Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA, alternatively thought of as the Pervasive Drive for Autonomy) is a profile on the Autism Spectrum. A key difference is that the individual may be more likely to appear “social,” using conversation skills and displaying a robust vocabulary. However, they struggle with social connectedness at their core. Further, they may have a long history of struggling to meet various demands, despite a desire to do so.
Today, we’ll discuss how to support the PDA child in your homeschool or classroom.
Signs of PDA in Autism
“He just doesn’t want to do any work!”
“She fights me on everything!”
Sound familiar? If so, you may know a PDA’er, some of the most woefully misunderstood people on the planet.
Officially known as Pathological Demand Avoidance, it’s more appropriately referred to as Pervasive/Persistent Drive/Desire for Autonomy. PDA is a profile on the Autism Spectrum characterized by some of the following key features.
According to the PDA Society, key features of PDA include:
- Resisting and avoiding the typical demands of life
- Even to the point of avoiding things they enjoy doing
- Appears ‘social’ but experiences difficulties in neurotypical social interaction
- Intense emotional experiences
- Comfortable with role-play, fantasy, and pretend play
- Driven by anxiety and higher threat perception response
- Intense focus (often on real or pretend people)
And finally, here’s the big one for you today.
“Conventional approaches in support, parenting, or teaching are ineffective.”PDA Society,
Did you catch that last one (conventional approaches in support, parenting, or teaching are ineffective)? It’s pertinent here! But first, a couple of things to understand about PDA.
Nervous System Dysregulation
Nervous system dysregulation is more enhanced in the neurodivergent body. This means heightened arousal is especially present in a PDA’er. Commands may be met with intense reactions that may not make much sense to you. For example,
“Pick up your toys.”
“You need to finish this worksheet now.”
In the PDA nervous system, the stress/trauma response mechanism is on a “hair trigger.” This means normal human stress responses (fight/flight/freeze) happen more easily and quickly in the PDA body.
Understanding PDA Helps Us Reframe Perceptions of Behavior
When we understand the root issue of PDA, nervous system dysregulation, we can reframe our perceptions. The former statements shift into:
just doesn’t want to can’t do any work (right now)!” (Freeze response)
fights me on everything is in fight mode !” (Fight response)
One of my favorite things to say in clinical work is, “Awareness is key.” It’s hard for us to bring about any changes or relief without knowing what’s going on in the first place.
Do You Have a PDA Child?
At this point, you might be wondering if you have a PDA’er. And if that PDA’er hasn’t yet been identified, there is a high likelihood they are in some level of burnout from chronic stress reactions.
Little bodies flood with cortisol just like older bodies do. And little bodies suffer from it just like older bodies do. Little brains are less able to make sense of big and stressful emotions, so chronic stress is harder on them.
So how can you best support your PDA’er?
5 Ways to Support Children with a PDA Profile
I am a huge fan of Zach Morris’ work. He has a neuro-affirming viewpoint of education that shifts the paradigm of educating children well. The following ideas are based on his suggestions.
1. Involve Your Child in Decision Making
Get the buy-in of your child.
- What are they interested in?
- How can it be used to meet a learning objective?
2. Give Them a Steering Wheel
Consider a regular check-in about your child’s needs. Do they need…
- A change of learning environment?
- Field trip, library, park
- Some quiet time for personal exploration?
- YouTube, Curiosity Stream, etc.
- Peer engagement?
- Consider outsourcing a subject on Outschool
You still keep the boundaries. Yet, they have a steering wheel.
“How would you like to learn today?”
“Do you want to learn today?”
Strewing can be a great approach for demand-avoidant kiddos. Rather than telling them what to do (demanding), provide the tools.
This means leaving out items/books of interest to be found and stumbled upon. See what happens.
4. Use Declarative Language
In our culture, teachers and parents have been programmed to question children. Answering questions can feel like a lot of pressure to a PDAer. This pressure to “give the right answer” can trigger a fight-flight-freeze response.
Instead of questioning your child, consider shifting your language. Using declarative language is key with PDA’ers. For example, when teaching science, rather than asking,
Why is the moon in a different place tonight?
You might use an “I wonder” statement.
“I wonder why the moon is in a different place this evening than it was last week.”
If you’re focusing on adverbs, try modeling the process of learning.
“I can’t remember if I should say ‘Drive safe’ or ‘Drive safely.’ I think I want to look that up.”
By shifting your language to one that lightens the pressure, you’re creating a safer learning opportunity for your child.
5. Encourage Curiosity
Most PDA’ers are curious people. They like to understand themselves, others, and how “things” work. This curiosity is a learning tool that when encouraged can drive learning.
Encourage your PDA child to explore their areas of interest even if it’s not on the lesson plan.
5 Absolutes About PDA Kids
PDA is still gaining familiarity in the US but is an established diagnosis in the UK and Australia. We are still learning about this profile through research, so much of our knowledge is still working knowledge.
However, I can leave you with a few absolutes about life with a PDA’er:
1. “Tough Love” Fails PDA Kids
The “Tough Love” approach doesn’t work. Further, it likely causes secondary difficulties far more intense than the original conflict.
2. Equalizing Behavior
Children with PDA seek equalizing behaviors when they feel their autonomy is compromised. These may be the stress responses mentioned above, but these behaviors can be internalized as well.
It’s important to be aware of both the surface behaviors (fight/flight) and the hidden behaviors (freeze). In older kids, you might see restricted eating and other “take control” behaviors.
These are stress responses and not manipulation tactics. How can you support your child’s sense of safety?
3. Seek Neurodiversity-Affirming Support
I recommend anyone who has a diagnosed or suspected PDA’er to work with a PDA parent coach. Many healthcare professionals are uninformed about PDA. When this is the case, their advice can be deleterious.
4. PDA Kids Are Often Misdiagnosed
PDA’ers present very often as atypically Autistic. This means they may have been missed for diagnoses from pediatricians, previous school personnel, etc.
I recommend contacting a PDA Affirming professional to see if an autism screening is warranted.
5. No One Knows Your Child Like You Do
Remember, you were given these children for a reason. No one knows them like you do. Your intuition is one of the best tools you have for guiding them through this life in a way that honors and meets their needs.
You read this because you care and want to support the best way you can. You’re a wonderful parent.
Recap: Supporting PDA Children
Officially called Pathological Demand Avoidance, when understood as a dysregulated nervous system, is more graciously understood as Pervasive Drive for Autonomy. Again, PDA is a profile of Autism.
Kids with PDA are often extremely scared and anxious. The fight or flight response to a perceived loss of control is automatic and is not willful. If you suspect your child struggles with PDA, seek out support. You can view a list of PDA Affirming providers here.
Megan Agee, MA, LPA is a neuro-affirming psychologist and owns Velaris Psychological Services in Charlotte, NC. She holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina and is a PDA-certified professional. Her two little boys keep her life lively, loud, and loving. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.