Autism and Hyperinterests with The Buddy Project’s Eric Zimmerman | EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS Episode 15


In this episode, Hackie Reitman, M.D. interviews Eric Zimmerman, founder of The Buddy Project and author of “Anything But Ordinary,” along with Eric’s friend Shawn Jenkins. Eric discusses the Buddy Project’s mission of refurbishing computers for the use of the handicapped, his own experiences being someone on the autism spectrum, and the importance of embracing hyperinterests.

To learn more about Eric’s work, please visit his website: www.TheBuddyProject.net

 

Eric’s new e-book, “Anything But Ordinary,” can be purchased on amazon here: here.

 

16 Second Preview:

 

To listen or download the podcast version of this episode, see the embedded player below.

Or look for us on your favorite podcast provider:

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

 

 

View Full Transcript

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Hello, there! I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and you’re listening to Exploring Different Brains. Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains and we have a couple of different brains for you here today. We have Eric Zimmerman and we have Shaun Jenkins who’s with him here today too. Eric, tell us how this whole thing got started. Come on, tell them about yourself.

Eric Zimmerman (EZ)

As far as the Buddy Project?

HR

Absolutely, tell us about the Buddy Project.

EZ

Oh, I started the Buddy Project back in 2007 when I was working for a nonprofit that’s actually just based a little south of here, Best Buddies International. We take computers, we rehab them and put them in homes of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mostly working with people with developmental disabilities.

HR

And what year did you start doing that?

EZ

2007.

HR

2007. How’s it going?

EZ Last eight years have been interesting, I, at first, when I started the organization I thought we were really going to do that work with individuals and make money off a grant, but that wasn’t so–that didn’t happen the way I would like it. Instead, we kind of had to diverse into different ways of getting money, such as we sell computers, we created something called Old Farm Computer, where we sell computers to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a computer–but that doesn’t qualify for our program. They don’t have a disability.

HR

So you have two different companies, you have a not-for-profit or a for-profit?

EZ

They are both non-profit. It’s just the one that is a brand underneath the buddy project called Old Farm Computer, we take these computers–all different types–refurbish them and we sell them to make money for the Buddy Project.We buy parts for other computers, pay for business expenses and what-not, fees–so we’re able to, at the same time, offer someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a new computer, something that’s just as nice as a new computer, at the same time while helping the Buddy Project.

And so we started doing that about five years ago and–you know, we–we’re still not–we have a lot of issues with growing pains. And I didn’t think of that when I started the organization, I thought it was going to be smooth sailing, and so I–its been issues as far as keeping funding coming in, we’re only a $25,000 organization a year, I think we might have just hit the $25,000 mark. And so I’m with disability–I don’t like to always volunteer that info, but I’m on disability and I make very little through the Buddy Project. Right now, we’re based out of my parents house and they’re–I’m lucky enough that they let me run the business out of their house–

HR

Well, listen. Steve Jobs started in a garage with wires, you guys are starting. It’s not how you start the game, it’s how you finish.

EZ

Yeah, we need to start a capital fund where we’re going to get money to get it building–because we need to do that. My parents are aging and–but we’ve helped people through special needs come into recycle with us–taking computers apart we can no longer use, put them in computers we can, and it helps get them get job skills. A lot of these individuals are otherwise–they haven’t been able to get jobs elsewhere, so they’re able to come and at least get something on their resume and interact with other people.

HR

So let’s back up a little bit. Before you started the Buddy Project to help all of these other people, you, yourself were diagnosed with Asperger’s?

EZ

Yes, I was diagnosed rather late–I was diagnosed in high school with having Asperger’s. I was diagnosed–I had a very turbulent childhood. I’m actually on a speaking tour talking about my childhood and how–because autism wasn’t really known as much so back when I was a child. I’m 28 years old, so when I was late–when I was a little child it wasn’t really known, and so they diagnosed me with having ADD.

