What is PDA?
PDA is an acronym which stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance. But anyone with PDA will tell you this does not encompass the true experience of PDA. Persistent Drive for Autonomy is closer to it. PDA is considered to be a profile of Autism and is an anxiety driven need to be independent and in control and avoid others demands. There is some emerging research to show PDA is its own separate diagnosis- but in Australia it falls under the umbrella of ASD. Which is a problem because PDAers don’t always ‘look Autistic’ and PDA doesn’t always get recognised.
So what does PDA look like?
Children with PDA are often labelled negatively as defiant, stubborn, lazy, rebellious, and have ‘no respect for authority’. PDAers are often very creative, persuasive, socially motivated and have good conversation skills. Even from a young age they are masters at avoiding demands and coming up with creative context dependent ways to avoid doing what their neurological system perceives as ‘too demanding.’ For example in swimming lessons they need to when the teacher gives an instruction (demand) the child might become a cat who hates water and can’t swim and stay in this character for the rest of the lesson. They have heightened neuroception which often presents as anxiety or panic attacks as their brain is on high alert- constantly searching for threats within their environment. Children with PDA who are still learning emotional regulation will have a melt down when asked to brush their teeth, perform all sorts of gymnastics when it’s time to get in the car to go to school and even refuse to put a hat and shoes on because they know they are pre-requisites for going outside. It may feel like the melt down or panic attack came out of nowhere, but the child has been coping with demands all day and this final ‘demand’ has tipped them over the edge. PDAers don’t just avoid things they don’t want to do or that they find hard- they avoid demands even when it’s something they enjoy. For example, the child might love bike riding but on a particular day the demands of putting on a helmet (plus the sunscreen, clothes, shoes, sunglasses) following all the ‘rules’ like stopping at a road, watching for cars, looking out for other kids plus the parents hurrying them up so they can go out and get back before lunch- it becomes too demanding. If you are parenting a child with PDA you will hear the phrase “don’t tell me what to do” or “Let me do it myself” through both verbal language or behaviour.
So what are some strategies for managing PDA? Spoiler alert, rewards charts, gold stars, traditional discipline with consequences doesn’t work. Why not? Because behaviour associated with PDA is not a choice it’s a reaction to stress and fear and behaviour programs and visuals are demands in themselves that usually exacerbate the issue.
Pick your battles- Anytime you feel the need to demand something from the child with PDA ask yourself how important is it really? If it is going to create an unnecessary power struggle then let it go.
Anxiety management- Children with PDA can go into fight, flight freeze very quickly due to heighted neuroception. They require low demand environments, calm spaces and time and space to regulate.
Negotiate and collaborate- some things are non-negotiable if they involve safety. But if there is a way of empowering the child to do it themselves or have some control and independence- they will be much more willing to participate. PDA is a persistent drive for autonomy!
Disguise and manage demands. Saying “Do as I say because I’m in charge” does not work for children with PDA. Demands have to be disguised as opportunities “let’s all put our shoes and hats and sunscreen on so we can all go outside and play” as opposed to “go put your shoes, hat and sunscreen on or else you can’t go outside” For some children offering choices can also be a demand so just placing shoes and hat on the way out the door is a subtle way of encouraging independence without it being a ‘demand’
Adaption. As the adult with the fully formed neurocortex we have to be the ones to be flexible and adapt even if the child is being rigid and unreasonable. Take a breath and remember this is a neurological condition and the PDA child is not trying to push your buttons. It might be different to traditional parenting/ discipline strategies but it is what your child needs to function and thrive. Take some demands of yourself and try not to think about societal expectations of what a ‘good’ parent should do e.g., discipline their child, make sure they always have matching socks neat hair and are quiet and compliant. You are doing the best for your child based on their needs and it will look different. Have faith in yourself and trust your instincts.
For more information or resources on PDA look at:
Kristy Forbes In tune with PDA https://www.kristyforbes.com.au/PDA
Christina Keeble Parenting PDA https://christinakeeble.com/events/
Positively PDA https://www.facebook.com/PositivelyPDA1
Harry Thompson PDA extraordinaire https://www.facebook.com/HarryThompsonPDAExtraordinaire
The PANDA on PDA
The Panda on PDA A Children's Introduction to Pathological Demand Avoidance By: Gloria Dura-Vila, Rebecca Tatternorth (Illustrator)
Me and my PDA written by Gloria Dura-Vila, Tamar Levi
I’m not upside down I’m downside up- not a boring book about PDA : Danielle Jata-Hall, Harry Thompson, Mollie Sherwin (Illustrator)
Written by Calla Dolton BCi, BEd(sec), MSpPath Certified Practising Speech Pathologist
Blog posts are written by all members of the RSP team.