By Hackie Reitman, M.D.
It had been a long, rainy day of grey skies by the time I parked outside the Wyndham Hotel in Boca Raton, FL, and I was running on fumes. But, tonight was the President’s Reception for the 2016 Lynn University Transitions Conference, and as with all the scheduled speakers, I had been invited to attend. When I walked in to the room where the event was being held, I was immediately transformed by the positive mood filling the place. Everywhere I looked was a smiling face, and I couldn’t help but join in. That’s what I love about the many neurodiversity events of which I’ve been part.
I immediately grabbed a Miller Lite beer, and got into a conversation with a group of 3 nice young guys. One was in a blue suit, the others a bit more casually dressed. They all looked to be in their late 30s. One was Trevor Grafflin, a Lynn academic coach originally from England, specializing in working with individual and nontraditional learners. We got to talking about his previous soccer career. Another was the executive director of Lynn’s Institute for Achievement and Learning, Shaun Exsteen, originally from South Africa and also with a soccer history.
It wasn’t long though before my previous career as a pro heavyweight boxer came up. When it came time for pictures to be taken, the guy in the suit and I posed like we were squaring off in the ring, laughing. I asked him what he did, and he just smiled. But the other 2 guys said “he’s the president of this University.” So, that’s how I met Kevin Ross, the president of Lynn University.
After the pictures were done, we dropped our fists and he told me about his vision, and the mission of Lynn. That mission is to make sure that all students, whether traditional learners or nontraditional learners, have a chance. That people from any walk of life should have the ability to succeed, and that the University strived to be the place where the building blocks to that success were laid. The sincerity and dedication of Kevin Ross and his colleagues came though loud and clear. That’s leadership. And that is what this conference– Lynn University’s Transitions 2016– is all about. It is an exciting, one-day conference helping university bound students with learning differences smoothly transition from high school to higher education. The idea is to inspire, energize and empower. We can all use some of that.
The Lynn mission is very near to my heart as well, and as I mingled around the reception I was finding that all of these wonderful people were equally committed to it. There was Kirsten Milliken, a truly unique, upbeat and hilarious person that not only specializes in ADHD, but has it and uses it to develop her unique treatments. She wears one of her trademark hats, and maintains that ADHD is helped greatly by having fun. There was Ronnie Aronow, a college transition coach who has helped a staggering amount of uniquely gifted students through her company Supporting Success, LLC. There was Michelle Ramsey of the College Intern Progra , who has dedicated her life to giving assistance to making sure students get the most out of their educational experiences. There was Michael Delman, founder and CEO of Beyond BookSmart, who travels the country coaching students. And there was Lynn University’s own Peggy Peterson, who did a Herculean feat bringing all of these experts together. The list goes on and on– there were so many that when I left, I was riding on a rush of positive inspiration.
Despite the early start to the next day, that rush was still with me when I arrived at the actual Conference. The crowd was estimated at 600 people, and as I greeted the other speakers , the various attendees, professionals , the enlightened parents and students in attendance, it took me back to when my daughter Rebecca was starting college.
In those days, my then wife and I were totally clueless. We knew Rebecca was a bit different. She had some ADHD and memory deficits probably related to her 23 vascular brain tumors. But, here she was entering a top tech college to pursue her dreams of mathematics at the highest level. At orientation, I became worried when the Dean said that it takes the average tech student 6 years to achieve their undergraduate degree. I worried more when Rebecca some weeks later informed us that on her own she had requested accommodations for her ‘disabilities’. “What disabilities?” this clueless parent wondered.
The conference opened with a truly inspiring keynote by a fascinating character named Tim Clue. He began life challenged with ADHD and dyslexia, but has grown in to a talented comedian and playwright. He entertained while teaching with a terrific standup routine. It was a tough act to follow, but that’s what I and several other speakers had to do, because up next were the “breakout sessions.”