And having all of these other things, which, yeah, I might have–obsessive compulsive disorder, I have a really bad anxiety disorder, but–all of the other things, it just kind of didn’t–they didn’t know that I was on the spectrum, so it took actually until I’ve seen a certain doctor and his wife worked with a lot of the kids on the spectrum, and he is like I really want you to talk to my wife. He was kind of the old-fashioned psychiatrist where he would also do therapy–and so him and I would just sit around and talk for an hour and then he would give me my prescriptions, but after all of the things I would tell him, and all of my obsessive interests in the things and my knowledge in the things, and a lot of the social issues I have, you really need to talk to my wife.

So I left my therapist for like seven years at the time and went and spoke to his wife, and she was very helpful, she was able to help me with a lot of things and say, ‘Yeah, you know, you’re definitely on the spectrum,’ and later on I was also–had officially diagnosed by the state of Maryland as having that–I had to go through special testing with–you know, from a psychologist and they charge an arm and a leg for it, but in order to get so many services I did get, I had to go and do that. HR Now you’ve got some speaking engagements down here in Florida?

EZ

Tomorrow I’m at the Arc of Broward County.

HR

They’re a great organization.

EZ

Yeah, I’ve been in contact with them. I–I get around the entire country. Last year, I spoke at UC Davis, I was at the Wharton School for Business in Philadelphia, up in Massachusetts speaking with the Arc up there, and locally, with Frederick Marilyn, I’ve worked with the arc of Frederick county–and me and my organization work with them in different ways as far as we–I got work with–we have like an awareness campaign for people with developmental disabilities–they get out and talk to local schools to the neurotypical students who might be candidates for bullying these individuals, so we go out and we speak to them and tell them about autism. And to tell them about, you know, how these kids–what it’s like through their eyes and the issues they have and just creates awareness and acceptance. We get out and talk about the issues I had in high school, where making friends and what not, and so we do that around Frederick County public school system, and we also work with the arc, a lot of their individuals will come and volunteer with us a lot of their–the people that they do keeps management for, and we have also recently started IT A+ certification curriculum.

HR

Now what is your own educational background, Eric?

EZ

Well, my own education–I went to school formally to become a computer technician, everything was done in high school. And then I got involved with the non-profit Best Buddies. I kind of just fell in love with the organization, I felt at home and I ended up, long story short, I can talk all day about it, but I ended up getting a job in the Baltimore office and it was through a lot of persistence that just wouldn’t go away, so they finally hired me, and I took a special interest in non-profit development and basically I learned kind of how to run a non-profit. So while I was working there, and I thought I was going to work there for my entire life, and I thought I would eventually move down to Miami and work with them at headquarters, but while I was working there I did a lot of like database entry, a lot of the membership applications we would have do them. And noticed a lot of the people we served didn’t have adequate access to technology, or they’re slower learners or they have different barriers, and so at the time, they had to share a computer with their parents or their siblings and they weren’t getting the time they needed to really use the computer.

And then, the older individuals were in group homes or living by themselves and couldn’t afford a computer. So I’ve seen a lot of these computers being thrown out and what not, I see them on Craig’s List, people are just throwing stuff out, and I love–I love working in IT I love working with my hands and I love the non-profit field and working with people with special needs, and so I have a passion for it, so I thought, why not come up with this idea where I take these computers that are otherwise going to be thrown out. They are perfectly good, you know, people are getting rid of–we refurbish them, put windows on them and put them out in the homes of people with special needs. And so I started doing that, I came up with the organization name, got a logo together, got some people to serve on the board, and so at that point it was kind of on the backburner. And recession was kind of going on and I was laid off from my job at Best Buddies up in Baltimore, and I was like well what am I going to do? At the point, I was already on disability, so I was no rush to go, and I lived with my parents, so there was no rush to go, “Oh I need a job right now.”

But I was thinking, what am I going to do? Am I going to move to another office within Best Buddies? I actually had an opportunity for a job down here and, you know, I was thinking of what I was going to do. So I decided, well I had this idea, over new years and Christmas 2007, and I had this idea, I had the Buddy Project here just on the back burners, why not just run with this? It’s been–running the organization has been very–we’ve helped many people in many different ways over the years, in so many different ways, and I really enjoy what I do. Someone actually once asked me that, and I was like yeah, I still wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it–it’s just a lot of funding has been the issue, because you can’t–we are volunteers for everything. And then funding’s been an issue and then just general growth issues with growth.

