Why I feel stretching and pushing are the wrong learning approaches for a *Pathologically Demand Avoidant child.

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;

https://www.pdasociety.org.uk/what-is-PDA

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9 thoughts on “Why I feel stretching and pushing are the wrong learning approaches for a *Pathologically Demand Avoidant child.

  1. We’ve been guilty of this – thank you for the reminder! x

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    1. I think we have all been guilty of this at some point, it a standard approach that in the case of PDA we have to unlearn I think x

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  2. Yes, I have been questioning this approach too but was unable to pinpoint why it felt wrong – other than it felt like a form of lying to our kids. You have articulated it so much better. Thank you.

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  3. This is really interesting… I think I’ve been doing this with my daughter without realising. Has given me food for thought, thank you.

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    1. Thanks for reading Kathryn. When I first dropped Demands I thought it would be a temporary thing but over time instead of adding things I have dropped more because I have seen the benefits of allowing my son to step forward. With time mine and his confidence has grown and I keep seeing more things that I do that are unnecessary or needn’t be done in the usual way. It has been a real challenge for me as I naturally gravitated towards a very traditional parenting approach after time as a nanny, an independent living support worker and a TA, it’s an on going process and (dare I say it) a learning curve. It is so lovely writing this blog and hearing from amazing parents like yourself who’s minds are open to different approaches and are trying so very hard to find the right approaches for their child and working on them everyday.

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  4. I think I’ve just figured out one of the reasons I find it so anxiety provoking doing housework for my Dad.

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  5. This is a really interesting post and I agree with you on much of it, piling more “food” onto someone’s plate when they’re really not coping with eating, is cruel and counterproductive. However, I’ve found that sometimes, offering new experiences or challenges is really important.
    I think we build resilience in our children (whether PDA or not) by giving them small, incremental and manageable challenges to overcome and being responsive and supportive to what they’re communicating to us. For us, sometimes a “no way” in the morning can migrate to a “maybe” by the afternoon and a “yes” by the evening – ultimately the decision is always in our daughter’s control, but we don’t throw the idea away because of that initial “no”, neither do we insist on it, or pile on the pressure, we stress the positives and leave the door open, so that she can make a decision without all the accompanying anxiety if it’s perceived as a demand. When she overcomes the challenges that she initially thought were impossible and too anxiety-provoking, we see her growing in confidence, feeling more capable and more in control of her anxiety and fears – it is the demand/anxiety cycle IN REVERSE. Obviously sometimes it backfires, and she needs time and space to recover, but we constantly assure her that failure is also part of learning and try to unpick what she’s learnt from the experience.

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    1. The word resilience makes me shudder as it so misused but that aside. It is not about stopping giving opportunities, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is when you say to a child we will just go for twenty mins and then kept adding 5 mins or when a child says no and you keep badgering them. Putting a suggestion out there and letting it sit or if they want to discuss it allowing space for discussion so it can migrate from a no is something I would do too. The key thing is not moving the goal posts or pulling the rug from under their feet. So perhaps I would suggest to my son we go swimming or trampolining and he is reluctant and I say well I know it was a long one last time or a long time since you have been but we could just go for twenty mins? If he agreed to that I would never add 5 or 10 mins that time or next time unless he said to me can I stay longer and it is allowing them stretch their own boundaries by giving them the confidence that they are in control not us imposing new or moving old that works well in my experience. I hope that clears it up a bit for you? X

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  6. Agree 100% – stretching things out, adding 5mins, manipulating; it is all counterproductive, shows a lack of respect for our daughter’s boundaries & reduces trust. Reducing trust increases anxiety & increasing anxiety results in misery for everyone. For us it’s about respect, love & encouragement with no strings attached.

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