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5-year-old Wisconsin Savant and the New School for Exceptional Minds

FOND DU LAC, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin is home to the world's leading expert on savant syndrome, Dr. Darold Treffert of Fond du Lac. Savant syndrome is when a person with significant mental disabilities, at the same time, has an extraordinary ability.

It may start with autism like Dustin Hoffman's character in 'Rain Man.' It can also be acquired. CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a man named Alonso Clemons who had a bad fall as a kid. He lost much of his mental function but suddenly knew how to sculpt masterpieces with his bare hands. 

Wisconsin will soon be home to a new charter school designed specifically to enhance those abilities.

At the Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, CBS 58 morning news anchor Mike Curkov met a just turned 5-year old boy with savant skills that would make him a perfect candidate for the new school.

Justice Rusch knows the entire periodic table of elements, he knows all of the planets and moons in the solar system and he can identify every European country by shape. He knows all their capitals too.

Before he turned two, his mother knew something wasn't quite right but not exactly wrong.

"He wasn't babbling much but then I realized he could read at 18 months. Everyone thought I was crazy," said Nicole Sullivan.

She read an article on hyperlexia written by Dr. Treffert. She looked him up and saw he was just about an hour from their home in the Green Bay area (they live near Madison now).

"He was 3 when he first came here. He did not have language." Dr. Treffert said. "And then one day, when he and his mom were driving, he started to say 'Saturn, Jupiter, Mars'"

Dr. Treffert has been studying and helping people with autism and savants like Justice for nearly 60 years. He was a consultant on the movie Rain Man.

He and the Agnesian Healthcare doctors and specialists at the Treffert Center coaxed Justice out of his shell by using Treffert's strength-based approach.

"I started to realize I could use his strengths and what he already knows to overcome some of the other things," said Sullivan. "I use those facts to translate daily life to him. For example, I need you to be fast, like Jupiter, or go the opposite way like Venus."

That focus on strength is the basis of the new North Fond du Lac school district charter school just approved by and given a $700,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It's scheduled to launch next school year.

Dr. Matthew Doll - Director of Behavioral Health Autism Services, Treffert Center

"The switch is really to say, you know what 80-percent of the time you're doing pretty good, why don't we grow that to 85?" said Dr. Matthew Doll, director of behavioral health autism services at the Treffert Center. "Once I do that, I've already shrunk that 20 to 15. And that approach, focusing on strength and bringing out the best in people is what we're really trying to do."

The new school will be called The Treffert Way School for the Exceptional Mind. It may sound like a school for the X-Men. It's not. It's inclusive. You don't need to be a savant or have autism to enroll. It's open to all.

"It's for everybody," said North Fond du Lac school district administrator Aaron Sadoff. "It's for those students, the gifted and talents you might here. That's a label that we're all gifted and talented different ways. But some people really already have skill sets that they can build and go beyond. Our current school system isn't built to differentiate as easily as this school can."

"We're looking at their ability, not their disability," said Dr. Treffert. "With a child that doesn't have special needs, that same thing is true."

The initial class is limited at 40 students and will take over three classrooms in an existing district building with plans to expand to its own building in the near future. Enrollment should begin late spring or early summer.

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