HR

So you speak around the country also?

EZ

Yeah, so that is part of the program, we started doing that about a year ago. People always told me you should go talk about what you do, you should go talk to others and so I have a special interest in going to the support groups–autism support groups around the country and talking to the parents of individuals who have just been diagnosed.

HR

Now how do our viewers who are interested in getting in touch with you, how do they get in touch with you?

EZ

Well, you can learn more about thebuddyproject.net. You can also contact me–my business email, which is also my personal email, I use that more than anything, is ericzimmerman@thebuddyproject.net.

HR

Thebuddyproject.net is the main website?

EZ

Yeah, yeah. And then also I have websites of my speaking tours; right now I am coming out with an eBook next month called anything but ordinary, and it just talks about my life so far and how I’ve lived it in different ways, and I’ve never let people tell me no, and I’ve always pursued what I want. I talk about getting my job with Best Buddies to creating this organization, to I was talking to you about the OR, how I have interest in surgery–I just–with my IT interest, I am just fascinated with the OR. I don’t think people quite understand in the hospital why I’m so interested in this. But it took me–I worked at the hospital for four years between a volunteer and an employee. I worked like one day a week. The money didn’t really matter when I was paid because it was so little, but I enjoyed it and I made a lot of friends. It took me 3 years, or about two and a half years of talking to the OR nurse manager for her to finally sit down and talk to me. I would email her–I’ve never met her–but I would email her like every six months and I would say, “Yeah, I want to do this job called OR processor, where I basically just turn in rooms, and get in patients prepping patients,” and very menial job, but I wanted to get in I wanted to get my foot in the door.

HR

Let me tell you, there’s no menial job in the Operating room. They’re all important; it’s a whole team effort in there.

EZ

I really wanted to get in the door doing that, and I was willing to do it for free, but of course for insurance regulations you have to be an employee, and so–but no one was–they would not really talk to me about it. I really didn’t get to meet them. So every six months I would contact them and they would be like, Oh, we don’t have any money in the budget, or we don’t have anything right now, or sometimes she would just ignore me. And then, so I would take her candy–I would take candy to her office–I still didn’t get a chance to meet her because she wouldn’t be there but I would take her candy every once in awhile, and finally, I told her, I said, “Well, I know that you don’t have a job opening or are not able to do this for me right now but is there anything I can do in your department right now?” And so she says when can you come in and talk to me? And so I made an appointment to go talk to her, and she said, “Your persistence just got to me,” and she thought I wanted to take a full-time job as OR processor, but I’m not able to because of both running my non-profit and some personal things such as a disability funding–I want to get off of it, but it’s just–

HR

Well you have disabilities, it’s hard.

EZ

Yeah, they make it–it’s very difficult the way the system is set up. And so I–but no, I told her I would want to do it like eight hours or what ever, and she said they had no jobs open like that right now, but she put me over with the serial processing unit in the operating room where I would learn the instruments, and that was very fascinating. I kind of want to learn more about surgical IT and learn about the robots and what not.

HR

Yeah, well it’s interesting stuff, you know? There’s a lot of similarities between IT technology and the operating room because they both have to kind of be exact; there’s not a lot of room for being a little bit off. You can’t do it. Now, when you travel, your traveling buddy is Shaun, huh?

EZ

Yeah, that’s my traveling buddy, Shaun.

HR

So Shaun Jenkins. We were talking earlier and you’re saying you’re probably on the spectrum too.

SHAWN JENKINS (SJ)

Yeah, you know–when I was in college they figured out that I had ADD really bad and my current therapist, she says I probably have ADD and ADHD, even though it’s not represented by rapid movement.

EZ

He’s definitely special. If you hang out with us–he’s definitely not a neurotypical.

