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

January 2021
Dr. Darold Treffert

Dr. Darold Treffert died Dec. 14 at age 87. He was an internationally acclaimed researcher in autism, hyperlexia, savant syndrome and related conditions and the inspiration behind an Agnesian HealthCare center that promotes the abilities of people who have these conditions.

Treffert's work was published in more than 50 professional journals and featured in TIME, People, Newsweek and on "Oprah," "60 Minutes," and other network programs. He wrote several books on autism and savant syndrome.

Treffert was born in 1933 at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, which today is part of Agnesian HealthCare, a member of St. Louis-based SSM Health.

He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1958 and completed his psychiatric residency at the University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.

 Treffert developed the child and adolescent unit of Wisconsin's Winnebago Mental Health Institute in 1962 and was superintendent of that institute from 1964 to 1979. It was there that he met his first savants and developed his interest in researching the condition.

Treffert worked in various clinical roles with St. Agnes Hospital and the Agnesian HealthCare system during his career, including as medical director of the alcoholism rehabilitation unit at St. Agnes. He served on multiple Wisconsin medical boards and was a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Treffert was a script consultant for the movie "Rain Man," winner of the Oscar for best picture of 1988.

He retired in 1991 but continued his research.

In 2016, Agnesian HealthCare established the Treffert Center on the St. Agnes campus to preserve and expand Treffert's body of work, including books, recordings, documentaries and artwork he collected or created. The center has evolved to include a library, a clinic and an academy where children with developmental conditions and children who are neurotypical learn side by side.

Dr. Matt Doll is Agnesian HealthCare's director of behavioral health services/autism. He said in an announcement on Treffert's passing that Treffert's "kindness, genuine compassion and lifelong curiosity were evident in all he did."

Information on the Treffert Center is available at treffertcenter.com.


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