the earth selecting his instruments of propagation with great care and deliberation. As He observes, He instructs His angels to make notes in a giant ledger.
“This one gets a daughter. The Patron saint will be Cecelia”
“This one gets twins. The Patron saint will be Matthew”
“This one gets a son. The Patron saint… give her Gerard.
He’s used to profanity” Finally He passes a name to an angel and smiles.
“Give her a disabled child”. The angel is curious. “Why this one God? She’s so happy”
“Exactly,” smiles God. “Could I give a disabled child to a mother who does not know laughter? That would be cruel!”
“But has she patience?” asks the angel.
“I don’t want her to have too much patience or she will drown in a sea of sorrow and despair. Once the shock and resentment wears off, she’ll handle it. I watched her today, she has that feeling of self and independence that is so necessary in a mother. You see, the child I’m going to give her has her own world. She has to make her live in her world and that’s not going to be easy.”
“But Lord, I don’t think she even believes in you”
God smiles, “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect – she has just enough selfishness”
The angel gasps – “Selfishness? is that a virtue?”
God nods. “If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally she won’t survive. Yes here is a woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn’t realize it yet, but she is to be envied. She will never take for granted a ‘spoken word’. She will never consider any ‘step’ ordinary. When her child says “Momma” for the first time she will be present at a miracle and will know it. I will permit her to see clearly the things I see… ignorance, cruelty and prejudice…and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be at her side every minute of every day of her life because she is doing my work as surely as if she is here by my side”
“And what about her Patron saint?” asks the angel, his pen poised in midair.
God smiles… “A mirror will suffice.”
Different Brains® Inc. founder Harold “Hackie” Reitman, M.D. is an author, filmmaker, retired orthopedic surgeon, former professional heavyweight boxer, the past chairman and president (and current board member) of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, and a neurodiversity advocate. However, it was his role as a father that led to the creation of the DifferentBrains.org website.
Hackie’s daughter Rebecca grew up with epilepsy, 23 vascular brains tumors, and underwent 2 brain surgeries before the age of 5. Her struggles and recovery put him on the road to, through 26 professional heavyweight boxing matches, raising money for children’s charities (to which he donated every fight purse).
Rebecca eventually went on to graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Discrete Mathematics, and Dr. Reitman wrote and produced a film based on her experiences there (The Square Root of 2, starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s Scandal). After graduation, Rebecca received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Hackie, shocked at his own ignorance of the topic despite being an M.D., embarked on years of research that culminated with his book Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Neurodiversity (released by HCI books, publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series).
This experience revealed to Hackie the interconnectedness of the conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, while alerting him to the in-fighting and fractured relations that often plague the organizations tasked with serving the community. Convinced that overcoming these schisms could help all of society, Hackie forged the Different Brains philosophy of inclusive advocacy: “Supporting Neurodiversity – From Autism to Alzheimer’s and All Brains In Between”.
In the company’s initial years of operation, Hackie self-financed all of the content on DifferentBrains.org, all of which offered free to view to the public. Currently he is the host of our weekly interview show Exploring Different Brains, writes blogs for the site, and tours the country speaking at conferences, conventions and private functions, all with the goal of improving the lives of neurodiverse individuals and their families, and maximizing the potential of those with different brains. Separate from Different Brains, Hackie is the founder and CEO of PCE Media, a media production company focusing on reality based content. He recently co-executive produced the documentary “Foreman”, the definitive feature documentary on legendary boxer and pitchman George Foreman.