Health Calls

Caring for Neurodivergent Patients at the Treffert Center

Episode Summary

Treating neurodivergent patients is a complicated process. How do we approach the spectrum of neurodivergence with the care, compassion, and intentionality that it deserves?

Episode Notes

Treating neurodivergent patients is a complicated process. How do we approach the spectrum of neurodivergence with the care, compassion, and intentionality that it deserves?

Betsy Taylor, editor of Health Progress, Dr. Jeremy Chapman, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at SSM Health Treffert Studios, Meg Puddy, Director of Behavioral Health at SSM Health Greater Fond du Lac, and Spencer Depies, Technician at SSM Health Treffer Studios, all join Health Calls to discuss Treffert Studios' unique approach to caring for neurodivergent patients. Dr. Chapman discusses the key tenants of the Treffert approach, Meg Puddy recounts her personal experiences with Dr. Treffert, and Spencer Depies gives specific examples of how Treffert Studios offers its patients opportunities to flourish.


Read the recent Health Progress article on the Treffert Studios

Episode Transcription

Betsy Taylor (00:00):

Brian, we're just heading into the weekend. Any good plans?

Brian Reardon (00:04):

Well, thanks for asking Betsy. We've got a holiday party in the neighborhood to go to tonight, and then I'm going to head out to a meeting in San Diego, which is where our assembly is going to be. We're going to be doing a little pre-visit there and I've got a conference, so we want to make sure people know about the assembly in June of 2024. So I'm excited to get to some warmer temperatures this weekend. Yeah,

Betsy Taylor (00:26):

I'm looking forward to that. It's always great to see the members and I know a lot of planning goes into it, so we're already on it, right?

Brian Reardon (00:33):

It it's a year-round thing. Well, hey, I'm excited about this conversation once again. We are going to talk about an article from Health Progress, so you want to get going?

Betsy Taylor (00:41):

That sounds good.

Brian Reardon (00:42):

Let's do it. This is Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. I'm your host, Brian Reardon, and with me for many episodes is once again, Betsy Taylor. She's the editor of Health Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association. Betsy, always good to have you in the conversation. And so in this topic, we're going to actually look at caring for neurodivergent patients at the Trefor Studios. Tell me a little bit about that article.

Betsy Taylor (01:13):

Sure. So this article is part of our improving the patient experience issue. And I think what really struck us about the work at SSM Health T Studios was that it works with folks who are neurodivergent individuals but really builds on their strengths in interesting ways. And there's just been a lot of thought and effort put into the services that are offered there, the social supports that are part of the work. And it sounds like a great place. It sounds like a lot of fun and a lot of learning. And so I'm excited to hear more about it.

Brian Reardon (01:51):

And this was part of the issue on improving the patient experience. And I think the reason we wanted to talk more about this is because this really is a unique way of addressing patients where they have needs and addressing where they are.

Betsy Taylor (02:03):

Absolutely. And it just was so nice to see sort of the communities embrace of the studios and I love how, I'm sure we'll get into it more, but I love how so much of the work is geared towards not just skill building for the individuals who are part of the studios, but really trying to educate the community, educate employers about if you are hiring a neurodivergent person, what sort of things can you think through that might make their work life a little better? How can communication be structured, things of that nature. So it just was sort of to my mind, a beautiful approach to working with people and appreciating them for their uniqueness.

Brian Reardon (02:45):

Definitely. Well, why don't we go ahead and we'll bring in our guests. Betsy will bring you back in a few minutes, but I want to now introduce three individuals, two of them were the authors of this article, and then we're also going to talk to a technician at the studio. So let's start by introducing Dr. Jeremy Chapman. He's a child and adolescent psychiatrist with SSM Health Treffert Studios. Welcome Jeremy.

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (03:07):

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Brian Reardon (03:09):

We also have Meg Puddy. She is the director of behavioral health community-based services with SSM of Greater Fond du Lac Wisconsin. Meg, great to have you with us.

Meg Puddy (03:21):

Thank you so much. Wonderful to be here.

Brian Reardon (03:23):

And our third guest is Spencer Depies. He's a technician with SSM Health Treffert Studios. Spencer, great to have you with us as well.

Spencer Depies (03:30):

Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Brian Reardon (03:31):

Here. Alright, so the article, we want to talk a little bit about that, but before we do that, let's actually do maybe a little context setting. Jeremy and Mag, I'll start with you. You write again in this article about the care of neurodivergent patients. I guess to start with, can you explain from some of us who are not aware what the term neurodivergent encompasses and what is some of the latest research on working with these patients?

