COLUMBIA — For years, Dustin Hoffman’s performance as a misunderstood genius in the 1988 movie "Rain Man" has captured the public's imagination about autism.
It’s true that people with autism are often misunderstood, said Joel Bregman, the new director of MU's Thompson Center. But Bregman, 59, said that "Rain Man" revealed something that people often overlook.
"What is most perplexing is that someone can be so gifted in one area such as memory and mathematical calculation," Bregman said, "yet so lacking in one of the most fundamental areas."
That area, he said, is "social intelligence."
Dec. 1 will be Bregman's first day as the executive director of the Thompson Center, MU’s facility for clinical care, professional training, and research in autism and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Bregman's work begins three days before the grand opening of a new $5 million center at 205 Portland St. With state-of-the-art equipment, the new center boasts integrated treatment, research and teaching in a setting that is family friendly. Innovations such as telehealth units allow patients and families to have greater access to doctors. Almost twice as large as the old facility, the new center has more examination and therapy rooms.
"It's difficult to find in the country," Bregman said of the center's promotion of integration and innovation.
The world of autism fascinates Bregman so much that he has spent at least 20 years treating and researching autism.
“People who have autism are not social geniuses like you and I are," Bregman said. "We tend to take for granted the social genius that we possess, yet we marvel at the achievements of a Mozart in music or an Einstein in physics.
"For example, it’s no small matter when people see a new crowd and soon observe its makeup and the reasons for its gathering, simply by listening to bits of conversations, facial expressions and gestures. This ability to observe and identify is something that even the most complex computer can’t do.
“We also understand emotions in a complex level. We can make prediction about how someone is feeling and might react to a certain situation. If you really think about it, this is incredibly difficult for people with autism who don’t have ability to do that.”
Bregman, whose annual salary at the Thompson Center will be $250,000, currently works as the director of clinical research in autism and an associate investigator for medical research at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. He also taught at Yale, Emory, and the University of Connecticut prior to that job.
The new center was not the sole reason for accepting the new position, Bregman said. He was drawn to the center's multidisciplinary approach and integration of clinical care with research and teaching to treating autism.
He was the right person for the job, said Jim Poehling, current executive director of the center.
Bregman will bring an extensive background in child psychiatry, including clinical expertise, research and academic credentials to the diagnosis and treatment of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders, Poehling said.
Poehling, who is leaving the position to begin as assistant vice chancellor of health sciences at the MU, said Bregman's recruitment "represents the next evolutionary phase of the center.”
“He was selected because he clearly shared the center’s vision for service to children and families, and he represents an ideal combination of skills that match our threefold mission of teaching, research, and clinical service," Poeling said.
Bregman grew up in New Jersey and graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University and received his M.D. from Yale.
It will be the first time he and his wife, Patti Corbett-Bergman, live in Missouri, but they are aware of the dedicated Tigers' fans and the MKT Nature and Fitness trail. They're also excited to live in a college town and all the perks that come with it — vibrant arts, music and academic interest groups.
"We're very impressed with the community — the people are very warm and friendly," he said. “Columbia is a beautiful place. We look forward to learning about the Midwest.”
The public will have an opportunity to meet Bregman on Dec. 3, when the center hosts a grand opening to celebrate its new facility.