*PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) is a presentation of autism, please click the link for more information about PDA from the PDA society website: What is PDA?*
For many PDA children going into a fantasy world is an escape from reality and therefore from anxiety. My son had two main ways of doing this, the first was dressing up and or playing a role and the second was creating worlds with his toys that he could control.
Of course all children play these types of games and most like to dress up but with PDA children it can be taken to another level so they really live it often for extended periods of time. For example my son was a dog for about six months when he was three. When I say he was a dog I mean he barked at pigeons, refused to eat using his hands, begged to sleep in the dog crate and I even caught him eating dog food from the dogs bowl. I am guessing he felt as dog he wasn’t pressured to do human things like talk (he was a ‘late’ speaker), or control urges to run or make loud noises.
Many children playing a role will tell you, for example say ‘I am a dog I need a dog bed’ but my sons role play was very much about immersing himself in it, in becoming that person or animal and often with no narrative for the benefits of those outside. He would just crawl into the dog bed a growl at me if I tried to get him to come out! He often involved our dog but interestingly not me in regards to this fantasy world, at least not as an active participant. For example when he was being a chef I was given a plate of plastic food but when I pretended to eat it he said ‘You know that’s plastic right?’ In other words if I was allowed in at all it was on his terms.
This type of play went on at this sort of intensity until he had his burn out (due toe school based anxiety) at 10, he still dips his toe in this type of play especially in tunes of stress, for example, when my sister died and he needed a suit for the funeral the briefly became a member of the mob. I suspect it my still go on quietly in his imagination but like many PDAers he is very aware when things are perceived as odd by others so may not voice it any more.
His other area of imaginative play is giving life to his toys with big backstories. He always had a dolls house where he created his own world and particularly loved playmobil toys for their realism and got frustrated at toys that didn’t behave like the real thing such as cars who’s doors did not open. He would play for hours on his own with these toys often with sound effects and complicated continued stories or ones that worked through problems he was having. To this day he has a box of WWE wrestlers and the first thing he does when he comes home is get them out and do role play with them, I am not sure what exactly because when I knock on his door he hurriedly puts them back in the box but I know that it is an important form of regulation for him.
He also has a selection of cuddlies, the most important of which is Scrappy. Scrappy is a small beanie dog. Scrappy used to go everywhere with him but now he is self conscious about that but he still comes in the bag (with his head out so he can breath obviously) when we go away and still needs to be left on the pillow for him each night. Scrappy is more than a toy, more than a comforter, he is a member of the family. Scrappy has his own wardrobe and used to be really useful at times of transition as a tool, getting scrappy ready made him fell ready so scrappy’s pjs went on first at bedtime, his Santa outfit went on at Christmas, Scrappy’s suitcase was packed before holidays and so on.
These days I think my son uses other methods of fantasy play to get the same sort of results and to build his own social understanding by playing games like the SIMs and though characters in film and TV. It is one of the reasons I personally think that restricting screen time is not necessarily the best thing for PDA and autistic children, they get a lot out of it, it is, among other things, a necessary form of self regulation for many.
I think it is so important that these creative ways of working out the world or even escaping from it are respected and not mocked by those around. I don’t think there should be an age limit on this type of play, I think it is actually a really useful form of self regulation. I do think however that if a child is being another character for a long period of time it may be good to look at anxiety levels and how to reduce them or what it is they may be trying to pretend their way out of but I wouldn’t worry about the behaviour itself. I think it is necessary and helpful for all of us to use our imagination and role play at times, PDAers just might need to do so a little more often or intensely and that is OK, being someone else can just be part of being the unique human they are, as we all are, in our own way.
Fellow parent blogger LovePDA has also written a couple of great blog posts about her daughters imaginative play, links below.