Meg Puddy (03:57):

Absolutely, Brian, I can take this one. The term neurodivergent refers to individuals who have neurological differences or conditions. This can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, just to name a few. Neurodivergent individuals often have unique ways of experiencing the world and processing information. The term is often credited to Judy Singer, who is an Australian sociologist, and she really used that terminology to promote equality and inclusion of all people while embracing these neurological differences. We view these differences of the natural variation of human neurology rather than a disorder or a deficit. And taking a broader perspective under neurodiversity here at Treffert Studios and for all of our centers using Treffert approach, we consider this term to be reflective of everyone. This includes those that would be labeled what you may refer to as neurotypical. And this way we recognize the unique ways that we are all experiencing the world and interacting with the world. Similar to the work of Dr. Treffert, which I know we'll get into a bit more, it acknowledges that there's no one right way of thinking, learning, behaving, and that we should really celebrate these differences and the contributions that they give to our larger community.

Brian Reardon (05:15):

Yeah. Let me ask too about Dr. Treffert. We've covered other stories of both in health progress and previously in Catholic Health World. Can you give us just a little overview of Dr. Treffert?

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (05:26):

Dr. Treffert is, he's a legend in the world of autism and some special subcategories of autism that we can talk about a little bit later. He recently passed away a few years ago, but he was a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He practiced for decades and decades and opened the child and adolescent unit at Winnebago Mental Health here in Wisconsin. Found himself particularly interested in the phenomenon of Savant syndrome in which people have a concurrent cognitive strength or special gift that lives alongside some sort of a cognitive, what one might consider an impairment. And it's just a really fascinating kind of area of research and study. And he is kind of the global expert in that. So if you were to Google terms like Savant Syndrome or perhaps even Hyperlexia, which refers to very early reading abilities, you would probably be led to Dr. Treffert and his books and his research.


So that was what helped put the Treffert Center on the map. And we do hear from people all around the world who reach out to us through our website with amazing stories and gifts and talents and individuals that we get to connect with and talk to. So that all said that Treffert Center is a collection of entities now, and Meg can speak to this as well, but it includes a daycare, a elementary school, a middle school. Now there's a combined and now a high school as well as well as Treffert Studios. These are all different imprints, so to speak, of Treffert brand here at SSM Health. And we also have the Treffert approach, which Meg briefly mentioned before, which is kind of a six pronged approach that can be applied to mental healthcare education and so on. And I'd be happy to walk through that in more detail if you wanted, but suffice it to say it's based in Treffert's experience working with many, many individuals and families, and it provides kind of a guiding light for us in all the stuff that we do here in his carrying on his legacy. So

Brian Reardon (07:39):

Jeremy and Meg, did either of you have the opportunity to work with or mentored by Dr. Treffert?

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (07:44):

So I wish that I could have said I worked more with him. We'll put it that way. I only intersected with him briefly. In fact, I only met with him a few times. Meg and even Spencer have more experience directly with Dr. Treffert than I do. I was taken on more or less to fill a role that he used to have, but it's an enormous pair of shoes to fill and there's no way that any one person could do that. In so far as I'm a child psychiatrist, I have that same title that he had and the times that I sat down and talked with him, I got to know just how he thinks and how he approaches the families who reach out to us. And that was very inspiring and guiding for me because now I field a lot of these emails and inquiries myself and just the warmth and love and compassion that he embodies when he talked with them, I've tried to manifest myself. He also, we briefly got to describe Treffert Studios to him before he passed away, and he was very excited about what that be able to bring to the table. Neat.

Brian Reardon (08:49):

Megan, you want to reflect on that and how did you get into this line of work?

Meg Puddy (08:52):

Yeah, most definitely. So I was born and raised in Fond du Lac, just like Dr. Treffert did have the opportunity to work with him briefly, but now I'm embarrassed to say as a young buddy and undergrad wasn't aware of the expansive work that he did even living in this small town. So we're so grateful to be on this podcast and to be sharing all of the work that he did and to have the privilege to carry it forward because we didn't know very early on a lot of my psychology partners and so moved back to the Fond du Lac area because of the work of Dr. Treffert and the work that was being started at the TRT Center. And so joined that team in 2015. And while I'm fortunate to have had some time to be mentored by Dr. Treffert, never enough, never enough time. But what really stood out most to me about him was all of the research amazing, all of the way he treated his patients amazing, but he really made every person in the room feel like they were the most important person in the room. He had a knack for creating relationships that were strong and authentic, and that just led to so much collaboration with the community we serve. And now the over 140 folks that work in the various Treffert service lines that are doing their very best to carry his work forward.

