Dr. Darold Treffert leaves behind rich history

Shelly Haberman
Treffert

Darold Treffert, MD, an internationally respected researcher in autism, hyperlexia, savant syndrome and related conditions, passed away unexpectedly on December 14 at the age of 87. He leaves behind a rich legacy through Agnesian HealthCare’s Treffert Center, which invites individuals, families and communities worldwide to explore the potential of the human mind, focusing on strengths rather than limitations. 

“Not only did Dr. Treffert have a brilliant mind, he has a beautiful soul,” according to Matt Doll, PhD, Agnesian HealthCare director of Behavioral Health Services/Autism. “His kindness, genuine compassion and lifelong curiosity were evident in all he did. His ability to listen unconditionally was a gift that many who felt marginalized found inspiring, offering hope and healing to all. He was a colleague, friend and mentor, and I will miss him greatly.” 

A Fond du Lac native, Dr. Treffert’s relationship with Agnesian HealthCare, literally, spans a lifetime. Born at St. Agnes Hospital in the early 1930s, Dr. Treffert served Agnesian HealthCare in various clinical roles throughout his career. Respected internationally for his research relating to autism, savant syndrome, hyperlexia and related conditions, his most pioneering contributions explore “Islands of Genius” and the inner workings of exceptional minds. 

With the opening of the Treffert Center in 2016, Dr. Treffert’s legacy was further cemented.  

“Through Dr. Treffert’s expertise, parents, children, clinicians and educators are able to access his extensive personal research library, along with other leading resources for the diagnosis and treatment of spectrum-related conditions,” Doll says.  

 Dr. Treffert was born March 12, 1933 at St. Agnes Hospital. He met the girl of his dreams, Dorothy Sorgatz, at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. They were married on June 11, 1955. 

Together, they raised their family of four - Jon, Joni, Jill and Jay here in Fond du Lac. They are also grandparents to seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1958, Dr. Treffert interned in Eugene, Oregon, completing his psychiatry residency at the University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. 

In 1962 at Winnebago Mental Health Institute, he developed the child adolescent unit. Two years later, he was named superintendent of that institute - a position he held for 15 years. 

This was where he met his first savants. One boy had memorized the bus system of Milwaukee. A second boy could put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle, picture side down, just from the geometric shapes alone. A third little guy made free throws with uncanny accuracy and repetition. His interest and research on savant syndrome and the exception mind ensued. 

He also served as the medical director of the Alcoholism Rehabilitation Unit of St. Agnes Hospital, serving on multiple medical boards and oversite committees. Dr. Treffert also held chairman positions and was a clinical professor before he “officially” retired in 1991. 

In June 1980, Leslie Lemke, a musician and savant, came to Fond du Lac to give a concert at the Little Goodrich Theater. It was a tremendous success with respected journalist Walter Cronkite using the extraordinary story of Leslie and May Lemke as his Christmas story. 

Dr. Treffert’s work has been published in Time, People, Newsweek, USA Today, Scientific American, Opulence magazine, Southwest Airlines SKY magazine and more than 50 publications in professional journals. His work has been featured on many popular television shows, including Oprah, 60 Minutes, CBS Evening News, Larry King, Today, Discovery Channel, Dateline and CNN. 

“Dr. Treffert’s gift of finding islands of intactness in individuals where others only saw disabilities had a powerful impact on patients and their families,” says Thomas Fabricius, MD, Family Medicine/Autism Evaluation & Diagnosis Services with Agnesian HealthCare’s Treffert Center. “The Treffert Center will continue to honor his legacy and carry on with his important work in the service of humanity.” 

The movie - Rain Man, which made autistic savant a household word - recently celebrated 30 years since its release. This move was the beginning of heightened autism awareness. Dr. Treffert personally worked with screen writer Barry Morrow on the accuracy and representing the talents of savants. 

“I look back on my involvement with the Rain Man screenplay and writer Barry Morrow with much satisfaction,” Dr. Treffert called at the movie’s anniversary. “I was a script consultant for accuracy and sensitivity on the topics of autism and savant. The movie achieved both. Real life savant skills are spectacular by themselves, and the movie offered a very realistic and accurate portrayal of those extraordinary skills and of savant syndrome as well.” 

Morrow remembers his work with Dr. Treffert fondly. “Rain Man brought wonderful international attention to autism, savant syndrome and related disorders,” Morrow recalls. “But it also spawned something more important - even more than the movie - which is a grassroots effort on behalf of Dr. Treffert and his entire career - called the Barry Morrow’s Rain Man Fund to share knowledge about autism and related disorders until one day families will be helped in ways they could never imagine.” 

Acquired Savant Jason Padgett also sought out the counsel of Dr. Treffert after a brutal attack in 2002. Padgett went from being a below average student to becoming a mathematical genius. Padgett and Dr. Treffert together collectively shared many stages to explain and demystify the exceptional “Island of Genius” in all of us just waiting to be untapped. 

“Jason’s case is an example of ‘accidental genius,’ or acquired savant syndrome, in which ordinary persons develop sudden art, music, mathematical or new language abilities, sometimes at a prodigious level, following head injury, stroke or certain types of dementia,” Dr. Treffert shared when Padgett visited Fond du Lac in 2016. “This startling phenomenon hints at dormant potential - a little Rain Man perhaps - within us all. The challenge is how to tap those hidden abilities that exist within us without some sort of brain catastrophe, and without cognitive impairment, memory loss or other trade-off.” 

“He was a force for good,” Padgett says. “He changed many lives in a positive way and the force of his good will ripple out for a long time to come.” 

In 2012 with the assistance of Joni Stine, Dr. Treffert’s daughter who happens to be a librarian, Dr. Treffert’s vast collection of books, articles, videos and artwork on savant syndrome and autism were cataloged and moved from Dr. Treffert’s home to the campus of Agnesian HealthCare.   

The Treffert Center, a dream of Dr. Treffert and a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, had become a reality with support from Agnesian HealthCare. 

Today, the life’s work of Dr. Treffert can be accessed by the world. The Treffert Center houses the Treffert Library, the Treffert Clinic and Treffert Academy - teaching to the talents of exceptional minds and neuro typical children side by side. 

Dr. Treffert’s Extraordinary People and Islands of Genius have been published in 12 languages. Mellowing and Recollections - both collections of thoughts and stories authored by Dr. Treffert - are also in publication. 

The Treffert Approach has expanded to public education through a partnership with the Treffert Center and the North Fond du Lac School District. Treffert Way for the Exceptional Mind is an inclusive charter school for all children. The curriculum is based on the six-step Treffert Approach to education.  

While Dr. Treffert officially retired in 1991, the Treffert work and legacy are still alive and growing. 

His family plans on a private funeral with a memorial service at a future date. Individuals or organizations interested in supporting the continued work of Dr. Darold Treffert can make a donation to the Treffert Center through the Agnesian HealthCare Foundation by visiting treffertcenter.com or calling (920) 926-4971. 

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