These sessions– short hour long lectures on a variety of topics related to the neurodiverse transitioning in to college— were the meat of this conference, and I was leading two of them. My first was on tips for the neurodiverse to prepare for that transition, and the second was about building a team to assist the transition.
The audience for my sessions were a mix of parents, neurodiverse students who may attend the university, professional educators and specialists. Looking out over them, I felt a sense of honor and joy that I got to be up there telling them my story and, hopefully, giving them advice that will make this experience easier for them. I wished a conference like this existed when Rebecca went to college. At that time, even though I was ignorant to the diagnoses my daughter would later receive, I was filled with worry about how she would manage. Despite her confidence and abilities, I couldn’t find the reinforcement I needed.
I remembered my best friend Paul confronting me after he traveled to Atlanta to have lunch with Rebecca during one of his work trips. When he returned, he came to see me, grabbed me by my collar, and shouted, “What is wrong with you? Why are you throwing Rebecca to the wolves? She doesn’t have the tools to survive there.”
But survive she did. Rebecca became one of only nine women to earn her discrete mathematics degree the year of her graduation.
My second session of the day was about teamwork, and that’s a lot of what I was seeing fostered around me. The “team” I discuss encompasses everyone that a neurodiverse person can benefit from— friends to educators to specialists and beyond. But always at the core of that should be the parents. Through this reflective day, I recognized part of the reason for that is so the parents can benefit from the team as well. Whether a parent is clueless, in denial, a complete mess (like I was), or even if they are aware and prepared, a child going off to college is scary, especially if their brains are a little bit different. Knowing there is a team– including a university that is understanding and supportive—can make all the difference. Sometimes to support your child, you need a little support yourself.
It has been a true honor for me, a relative Johnny-come-lately to neurodiversity, to be allowed the opportunity to connect with all these amazing people. I have confidence that what Lynn University stands for—that every student should succeed and maximize their potential—is entirely feasible. Not just because of the support of the University and the experts it has given them access to, but because they are going in to it with knowledge, and with parents that are aware and supporting their children’s unique talents.
I see this as not just something happening in our universities though, but as a sea change beginning to ripple through all of society. Awareness of neurodiversity has to spread for the good of ALL of us. When I look at the faces of the audience for this event, I have faith that this will happen. That these kids, just now beginning their college experiences, will grow to be the leaders of society that, through their own experiences and challenges, will come to value everyone despite the differences in our brain. As Temple Grandin has said: “different, not less.”
I want to end this piece by making sure that you, the reader, know about all of the great experts and organizations that took part in the Lynn University Transitions Conference…
Ronni Aronow, M.A., M.S. : Ronni is a college transition coach and founder of Supporting Success, LLC (http://www.supporting-success.com/about-ronni/)
Tim Clue: Tim is challenged by dyslexia and ADHD, a humorous motivational speaker, and team builder https://www.timclue.com/
Diane DiCerbo, M.Ed.: Diane has been at Lynn University for over 31 years where she is the director of academic advising and assistant professor of mathematics (http://www.lynn.edu/about-lynn/campus-directory/DDicerbo)
Michael Delman: Michael is a Massachusetts Distinguished Educator who is the founder and CEO of Beyond BookSmart (http://www.beyondbooksmart.com/executive-function-coach-team-bios)
Laurie Dupar, PMHNP, RN, PCC: Laurie is a trained psychiatric nurse practitioner and runs a company called Coaching for ADHD (http://www.coachingforadhd.com/)
Stacey Hearn, M.S., M.Ed., BCC, ATCP: Stacey is Lynn University’s ADA specialist and senior academic coach (http://www.lynn.edu/about-lynn/campus-directory/SHearn)
Maggie Katz: Maggie is a speaker, author and expert on the challenges students face when transitioning from high school to college (http://cipworldwide.org/portfolio/maggie-dillon-katz/)