HR

Well, I don’t know who is. I haven’t met many neurotypicals, but we’re all–I think we’re all on a spectrum, not just an autism spectrum. But just a wide spectrum, and everybody’s got different traits–usually a bunch of them–no matter what you are. Even in the so-called neurotypicals, I mean 1 in 5 Americans is on prescription anti-anxiety medications, 1 in 13 Americans has PTSD, and then you’ve got 1 in 47 over the age of three now who have some form of autism, 1 in 68 births, and then dyslexia is big. You know , in fact–some of the people I’m meeting from all over the world–in other countries, dyslexia is like huge. I’m sure it’s much bigger here. Now what we like to do, also on Exploring Different Brains, is you have the benefit of a very rich life’s experience; traveling the country, you have a non-profit, The Buddy Project (thebuddyproject.net)–and you’re doing great things for other people, you’re rebuilding computers, you’re getting them into the special needs home, and doing so much. We like to give a few tips people can really use, like stuff like, “You know what really helped me?” What might that be? What might you tell our audience listening, someone whose brain is a little bit different. Kind of a couple of tips, if you would?

EZ

Be yourself. It’s–I’ve had a lot of issues socially, especially with communication with people. I can’t read people very well–so, you know, if you have a question about someone, ask them. Don’t assume I guess. As far as other things go, if you need help with something, ask for it. You’ve got to be persistent and speak for yourself and advocate, and that’s kind of what I talk about–how important it is to talk and advocate for yourself and get what you need; not what you want but what you need to be successful.

HR

Well, that sounds like that song, can’t always get what you want but you get what you need.

EZ

Yeah, I mean–it’s–I’ve definitely had an interesting life so far, I’ve seen so many different things as far as the social aspect of just seeing life issues–a lot of people are judgmental, and that’s one thing I see in the world–even very close to me, a lot of people are judgmental, and just almost everyone I run into, and basically I just love everyone and accept everyone for their differences.

HR

Now, let me ask you this–March 4th, I’m very proud that we’re giving the first ever neurodiversity lectures to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, and because I, as an orthopedic surgeon got like zero training in neurodiversity, and the good people at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons read the Aspertools book, on Aspergers, autism and neurodiversity, and they said, you know, we’re going to have you come talk to our patient communication skills group who go in and mentor many of the residencies and medical schools. And in speaking to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, I wondered if you would have any tips for orthopedic surgeons on treating the neurodiverse, autistic or Asperger’s or person whose brain is a bit different, what advice would you have for orthopedic surgeons?

EZ

Well, for actually any physician in general, the advice I have, a lot of people who have autism have anxiety, or they have issues, especially more severe autism, they have lots of issues with communication and understanding based off what’s going on. SO basically be aware of that. I’m high functioning and I have been to surgeons or physicians who are both in medicine and surgery, and they would want to do a procedure–a minor–a procedure on me and check for something, and they would usually do it in the office, and I was like no, I can’t do that. You’re not going to be successful with this. And they just don’t really care, they just think it’s overkill that makes them uncomfortable. So, for me, I feel they really need to listen to the patient and understand the patient as a whole, and that’s what I think–I don’t think a lot of physicians always do that.

HR

I’m also going to be speaking in Chicago to the Special Care Dentistry Association; and you, whose brain is a little bit different, you have Asperger, you have anxiety–there’s a reason I made anxiety the first chapter in Aspertools–

EZ

Yeah, I have to go to the operating room. And that’s one reason I’ve been fascinated and learned about the operating room, because I had to go to the operating room for such small things, because I would need to be anesthetized, for such a small thing. HR Is there any way a dentist could treat you without taking you to the operating room?

EZ

Well that’s became a big thing recently as you know, is a specialty of working with people with autism in dentistry. Up in Frederick where I live, we have a dentist who actually goes to the operating room and actually works with kids with autism. For me, it’s really strange. I’ve never had–I enjoy getting my teeth cleaned, I don’t know–I just like the feeling of it, though sometimes it hurts a little bit. But if I have to have a cavity, which I’ve never really had, then at that point I would have to go to the operating room.

HR

Tell us why. Because from my perspective, I think it’s multi-factorial–I think that in retrospect, the people I treated, who I did not know were on the spectrum, the young patient who would be screaming when you just took a cast-cutter–and I didn’t realize the senses were hyper to sound, to vibration, to all of that. You know, the lack of preparation for them and having them come in with their family a couple of days early just to feel comfortable.

