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.”
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and children’s activist. He is also a retired orthopaedic surgeon and a former professional heavyweight boxer who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2”, and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing.
Dr. Reitman is also the founder of the neurodiversity site www.DifferentBrains.com. Besides blogging, he also hosts the interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”