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SSM Health Treffert Center opens sensory garden

The outdoor space aims to stimulate the sense of touch and smell for neurodiverse individuals

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September 19, 2023

FOND DU LAC – Thomas Fabricius, Family Medicine/Autism Evaluation & Diagnosis Services with SSM Health Treffert Center Studios, said during his years as a physician, the late Dr. Darold Treffert had a philosophy about neurodiverse individuals that encouraged growth and development.

“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,” Fabricius said.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Treffert started at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, where he primarily worked with children.

“In 1962, at Winnebago Mental Health Institute, he developed the child adolescent unit,” Shelly Haberman, senior communications consultant with SSM Health Greater Fond du Lac, said.

Two years later, he was named superintendent of that institute – a position he held for 15 years.

He retired from the field in 1991 but was committed to continuing to support neurodiverse individuals – which eventually led to the creation of SSM Health Treffert Studios, in 2016.

Though Treffert passed away in 2020, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Bryan Mischler said his legacy lives on through Treffert Studios.

Mischler said Treffert Studios employs the Treffert approach, which looks at neurodiversity as a different neurology, rather than a disability.

“There are aspects of these populations who can perform certain tasks far above what is typical for other people,” he said. “The big problem is we don’t necessarily live in a world that accommodates the needs of these people. Our goal here is to highlight that if you have a suitable environment for these neurotypes, they can do amazing things.”

Sensory garden
With this in mind, Treffert Studios installed a sensory garden at the SSM Health Treffert Center at 231 N. National Ave. in Fond du Lac.

“The sensory garden fits perfectly into the Treffert approach,” Mischler said, “The majority of the clients we work with are neurodiverse, primarily ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia, and a big aspect of those diagnoses are sensory issues.”

All of Treffert Studios, Mischler said, was modeled to be a sensory-friendly space.

“We considered colors and lighting, and the sensory garden is an extension of that – to give us an outdoor space that provides a mindful and relaxing area,” he said.

Mischler said the sensory garden ties into the Treffert approach – which is supported by more and more research that shows sensory regulation reduces unwanted symptoms/behaviors.

“Research has shown participating in sensory regulation activities has an impact on anxiety, and anxiety tends to be connected to just about every disorder,” he said. “The more anxious you are, the more symptoms you display. It’s true for all of us, really – the more relaxed we are, the better we feel, and the better we feel, the better we behave as people.”

Construction on the sensory garden began in June with help from Stuart’s Landscaping and Garden Center.

“We had several meetings initially, and Stuart’s Landscaping was interested because it’s outside the norm of what they typically do,” Mischler said. “To provide a sensory space like this in a clinical setting is unusual, and it allows us to separate ourselves from that sterile environment and connect to nature.”

Mischler said many of the children who come to Treffert Studios have high levels of anxiety, and the sensory garden provides them with an opportunity to ground and self-soothe, which makes it easier to transition to clinical work.

“Viewing them (ASD, ADHD, dyslexia) as disorders – it’s not really fair to the people… when it’s just probably our understanding that creates that disability, not necessarily their ability to function,” he said. “With the right support in the right environment, doing the things they love, neurodiverse people are able to do it at a level that’s higher than everybody else’s.”

Mischler said though the garden is open, there are still a few things that still need to be completed.

“There’s a beautiful waterfall they’re still working on, and the plants still need to grow and fill in, but we’ve been using the space,” he said.

Mischler said the garden has sections to stimulate the sense of touch and smell.

“We have a zen circle with small pebbles, sand and boulders, and it’s a great area to sit and dig your hands in,” he said. “There are lots of flowering plants, and we’re planning on adding some herbs in the spring, which we can use in our cooking classes. There’s also a patio, and you’ll be able to hear the waterfall there once it’s complete.”

The waterfall, Mischler said, has a special connection to Treffert because he had a waterfall on his property.

The sensory garden, Bryan Mischler, right, said, has a zen circle with small pebbles, sand and boulders – which is “a great area to sit and dig your hands in.” 

“He often talked about the sense of mellowing we get from the sound of running water,” he said.

Beyond additions to stimulate the senses, Mischler said the garden also has a quiet tunnel.

“A child with autism may not be able to engage in pretend play, so you can use sensory play to create that interaction and provide shared experiences you wouldn’t get if you had to wait and teach that person how to engage with these other types of play,” he said. “Therefore, sensory play is able to help with a wide range of things, like socialization, communication and reduced anxiety.”

Treffert’s reach
Mischler said Treffert’s work on savant syndrome reached far and wide, eventually attracting national attention. 

His work has been published in “Time Magazine,” “People,” “Newsweek,” “USA Today,” “Scientific American,” “Opulence Magazine” and more than 50 publications in professional journals. 

Treffert, Mischler said, also worked with the team for the movie “Rain Man,” because of his knowledge of savant syndrome.

“Dr. Treffert was working at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute when a nurse came and said, ‘There’s a Dustin Hoffman here to see you.’ And Dr. Treffert said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, a person with the same name as the actor,’” Mischler said. “Then he goes down there, and it’s the actual Dustin Hoffman wanting to work with Dr. Treffert because of his knowledge of autistic savants.”

Treffert’s work, Mischler said, has also been featured on many popular television shows, including Oprah, 60 Minutes, CBS Evening News, Larry King, the Today Show, Discovery Channel, Dateline and CNN.

“I look back on my involvement with the ‘Rain Man’ screenplay and writer Barry Morrow with much satisfaction,” Treffert said 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 realistic and accurate portrayal of those extraordinary skills and of savant syndrome as well.”

Prior to “Rain Man,” Mischler said there was little media portraying autistic people, and Treffert, along with the rest of the team who worked on the movie, were surprised by how big the movie got and the attention it drew to neurodiversity.

After working on “Rain Man,” Mischler said Treffert had even more connections with neurodiverse individuals.

“(Those) who had successful lives because they focused on their strengths, rather than their limitations,” he said. “The more they focused on those strengths, the more opportunities they had to socialize in the context of things they loved, and those deficits started fading away.”

Mischler said Treffert brought that continued passion of support to SSM Health Treffert Studios.

Today, the facility has services for children and adults – which Mischler said aims to provide support across neurodiverse individuals’ entire lifespans. 

“We’re also hoping to do programming with homeschooling, so kids who are looking for supplemental class stuff…,” he said. “We provide that space…We’re hoping that, especially with starting a podcast and having a full studio area, we’ll be able to extend our reach globally the way Dr. Treffert did.”

More information on SSM Health Treffert Studios can be found at

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