EZ

Or a lot of times even have their family member with them, which I–especially being an adult–a lot of places you go, where yeah, I would need my mother or I would need someone with me, a lot of people would say, you know, leave your mother out there, we’re going to get the IV started or do this, that’s as far as surgery goes. They don’t understand, like yeah, I need my mom and I need someone with me and–but yeah I’m very sensitive, as far as anxiety goes, I’m very sensitive to touch, I’m very sensitive yes, to noise, and that just makes my anxiety worse. And what may hurt someone to one extent can hurt me even more because I’m more sensitive.

HR

So you were just giving us some very good tips, from your point of view, for doctors and for dentists–and you know, these are some of the things, as I was writing Aspertools, the things I just never knew about. I never knew about the hypersensitivity, and all of the senses. Touch, temperature, sight, sound, smell. You name it. My daughter, Rebecca, is tutoring in an afterschool program. She tutors aspies there, and one of the teachers who was not cognizant of some of the hyper senses issues made a very pungent stew, and was heating it up in the microwave, and the smell physically got 15 out of the 30 kids physically sick where they had to go outside, whereas the neurotypical kids weren’t really bothered by it, they just smelled something. These are some of the things.

HR

What other advice would you have for the families and the neurodiverse themselves, people with Asperger’s and all different kinds of labels and their families–what advice would you have for them, Eric?

EZ

Well, the advice I would give is like everyone is different. Whether you’re on the autism spectrum or not, everyone has their own sets of issues and that basically doesn’t define you. You can go and achieve any thing you want to achieve. You may need special support or what no, but don’t let things discourage you; always go after it. And, you know, if someone says you can’t do something, show them different. Yeah, you may need some help with it, but show them different. And you’ll find success that way. When I was in my training for becoming a computer tech, I had–I actually had to utilize an aid, well they gave me the aid, I didn’t even have to say anything, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. But in the regular public schools, I was in the IEP classes and I didn’t need an aid. But in the technology center I did utilize an aid, and at one point, the instructor, who is in computer tech, took my mother and the special needs advocate and myself and just like, you know, Eric may want to look into doing something else, I don’t think he’s going to be a good computer tech; he’s not able to keep up with this. And at that–I just, I proved them wrong. And I was able to graduate and get my certificate.

HR

Well I did read something that I think was encouraging to me; I have to read it more thoroughly, but, you know, this one-size-fits-all system that we find in education and the work place, we’re not one-size-fits-all. We’re different. We’re all different. So If I have somebody who is hard of hearing like me, it doesn’t do any good if I’m deaf to just holler at me, and same token if I’m blind, it doesn’t help if you write on the blackboard, so you have to adapt. Now what I did read was, that instead of the requirement that you must take a foreign language, which is very laudable, to take a foreign language, but if your brain works a certain way where you just love computers and you love coding and you are not capable of learning another language, then now there is a movement afoot to substitute.

EZ

They did that in my county. Where I was able, if I went to the current technology center, I did not have to take a foreign language.

HR

Right, didn’t have to take a foreign language could take coding where you don’t. And it’s like in the Aspertools book, harnessing the hyper-interests. If someone has an interest, instead of saying stop talking about dinosaurs, let them become a paleontologist and make a very good living. So you’ve been able to harness your hyper interests in computers and information technology and tech, and that’s what you’re doing and you’re helping other people, and at the Buddy Project, a not-for-profit, and hopefully it will be very, very successful. Thank you for inspiring everyone today. We’ve been talking to Eric Zimmerman and Shaun Jenkins, and Eric Zimmerman is the founder of the Buddy Project. We encourage everyone to go to the website thebuddyproject.net. If you want to donate a computer that just might be laying around not doing anything, let’s recycle it in a positive way to help other people. Thank you very much Eric. And thank you Shaun.

EZ

Thank you.

SJ

Thank you.

HR

We’ve been talking to Eric Zimmerman and with Shaun Jenkins, and Eric is the founder of The Buddy Project, which you can find on the internet at thebuddyproject.net. For more information visit us at DifferentBrains.com.

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He 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” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), 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. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”
Author Image

Harold Reitman, M.D.

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He 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" (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC's "Scandal"), 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. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *