SSM Health studios to open skill-building, creative space for neurodivergent people

May 1, 2022

Treffert Studios therapists will use multimedia technology in treatment


When it opens in the fall, the SSM Health Treffert Studios will provide clients with autism and other neurodivergent conditions the opportunity to cultivate their talents, hone their employment skills and express themselves through blogs, v-logs and other multimedia platforms.

At the multimedia studios on the campus of a technical school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, clients of the SSM Health Treffert Center will be able to receive job and professional development training, undergo treatment and therapy, build friendships and nurture their creativity.

Grant Maniér trims package labels he will use to create art. The SSM Health Treffert Center has helped him to handle some of the challenges he has faced as a young man with autism. He's pursuing an art career, going to college and undergoing cancer treatment.

Treffert Center staff are working with the technical college to create a path for Treffert Center clients interested in taking courses and/or pursuing a degree.

The studio is the most recent expansion of programs and services developed by the SSM Health Treffert Center, which continues the work of the late Dr. Darold Treffert. A psychiatrist, Treffert gained renown for his research in autism, hyperlexia and savant syndrome, a rare condition where people with developmental conditions that may interfere with neurotypical cognition exhibit brilliance and/or outstanding skill.

Dr. Jeremy Chapman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with SSM Health Treffert Studios, tries out some costumes and accessories in the Tons of Fun Costumes shop in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Store owner Sharon Bonzelet, right, is closing the store and offered a 90% merchandise discount to Treffert Studios.

More recent research by the Treffert Center team is exploring the phenomenon of savants who gain exceptional talents and/or knowledge after incurring some sort of acquired brain injury or illness, and sudden savants who gain such talents seemingly out of nowhere without any clear inciting event.

During his clinical career, Treffert worked at facilities within Agnesian HealthCare — now part of the SSM Health Greater Fond du Lac Region. He retired in 1991 but continued his research on savants and interventions that support them in using their talents. In 2016, he worked with Agnesian HealthCare to establish the Treffert Center on the campus of Agnesian HealthCare's flagship, St. Agnes Hospital. Treffert died in 2020.

All the Treffert Center programs and facilities are grounded in the concept that people with developmental and other neurodivergent conditions very often have abilities that should be explored and nurtured.


The programs' staff advocates that society become more inclusive of people who are different. Meg Puddy, manager of autism services for SSM Health Treffert Center and Treffert Studios, says that instead of expecting neurodivergent people to fit in with everyone else, the center and soon the studios are "flipping that on its head. We're saying, 'What is the norm and why are we trying to fit people with exceptional minds who have exceptional talents into the norm?'

"Instead let's find a safe and comfortable place for you to really expand on your skills, feel connected in an authentic way with other individuals and build your community," says Puddy. Under this approach, "we can have that systems change — not only in our little studios or online platforms but in our immediate communities where we all work and live every day."

Growing network
The Treffert Center includes a library containing books and other resources on autism, savant syndrome and other forms of divergent brain performance; a clinic; an on-site childcare center; an off-site charter school and other educational sites where neurodivergent and neurotypical people can learn together. The center works with clients from about toddler age, on up.


Bryan Mischler, a psychotherapist with the Treffert Center and studios, says the idea for the multimedia center originated as staff watched their
clients — especially young adults — excel in a skills development program called the Treffert Center Leaders in Creative Media. Those clients expressed great interest and showed proficiency in technical and creative work including video and audio content production and editing.


Treffert Center therapist Tara Geier has a background in acting and hatched the idea of opening a studio where neurodivergent people could build multimedia skills. At the same time, SSM Health child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jeremy Chapman had explored with Treffert Center Co-founder and Director of Outpatient Behavioral Health Matthew Doll the possibility of using multimedia for therapeutic work with people with developmental conditions.


Chapman, Doll, Geier, Mischler, Puddy and Sara Kaiser are working with Treffert Center and SSM Health colleagues and others to develop the studios. This core group is part of both the center's and the studios' staff. Kaiser will supervise the studios' staff contingent of from 20 to 30 full- and part-time staff.

Creative space
To create the studio complex, the SSM Health Greater Fond du Lac Region will use about $2.75 million from its capital budget, $250,000 from the Agnesian HealthCare Foundation and additional philanthropy dollars to renovate a shuttered administrative building on the campus of Fond du Lac's Moraine Park Technical College. It's about a mile from the Treffert Center.

Several private studios, including ones tailored for therapeutic counseling, audio recording, videorecording and podcast producing, will surround a multipurpose atrium. The atrium will be used as a gathering place, an art gallery, a performance venue for clients and a dining area.

Anxious clients will be able to relax and decompress in areas outfitted with toys, body socks and weighted blankets.

The planning team, Treffert Center clients and their loved ones have been providing input to architects and designers on floorplans, colors and furniture selection.

Grant Maniér, a client of the SSM Health Treffert Center, created this collage, which he calls "DIVOC the Dragon ... Unleashed," using mixed media. He calls his technique "eco-impression art." "DIVOC" is COVID spelled backwards.
© Grant Maniér. Used with permission.

Planners say clients will learn from one another as they collaborate on multimedia projects using the center's audiovisual and editing equipment. They'll have access to art tools and theater equipment and props and musical instruments and be able to broadcast from the studio. The studios' therapists will employ multimedia equipment including digital smartboards to provide interactive therapy. For example, a therapist could project a virtual classroom to acclimate a fearful or sensitive child. Studio staff will be able to broadcast training, educational and consultation sessions to people around the world.

The facility will host field trips, summer camps, and lectures by experts on developmental conditions.

Doll says the planning team expects to open other multimedia studio job training and therapy complexes elsewhere in the U.S. but gave no timeline.

Ready to launch
Grant Maniér and his mother, Julie Coy, recently moved from Houston to Fond du Lac after being impressed by the Treffert Center's approach, staff and services.

In his mid-20s, Maniér is an artist who uses recycled materials, such as paper, puzzle pieces, jewelry, magazines, calendars and even contact lens containers, to create intricate designs. Maniér and Coy also have created a series of children's books about accepting being different.

Maniér has autism. The center's staff has helped him to embrace and develop his talents and pursue a degree at Moraine Park Technical College. He is employed by the Treffert Center where he does voice-overs and other creative work. The staff now is supporting Maniér and Coy as Maniér seeks treatment for stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma.

Coy says generally in the U.S. there are many resources available to children with developmental conditions and to their families, but that support drops off almost entirely when the children turn 18. Parents worry whether and how their children will be equipped to assume adult responsibilities and independence without ongoing therapeutic support. Chapman says the Treffert approach aims to address this gap, and the studios will greatly build upon Treffert's existing resources for young adults.

Puddy says by taking the time to understand the needs and strengths of neurodivergent job candidates and develop a plan for their success when hired, employers can gain access to a largely untapped pipeline of talent.

Chapman says, "The onus is on all of us as organizations to bring neurodiversity into the job market. And people with these conditions have a lot to add, they bring special skills to put to use. And from an equity perspective, this is the right thing to do."

Click here to view a video explaining more about what the studios will offer.

Further reading

Agnesian's institute is global center for savant syndrome research

Treffert autism center hosts author Temple Grandin

Dr. Treffert was a foremost researcher of autism, savant syndrome

SSM Health-affiliated autism center hosts 'sensory-friendly' vaccine clinic


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