Often in schools and intervention services there is a policy of stretching autistic children so they can do more, a kind of incremental increase in activity or workload. This approach is seen as desirable and a way of insuring a child reaches their potential. A similar approach is also often implemented by parents. Sometimes a reward is involved and sometimes it is a case of building confidence and skills then encourage the child to do more. In theory this approach seems great, kind and reasonable, however for PDAers and, as I stop and think about it, perhaps many children, I feel there is a fundamental flaw in this approach.
To explain what I mean let me tell you a story. I had a friend a few years ago who was really worried about her child who was not eating enough and was failing to gain any weight so she was understandably concerned about him. My son has sensory issues so food can also be an issue for him so we used to discuss how to get calories into our boys, the difference was her son was not autistic, there seemed to be no reason for his food aversion and we both started to suspect a phycological cause, that perhaps something was stressing or upsetting him.
One day my son was playing at their house and he asked to stay for tea, an extremely rare thing for him as he does not like eating in front of strangers. So we all sat around the table and it was clear there how difficult things had got with this little boys eating, he was sobbing and negotiating and begging not to eat more after just a few moments.
His father reached over and did something my parents had done with me many times and divided a small amount of food off the rest and said just eat that bit. The boys sobbing relented a little and the boy ate the food. So far so good. However as soon as he ate that bit of food the father broke off the another section and said encouragingly if you eat that bit too you can have your pudding. The child was hysterical and ended up being sent to their room.
The following week we went to tea again and this time it was pancake day and the little boy loved pancakes so there was no fuss about eating a large pancake and he cleared his plate. The minute the plate was clear another pancake appeared on his plate without the child being asked and the child started to cry, he had eaten his food and been praised for it and now he was expected to eat more than he was comfortable with, who could blame him.
Thankfully I knew this family well enough that I was able to make the suggestion that they left the boy to eat what he was comfortable with, enjoy his food in peace without constant encouragement and what was looking like the start of an eating disorder was nipped in the bud. The parents were amazed that when they backed off their son was happy to eat.
Can you see now why the pushing and stretching model of teaching and parenting can be such an issue for many children especially PDAers? In the child’s head if they do what they are asked/expected to more is just piled on, their reward is more or harder work or activities. Where is the incentive? Is it not enough to switch anyone of learning and participating?
But how then will I get this child to engage, fulfilling their potential or whatever goal I have set for them? The answer is you don’t, they do. Just as every child has a fundamental need and urge to eat, every child has the urge to learn, to grow and be a success and I believe it is our job not to force feed them knowledge and experience but to create an environment where knowledge and experience is available and trust them to make the most of the opportunity.
Children respond well to being trusted, it makes them feel valued which in turn gives them confidence which are stow of the most important learning tools you can have. For a pathologically demand avoidant child this approach is by far the least anxiety inducing approach there is so it means they are in an emotional place they are not only willing to but able to learn. After all have you ever tried learning a new skill when you are highly stressed? Next to impossible isn’t it?
This is the approach I have used home educating my twelve year old son after mainstream had failed him and two highly respected groundbreaking private schools had refused to accept him label him as un-teachable. He is now the instigator of his own learning and it is not unusual for the first thing he says when he wakes up in the morning to be can we learn x,y or z today? Or he may tell me that work you have been giving me is too easy, can I have something harder or I am really enjoying maths can I have some more please?
This did not happen over night, he had to build trust that I wasn’t going to just pile on the work once he started showing an interest, I had to curb my enthusiasm for seeing him learn and make it about him not me. Over time trust has built up between us and we can enjoy his learning journey together at his pace.
*Pathological Demand Avoidance is part of the autism spectrum for more information please visit the PDA Societies website by clicking the link below;