Traci Swink, MD; Pediatric Neurologist
Traci Swink, MD is a Pediatric Neurologist who has dedicated the past 15 years of her career helping parents cope with the challenges of autism and empowering parents to become the ‘expert’ on their child’s special needs. She is a Profectum Senior Faculty member and the Co-founder and Medical Director of the Bridge Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin. The Bridge Center is a non-profit organization that provides developmental intervention programs to children with autism and other special needs.
Questions and Answers with Traci Swink, MD
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: University: University: St. Louis University School of Medicine, 1991
Q. How long have you been DIR Faculty?
A: DIR Faculty since 2009
Q: How did you come to work with developmental challenges?
A: I entered medical school in 1986 with the intention of working with children and families facing complex neurodevelopmental challenges. This decision resulted from my experiences over several summer internships in college where I was fortunate to meet and be inspired by some remarkable and resilient children and families.
Q: Was there a particular child or family that opened your door to DIR?
A: When I was training in pediatric epilepsy at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1996, I met Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a friend and colleague of Dr. Stanley Greenspan. I had many questions for Dr. Zimmerman related to some children I was working with who had ASDs and epilepsy. I could understand their seizure disorders and how to manage them but was baffled by the symptoms related to their ASD diagnosis. I asked Dr. Zimmerman where I should go or what I should read to better understand their challenges and Dr. Zimmerman suggested that I go and hear a presentation by Dr. Greenspan in Washington DC. I went and immediately knew that I was hearing something extraordinary and powerful about a disorder and an intervention unlike anything I had previously encountered. It would take a few more years before I began my training at the DIR Institute led by Dr. Serena Wieder but I will never forget that first encounter.
Q: What are some of the most important things you integrated into your work from other disciplines?
A: I have had many incredible mentors during my time training and now teaching, coaching and supporting parents and professionals working with the DIR model. Being a physician did not necessarily make my early transition into the model easier. I came from a profession that I had spent more than a decade honing my expertise prior to being exposed to the DIR model with its completely new lexicon and new lens for observing and describing development. It took many years and invaluable time with many gifted DIR mentors to “speak and see” in a powerfully new way.
Q: What do you feel you contribute most as a DIR physician?
A: My training and experience in neurology, development and DIR allows me a unique perspective and insight into the whole child. My MD/DIR lens allows me to see and hear a fuller and more complete picture of the child and family: from the processes that build brain architecture and the relationships that lay the bricks for the foundations to other biological and physiological stressors that impact these critical processes. Being able to share this understanding of how these different processes interact and inform my work with a team of specialists, therapists and caregivers has been the most rewarding aspect of my professional career.
Q: What three suggestions would you give parents?
- As a parent, you are the ‘expert” and your child is your greatest teacher
- You will never be able to anticipate everything that could go wrong so always have Plan B and C and D if necessary
- Everything your child does has a purpose/means something to your child. Our job as parents, teachers, therapists is to watch, listen, relate and learn what this purpose is
Q: How has your work most impacted you? Impacted your understanding of yourself?
A: I would like to hope that I am a better observer, less judgmental and more compassionate.
Q: If you wouldn’t have become a doctor, what would you have become?
A: A Teacher. My mother, my greatest inspiration, was a dedicated teacher and later principal for more than 50 years.
Q: What game would parents be most surprised to know you recommend for kids?
A: Pirates and super heroes with swords, web spray, caps and all!
Q: What is your favorite game?
A: Before November 2016 my kids and I have always enjoyed playing “Bubble Talk”. Even as teenagers they will still play this game with me on occasion. Since November 2016 we have played more “Bucket of Doom”.
Q: Your favorite book?
A: “The Little Prince”
Q: How much screen time do you let your own family have, and tell parents to allow?
A: For parents, I follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. Now that my children are teenagers, I try not to micromanage their time but help them set priorities which may influence how much time they spend on screens. We do not have social media accounts and my teenagers do not have smart phones and seem to be doing “OK” without these distractions.
Q: What two books do you most recommend to parents?
A: This is a tough question as there are so many excellent resources for parents. A lot of what I might recommend depends on where my team and I are in the process of working with a family. “Autism Solutions” by Dr. Ricki Robinson, “Uniquely Human” by Barry Prizant often as introductions and “Engaging Autism” by Dr. Greenspan and Dr. Wieder and we go deeper into the model. Many teachers and families have found Ross Greene’s books helpful as well.
Q: What recent book have you read that you would recommend to others?
A: Dr. Atal Gawande’s “Better”
Q: What’s your biggest frustration with how people misunderstand autism?
A: LABELING anything; diagnosis, behavior, etc. without understanding what you are seeing, hearing, experiencing, interpreting means to the child.
Q: Current Research?
A: The Marshfield Clinic is collaborating with the University of Wisconsin Waisman Center and four other major medical centers and the CDC, in the largest multicenter study in the United States to help identify factors that may put children at risk for ASD and other developmental disorders. The Marshfield Clinic will be providing some on the only rural epidemiological data on ASD in the United States.
Q: Can you share a moment in your work you will never forget?
A: A grandfather was learning how to interact and relate to his grandchild as the parents were learning DIR/floortime and then sharing what they learned with the grandparents. The mother came home from work and the grandfather was so, so, excited to show his daughter what he had “taught” the grandson to say. The mother was certain that she would hear her child say “mommy” for the first time. The grandfather had the mom come down to the basement where the grandfather and grandson had set up a wrestling mat on the floor. The grandfather and little boy then engaged in a wrestling match and the grandfather gently pinned the little boy to the floor holding him down for a few seconds until out came a loud and emphatic “King’s X”, the signal to his opponent to release him from the hold. Not what mom was expecting but a proud and joyful moment nonetheless!