If a child is demand avoiding due to PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) you really need to be able to recognise demands in all there forms to understand why they feeling anxious over loaded or melting down. You may think it is obvious what a demand looks like but some are more subtle than others.
Direct Demands – This is what we think of when we think of a demand ie ‘Put your shoes on’, ‘Stop doing that’, ‘We have to go now’.
It may seem difficult to live life without these kind of demands but you can, with practice, learn to reframe them. Some examples of this would be instead of ‘Put your shoes on’ try Here are your shoes.’ Or Instead of ‘we have to go know’ make it fun by saying something like ‘Race you to the door’.
Implied demands – Implied demands are the ones we don’t notice as much as they are more are more subtle. They are the demands we take for granted and are not even always verbalised. ‘Everyone has to go to school’, ‘Children should be well mannered’, ‘People should be close to relatives and attend family events’.
Some of these implied demands are easier to reframe or avoid than others. Talking about them can help and having a collaborative style of parenting such the one Dr Ross Greenes sets out in the book ‘The Explosive Child’ can be very beneficial. I think when you have a PDA child it is time to really question the norms and ask yourself which of these demands we are brought up with and take for granted are really necessary and helpful.
Praise and reward
At first glance this seems like a positive thing for all children and great for confidence and for reinforcing positive behaviour right? Not so for the PDA child, praise can be seen as an implied demand to do well again next time and reward is conditional on something being done in the first place.
This is a hard one to stop doing and it can feel difficult to get around after all every parent wants to praise there child or show them that they have done well, some days I feel in a constant state of biting my tongue. Some ways around it are to reward without announcement or expectation.
Try to avoid direct praise such as ‘You are so good at maths’ or rewards linked to that ‘You got all your maths questions right so here is a gift’ as that may make the child feel pressured to perform as well next time and so can become a demand. If you do wish to praise sticking to a simple well done is much less demanding than going into details. Or even better concentrate on demand neutral praise such as ‘the butterfly’s wings are really colourful, I love the colours you picked.’
You may of notice that compliments can be a trigger for meltdown in a Demand avoidant child, this is because of the mixture of memory of unpleasant experience and a implied demand to do it again.
A seemly harmless comment such as ‘I like your shoes, coat, haircut‘ can send a PDAer into a spiral of ‘oh yes I have new shoes that feel different and strange and that I had to go to the town on the bus with all the people on and it was noisy and smelt funny….oh they are going to expect me to do that again when these wear out, I don’t think I can go through that again.’
Often it is best to bring no attention at all to something different or a new achievement but occasionally it can work to acknowledge the difficulty in achieving something or compliment through a third party.
Many autistic people enjoy routine as it helps keep things predictable and can lessen anxiety. To some extent this is also true of many PDAers but routine imposed by somebody else can be seen as a huge demand. Allowing a PDA child to implement their own routine can really help them feel in control and ease anxiety but be warned even their own routine may become a demand and they may want to change it fairly regularly and at short (or more likely no) notice.
Celebrations and traditions
So many demands tided up with these. For many there is the huge demand of being expected to enjoy yourself which can play heavily on a PDAers mind when they know it will mean extra sensory input, unfamiliar routines and often more people around. The demands around receiving gifts in the right way and being expected to be on your best behaviour. Even when a celebration is all about the PDAer for example their birthday it can still feel like a constant list of demands to be happy, grateful, gracious, sharing etc and just being the centre of attention can in itself be a huge demand.
In our house We keep things low key, for example, we have a buffet meal instead of a traditional Christmas dinner. That way my son can eat what he likes, when he likes and there is not the pressure to sit around a table with people he doesn’t often see. In recent years I stagger gift giving and don’t give him any surprises as it can be a huge demand to open something unknown and decided if you like and act appropriately.
One thing that has really helped me is to ask myself at birthdays and Christmas ‘Is this for my son or is it for me?’ There is so much expectation in what we should provide as parents in terms of creating memories especially at times of celebration but what is the point of doing things that your child just finds anxiety provoking?
Probably the biggest demand of all for a PDAer is school
School is a constant demand in a PDAers life and usually contains all of the above demands. School even controls, in many cases, what the child wears. Think about a child’s day at school and all the demands they face from getting there at a particular time, changing environments when told to, saying please and thank you, hanging your coat on he right peg, using the right draw or locker for your stuff, stopping and starting work when told to, having to learn what you are told to, only speaking when it is the right time, only asking questions when invited, only using the toilet or having a drink when you have permission the list goes on.
Yes school is probably the most demanding place on the planet for a PDAer and totally outside of their control. It is no wonder that in a recent survey by the PDA society 70% of PDA children were not in school. Many like my own son end up in home education either because of exclusion or anxiety as they simply can not cope with all the demands often coupled with sensory overload.
There are somethings schools can do to reduce demands like offering choice in learning, allowing the child to access a safe space by using a time out card, to accept when PDA child says they can’t do something and allow them the space to join in later if they wish instead. Giving written instruction instead of verbal as it is less demanding, allowing some control over the order things are done, generally being far more flexible whenever possible.
It is important to remember that the definition of PDA is ‘an anxiety led need for control’. PDAers do not avoid demands to be awkward or picky, infact even things that they wish to do can become demands that they will resist just because they are a demand. This is due to the enormous anxiety that PDAers feel. In my experience the key to helping reduce anxiety is to, whenever possible, take the pressure off, if you take a step back, they will usually feel able to step forward.