What came first the Pathological Demand Avoidance or the trauma?

There is always a lot of debate around PDA and what it is. Some believe it is not so much an autistic profile but a normal autistic reaction to trauma, a reaction to not having an autistic friendly upbringing perhaps so let’s explore that. First thing to say is my son has experienced both PDA and trauma and it is my belief it was the PDA being at odds with how schools operate that caused his trauma and not a reaction to trauma that caused his PDA.

To explain why I think this I will have to start at the beginning. My son was a very much planned and wanted baby, I had at the time he was born one diagnosed autistic sibling who I was (and am) very close to and who I understood, I had also worked in various roles with autistic children and adults and had additional training to support me to support them ie I had a good understanding of autism although I have to say having an autistic child taught me to understand so much more deeply.

Anyway in my eyes at least in retrospect both autism and PDA were present in my son form day one. He hated transition from outside to in, he didn’t raise his arms to be picked up, he had aversions to certain textures, didn’t like to get dirty, had delayed speech. Later he sorted items into colours and put them into lines. On the more demand avoiding side he hated being strapped in and despite absolute consistency on my part would scream and arch his back to avoid it every time, he would refuse to walk and just sit down, if I wanted to go one way he would go the other and so on. He was extremely controlling to the point I used to affectionately call him HRH (his royal highness). For more on these early signs of PDA see PDA – The early indicators.

He went to nursery for a few hours a week when he was two which was ok as he had a very understanding and experienced keyworker who would carry him around on her hip and sing to him constantly. However things changed when he moved on to preschool big time even though it was in the same building with the same children. The nature of many preschools is to get a child school ready and promote more independence, this did not sit well with my son at all. He would do anything he could to avoid going,, although he always appeared to be fine once he was there. The most common being to strip naked and throw himself around the floor or the car.

At this point (it was pre diagnoses) I was using a mix of autism strategies and conventional parenting ones. So I used to familiarise him with new experiences through pictures, let him know what was happening, who would be places, etc and also use consistency and routine and reward and consequences. However as my son transitioned into school things only got worse and what was really notable was he was on one hand a lovely polite boy who wanted to please and on the other extremely resistant to doing so many things even things I knew he enjoyed.

My son continued to find school an increasingly difficult environment to be in and didn’t get funding for extra supporters he hasn’t diagnosed until year 5 and I believe this lack of understanding for his autism and PDA traumatised him. He had violent meltdowns from 3, sometimes self injurious or injurious to others, however I know he was demand avoiding before this time and it is my view that the demand avoidance coupled with a demanding yet unsupportive environment traumatised him and caused the more violent reactions sometimes associated with PDA because he became in a fight or flight mode.

At 10 I began home education and a low demand approach (see THIS POST for more information about that) and these more aggressive behaviours stopped. I would say he took about a year and a half to recover for the worst of the trauma and he reverted to how he had been before he started school. Sweet and caring but still demand avoiding. My son knows now if he says no thank you that will be respected, he sometimes gets upset when he can’t say yes to things he wants to do but he has not had a meltdown or exhibit self injurious behaviour in around 3 and a half years.

In short my son is understood, his autistic identity is respected and celebrated, he is no longer suffering from trauma yet he is still Parhologically Demand Avoidant, it is a fundamental part of who he is, it is not a separate thing. It isn’t an issue most days because he lives a life of no demands, or as close to no demands as is possible, which allows him to step forward more but i always have to be mindful not to make things into demand or even imply a demand by my expectation.

I do not know if PDA is a profile of autism or a coexisting condition but my experiences have led me to believe it is a real thing separate to and not caused by trauma but that trauma may exasabate the more extreme and negative reactions to demands. So in conclusion, I would say PDA children are more likely to become traumatised due to the naturally high anxiety they feel and their need for freedom & equality that is not often given to children. This is why it is so vital that this profile is better understood and recognised, perhaps then PDAers can avoid suffering trauma caused by approaches and situations that feel hostile to them.

6 thoughts on “What came first the Pathological Demand Avoidance or the trauma?

  1. I agree. My son was displaying demand avoidant behaviours long before he went to school. In fact I would say it was one of the reasons I put him in JK (in Canada). Because he was so oppositional I was at my wits end. Of course by grade one. It was soooo much worse.
    Now we too have a low demand homeschool and he hasn’t had a melt down since I read The Explosive Child and adopted CPS.
    I too feel it took my guy (I’m guessing) almost three years to start to recover from the trauma of his early childhood and school.
    But things are better. He’s happy(ish). It’s good.
    Great post thank you for your blog


    Sent from my iPod

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I am so pleased to hear that your son is now much happier in home ed. I also read The Explosive Child, love Ross Greene.


  2. Totally agree. There was no trauma for our girl but she’s always shown this extreme avoidance which is what led us to PDA. It’s definitely not trauma although there’s a good chance trauma plays a part in most PDAers lives – but it doesn’t come first, the condition is there already IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting and providing the details of your experience. I can absolutely see why some people think this as autistic people with trauma can become demand avoiding too but it is not the same. I remember putting my son in one of those door bouncers and him refusing to bounce, I had never seen a baby not reacting as soon as they got in. I tried bouncing it for him and he just remained passive. It is so hard to explain to others who haven’t seen it with their own eyes.


  3. It is finding what works for each child. What doesn’t work is the one size fits all school approach.
    Can’t comment on next post but that is so true. I remember son getting so frustrated that he had to always put his hand up for help and then sir please can you help me. The teachers would ruthenium always say – now say thank you. He said ‘they wouldn’t make someone in a wheelchair do that so why am I expected to do this with my invisible disability’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is that lack of flexibility that really hampers so many children like you say. It can be so difficult for many autistic children to ask for help and so wrong they should be expected to for that reason.

      Liked by 1 person

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