Brian Reardon (10:16):

That's great. Well, let's talk about the Treffert approach. In the article, you talk about the need for system change when it comes to neurodivergent patients and less emphasis on fitting in. So how Doest Studios work towards this change inside, both in the center and in the wider community.

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (10:36):

Sure. Treffert approach, which by the way, anyone listening to this, you could Google Treffert approach. It'll take you to our nice little graphic that I may or may not be looking at right now. Just as a refresher myself, you never want to look like a fool. I got to be smooth right here. It does, as I mentioned before, have six different segments that we try to incorporate whenever possible. The systems change is one of them that you just mentioned. And that just simply refers to trying to educate really the world about how to best work with and utilize folks who are neurodivergent. And that might mean helping the company Google learn to get the most out of its employees who are neurodivergent and or learn to hire more because there's a massive underutilized part of the workforce who maybe has certain barriers to getting hired or doing interviews effectively. And we want to help other organizations like ourselves tap into that really, really overlooked collection of people. And that's why partly why Treffert Studios does employ a handful of young adults with autism, one of whom is Spencer, and he'll get to chime in with his own lived experience pretty soon. Do you want me to go around the other five segments for you?

Brian Reardon (11:50):

Yeah, just real quick if you would. Yeah, just tick 'em off. And of course folks can read about it, but yeah, let's maybe just a quick overview. It'd be helpful

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (11:56):

And they kind of have a flow to them. I mean like a directionality to them, but really all six should be in place simultaneously. But Dr. Treffert always talked about starting with accurate assessment, which means calling things by the right name, whether that's an actual mental health diagnosis or just a portrayal of what somebody has experienced. It's important to get the right words down now. So accurate assessment is the first one. Then a strength-based focus, which again, in mental health is a whole, but also within working with folks who have autism or other neurodivergent conditions, there's such a tendency to just gravitate towards the weaknesses and the impairments and the pathology of people. And you get lost and you really miss out on some of the wonderful gifts that people have, whether it's their character or their artistic skill or some other aspect of their persona that can really become the centerpiece of treating them or educating them.


And whenever possible at the schools and at the clinics that we run, we are trying to help people uncover their strengths and cultivate those strengths and make them the centerpiece of their growth. And we can talk a lot more about that soon too. The next one is nature and natural environment, which again, go hand in hand. That refers to the benefits of connecting with nature, either as a sensory kind of experience, which again I'll refer to in a second. And also just working with people in their natural environment. So helping people learn job skills in a job type of atmosphere, not just kind of in vitro, but we have people out here at Treffert Studios learning in an environment that perhaps they might want to go get a job in the field and they will have had experience working with us in an actual paid gig as part of a team.


Next up is nurturing relationships. Mentorship is another word for this. We think it's critical for people to have someone as a role model to look up to or to kind of get guidance from. Sensory awareness is the fifth one, and I think it speaks for itself. Be mindful of different people's preferences, whether that's their preferred lighting or sound or tactile arrangements. With furniture, again, you have to remember that we are all neurodivergent in a sense. This is all neurodiversity. It's a continuum. So you and I probably have our own sensory preferences. It's not really fair to characterize an autistic person that's having special needs and that the office has to just work around them because of all this baggage they bring to the table. We all have our own preferences, and I think being aware of that is key. And then the last one is systems, which we briefly mentioned before, trying to change things in society to make it a better world for people who are otherwise facing barriers.

Brian Reardon (14:59):

Oh, thanks for that overview, Jeremy. Well, let's bring in Spencer. Now, Spencer, you mentioned in the article, thatt Studios has taught you a great deal about yourself. So as a technician there, tell us a little bit about the benefits you've had working at the studios.

Spencer Depies (15:15):

Absolutely. The first thing to bring up is you're only as good as your team. And the Treffert Studios is a great team. You have Meg, you have Jeremy, you have everyone that brings to a table. A great example of that is one of my coworkers is Grant Maniér, and he is a beautiful individual that creates art pieces through his own strengths where maybe he didn't create the communication right away, but using his strengths allowed him to impact all of the world. And that is what the Treffert Studios is all about, is bringing a person's strength. However, using that in a way that we can communicate those to our team and then use that as life skills to not just help each other, but to also help our clients at the trade studios. A good example is I have two clients that I do motor gross movement with that may have certain things that they can't do, for example, as a personal trainer as well, because I noticed that in order to change the people around me, I have to change my state. And I found out that movement for me was one of those simplistic things that allowed me to help impact other people. However, I digress, that individual can't grab a kettlebell with two hands. So we worked around some of his that he thought were weaknesses and we used those strengths. So using the Treffert approach at the Treffert Studios has really allowed me to create more impact even in my own life. So that's why I really love this team and how we interact with those around us.