Cari Kenner, Ph.D.: Cari teaches courses in college reading and study strategies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota (https://www.stcloudstate.edu/alc/staff.asp)
Melissa Knight, M.A., BCC, PCC – Melissa Knight holds a Master of Arts in psychology, has over 15 years of experience in higher education, and has coached high school and college students since 2006 (https://www.adhdcoaches.org/profile/melissa-knight/)
Kirsten Milliken, Ph.D., ACC – Kirsten Milliken is a dynamic and unique clinical psychologist (ADHD) who lives and works in the Portland, Maine, area (http://2016.napo.net/program/speakers/kirsten-milliken-phd-acc)
Luis Pérez, Ph.D., M.Ed. – Luis Pérez received his doctorate in special education and a master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of South Florida (https://about.me/luisfperez)
Michele Ramsay, Ed.D. – Michele Ramsay is an enthusiastic speaker and teacher, and received her doctorate in educational leadership and teaching from Walden University (http://cipworldwide.org/portfolio/michele-ramsay/)
Michael Rizzo, Ph.D., ABSNP – For more than 25 years, Michael Rizzo (aka Coach Mike) has worked with children–and their families–whom struggle with social, emotional, behavioral, and/or academic difficulties (http://www.childproviderspecialists.org/dr_rizzo.htm)
Jessica Rothschild, B.S. – Jessica Rothschild has worked in transition services and special education for approximately 10 years (https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessica-rothschild)
Terri Shermett, M.Ed. – Terri Shermett has over 20 years of experience in special education and comes to CLE from the School Board of Broward County ESE Department (http://experiencecle.com/2013/05/terri-shermett-named-new-director-for-college-living-experience-fort-lauderdale/)
Linda Hampton Starnes, B.S. – Linda Hampton Starnes graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in both special and elementary education from the University of Tennessee and received graduate certification in training and development from Gerorgetown University (http://www.parenteducationalnetwork.com/linda-s.html)
DeShawn Wert, M.Ed., B.S. – DeShawn Wert learned that ADHD can affect adults as well as children when she was diagnosed with the disorder late in life (http://2016.napo.net/program/speakers/deshawn-wert-bs-med)
Catherine Wharton, M.A. – Catherine Wharton, director of Lynn University’s Diagnostic Center for Educational Assessment, joined the Institute for Achievement and Learning in 2006 (http://www.lynn.edu/about-lynn/campus-directory/CWharton)
Breakthrough Learning/Straight A’s Are Not Enough Author – From author of Straight A’s Are Not enough, also comes Breakthrough Learning. Breakthrough Learning is an innovative study skillset for college students. (www.judyfishel.com)
CIP: College Intern Program – CIP Prepares young adults with autism and LD for success, and has been since 1984. Also offer summer programs and active learning/participatory workshops. (www.cipbrevard.org , www.cipworldwide.org )
CLE: College Living Experience – Provides post-secondary supports to young adults with varying disabilities. CLE supports are tailored to each young person they serve. (www.ExperienceCLE.com)
Conservatory Prep Schools – Their schools are designed to meet the needs of gifted and creative students who are not meeting their potential in a traditional school setting. (www.conservatoryprep.org)
International ADHD Coach Training Center – is an online coach training program that prepares its graduates to confidently coach persons with ADHD and create coaching businesses that are profitable and sustainable. (www.IACTCenter.com)
Laurie Dupar: Coaching for ADHD – An ADHD coach will help you better understand your brain style, appreciate your strengths and your weaknesses and work with you to design individual/specific strategies so you can better manage your challenges and get things done. (Her website/contact info also seems to support the teaching of individuals to BECOME ADHD coaches as well as being coached. (www.CoachingForADHD.com)
Lessons 4 Learning, Lessons 4 Life – Executive function and life skills, including tutoring, workshops, and a digital resource center for schools and families. (www.L4LSkills.com )
Vita-DMF: A project of the Dan Marino Foundation – VITA, The Virtual Interactive Training Agent, is a state-of-the-art software developed by the Dan Marino Foundation (DMF) in partnership with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. VITA was created to address a major hurdle to successfully gaining and maintaining employment. (www.VITADMF.org)
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.