Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

‘Conundrum kids’ intrigue, bring joy to neuropsychologist

Renee Gutman, Ph.D.
Renee Gutman, Ph.D.

Renee Gutman, Ph.D., has a thriving practice as a pediatric and adolescent neuropsychologist in Tucson, but her family’s relocation from Mamaroneck, N.Y., wasn’t for professional reasons. Their 2004 move depended on finding the right Orthodox shul for her grieving father. When Gutman’s mother lay dying in her arms, her final words to her daughter were to move somewhere that her father could walk to shul. At the time, Gutman was firmly established in her practice in New York, as was her husband, Jonathan, an endodontist, in his.

But Gutman’s father, Dr. Paul Hoffert, was inconsolable for nearly five years after his wife’s death in 2000. Gutman initiated an extensive Internet search and found Congregation Chofetz Chayim, which fulfilled her mother’s request — an Orthodox shul in walking distance from an attractive neighborhood. Her father’s criterion was that it had to be somewhere “where he had never been with my mom,” says Gutman.

As Tucson beckoned, “he lit up for the first time in five years [saying], ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” she says. Hoffert lived in a Rosemont Regency condo until he died last year. “We set it up as our Shabbos home. And it still is. My father went to shul three times a day. He went to all of Rabbi [Israel] Becker’s classes,” says Gutman. “He had seven and a half magnificent years.”

Gutman expected some lag time in her career upon arriving in Tucson, but after sending announcements to local schools and getting medical referrals, her practice took off.

A 1972 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Gutman started out professionally as a second grade teacher at Maimonides Hebrew Day School in Brookline, Mass., while her husband attended Boston University Dental School. “I was fascinated with all the different learning styles the children had,” says Gutman. “Some were puzzles. When a second grade child wasn’t reading I called in her Ph.D. parents and told them, ‘I think there’s a biological piece.’”

Gutman suggested the parents take the girl, who had a lazy eye, to see a pediatrician. Although worried about their daughter, the parents thought her difficulty in school was because she didn’t want to compete with her brilliant older sister, says Gutman. “They thought it was purely psychological. I felt in my gut that there was a medical basis.”

When the younger sister learned to cover her good eye so she was able to focus and learn to read, “she was thrilled with herself,” explains Gutman. Plus, this was before learning disabilities were in the forefront. “We didn’t have that perspective that we have now.”

Starting a family gave the young teacher an opportunity to rethink her work life. “I wanted to give my children exclusive attention, full-time, for three years each,” she says, which she did with Ben, now 37, and Rachel, 34.

Gutman spoke with a career counselor at Sarah Lawrence in 1981. “I love animals so I thought about going to veterinary school but the closest one was at Cornell,” says Gutman. She found out about the new field of neuropsychology and that City University of New York had a doctoral program, and she began taking courses part-time.

Finding the perfect profession turned out to be as serendipitous as discovering Chofetz Chayim. “I went slowly until Rachel was in school,” says Gutman, who did her clinical training at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, while simultaneously completing her Ph.D. in 1990. “When I first started out I did a lot of testing for a diagnosis. Now we know there’s a lot of overlapping of diagnoses. I do a lot of work with a child to not only find out about any disabilities, I want to know their abilities, their passions, their talents, their strengths.”

With autistic children, for example, she says, “there’s a way to get a hook into these kids. They all love something. It’s so individual. That’s the beauty of having a home office. I get a feel for what kids like,” whether that means stocking up on a child’s favorite healthy snacks, working together in her art room or playing her guitar. “I make my office user- friendly. We go on nature walks. We’ve even done relay races in front of the house. I have a big mushy dog the kids love. Whatever it takes,” says Gutman, including perusing the Internet for small presents to give children after every session.

Her expertise, she says, is working with “conundrum kids.” They may have problems at home or in school. “They may be unhappy, mopey or up all night. Something is out of whack.” Her child clients may have seizure disorders, traumatic brain injuries, or a combination of neuropsychological issues.

“We know there’s neuropathology but we don’t know how that’s impacting kids in the real world,” explains Gutman. The first step is “setting up a happy, comfortable environment, which starts with a phone call. I answer the phone and talk with the parent” about the child’s developmental history, she says. “The first session is to engage the child. We just chat” with the parents present. “My preference is to not test anyone under 5, although there may sometimes be a good reason if the child isn’t talking.

“Testing is a big part of what I do. Another big part of what I do is to listen to the child,” says Gutman, recalling one child she worked with in New York. “He was socially very immature, but one of the most brilliant children I’ve worked with. He read Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and understood it, and was doing calculus” at age 6.

“If I listened to his teacher or his mother he wouldn’t have been as successful,” she notes. When Gutman asked the boy what school was like, he responded, “They give me these stupid worksheets. I don’t do them. The teacher thinks I’m a dimwit.” The child was sent to a different school, where he thrived.

Getting the big picture is all-

important to Gutman. “Nowadays ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is an acceptable diagnosis to parents. The stigma has been reduced,” Gutman told the AJP. “As a neuropsychologist with my understanding of ADHD, [I want to know], is it primary ADHD or part of something else? It may be sleep deprivation or a learning disability. It may or may not require meds. It’s all about doing a comprehensive diagnosis. Nothing is that simple.

“I worry about diagnoses that have too much charge to them. You can’t pigeonhole any individual,” she says. “A diagnosis is to help get services, [remembering] that a child still has a host of strengths. The earlier we get the big picture we’re at a good starting point.”

“My mom always said to me, ‘You would do this even if you didn’t get paid.’ Of course I would,” affirms Gutman. “Each child is so special. Each child is like a breath of fresh air.”