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (17:03):

Great. As a side note, I took about 10 minutes of a Spencer fitness class once, and I was feeling the burn later that day. You worked me pretty good.

Brian Reardon (17:12):

No, thanks for sharing. I want to bring Betsy back in. Betsy, you've heard our three guests want to reflect or ask another question before we start to wrap things up.

Betsy Taylor (17:21):

Sure. I think one thing, of course, I'm going to make a plug for people turning to health progress because Grant Maniér's art is in there, an example of his art and a visual of Spencer of you in the studio. And I'm wondering, Spencer, would you talk to us for just a minute about there's been such a progression there in terms of now sort of the beautiful facilities that are there and the creation of community. And so for people who are listening, would you just tell us a little bit about some of the options that are available at studios?

Spencer Depies (17:53):

Absolutely. So one of the cool things about the studios is it's centered around life skills. And what's cool about that is if people want to work on public speaking, if people want to use to get more in shape or if they have a cool niche that they love and enjoy, there's all these different options at the studios. For example, grant Ye does his puzzle work, otherwise we have art classes or otherwise. A really cool one in today's age is Dungeons and Dragons by Mr. Alex. He has a really creative imagination and how to create an idea in another person's mind. And the cool thing about Trepid Studios is it's very flexible that can fit the needs of that individual. And there's so many cool courses that we have a staple, but at the time we're always brainstorming more ideas that we love, but that can really center around a person's life skills.

Betsy Taylor (18:50):

I think too, the other thing that struck me out of the article was that I just think there needs to be more awareness that we shouldn't always be asking individuals to adjust themselves or to make modifications or change something that everyone in the community has a responsibility for that, that you could learn about other people in your community. And maybe you need to adjust your communication style a little or speak with somebody about do they need the lights to be a little dimmer or would they like some noise canceling headphones at work? So I really like that it just kind of meets people where they are, the work of the studios, and I think that's a great lesson for all of us. I agree.

Brian Reardon (19:27):

I agree. I mean, just sounds like such a fantastic program. I'm going to have to check it out when I'm up in Wisconsin again. It's been a while since I've been up there. Any final words that any of you want to just share real quick? In summary,

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (19:38):

I have two words I would love just to share in summary. One is just to make it clear, Treffert Studios is called Treffert Studios because we are filled with studio equipment. We're a functioning video production and audio production studio. We have a full soundproofed recording booth that we use for podcasts or voiceover lessons and recording or music playing. We have a full array of musical instruments from drum sets to guitars and basses to pianos and keyboards that we use to actually have music classes and we can record professionally. We also have video cameras and art supplies and stuff. The goal of which is to help people again, identify their strengths and then use those strengths to grow as individuals and learn communication professional skills. Now, Spencer is too humble to say, but he is an amazing creator, frankly, and he probably one day in the not too distant future will be an influencer and a leader for the autistic community. He has a channel of his own that we're going to be helping him give a platform to get his voice out there and share some of his insights as an individual who has autism and has so many other skills. So that's why we're called Treffert Studios. And for those listening who want to reach out to us, that's part of what we do is we help you or the people in your life uncover their creative gifts and we teach you how to use those to your own advantage and benefit in your life. That's

Brian Reardon (21:05):

Great, and we will have links information that you've referenced on our podcast page, but I do want to thank, again, that was just Dr. Jeremy Chapman that we just heard from. We also heard from Meg Puddy with SSM and heard from Spencer Depies, who's a technician there at Treffert Studios. Thanks to the three of you for taking time out to go in more detail about what's happening. It sounds fantastic. I encourage everybody to read the article and again, thanks for being with us.

Meg Puddy (21:31):

Thank you for having us. We really appreciate. Thanks so much. Appreciate.

Dr. Jeremy Chapman (21:33):

Yeah, thank you. Thanks everybody. Take care, everybody.

Brian Reardon (21:35):

Yeah. And for Betsy Taylor, I am Brian Reardon, the host of Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. As always, our episodes are produced by Josh Matejka and engineered by Brian Hartmann at Clayton Studios in St. Louis. You can download and listen to Health Calls on all of your favorite podcast apps, and of course, from the CHA website. That's Please like us, give us some star ratings on those apps where you can rank or rate your podcast. We do appreciate the feedback and as always, thanks for listening.