The Way We Talk About PDA Matters

When I read about the core features of PDA, I am able to see lots of examples of each in William. But when I think about how some of these features are described, I do wonder whether we could do so in more positive ways. One (of many) examples of this, for me, is the idea that PDAers withdraw into fantasy. I’m going to reflect on this feature in children.

The National Autistic Society describe how for some children with PDA; avoidance strategies include:

“Distracting the person making the demand, acknowledging the demand but excusing themselves, procrastination and negotiation, physically incapacitating themselves, and Withdrawing into fantasy.”

The word “withdrawing” suggests that this is problematic in some way, a “symptom” of PDA even. However, there are aspects of the way individuals with PDA use fantasy that could be seen as incredibly functional and protective. If a child feels afraid or threatened by a request / demand and their nervous system is telling them to avoid or escape it, using some form of fantasy or “story” to help them, is actually a pretty smart idea. It is a much more adaptive way of escaping a perceived threat than an aggressive strategy, for example.

But if we go one step further than this and consider how the use of fantasy is a critical part of any child’s developmental journey, we can formulate the use of fantasy as a strength. John Holt viewed fantasy as a positive and incredibly important part of children’s learning. Interestingly he more specifically said that:

“Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world”

He argued that because children just want to do what the adults around them do; read, use tools, make decisions and to ultimately have control over their lives, they will use fantasy to “pretend” they have the power that they crave. Holt also explains that using fantasy is something that is a fundamental and growfuthful part of how children LEARN. If children with PDA are spending extended periods of time in fantasy, Holt would argue that they are spending extended periods of time learning.

So perhaps the PDA child should not be described as withdrawing into fantasy in a way that is problematic, but rather as simply being in need of more fantasy play at times when they feel most powerless. It also strikes me that fantasy play is a really important tool for children with PDA and I can absolutely see why they would want to and need to cling onto it.

Furthermore, when a child with PDA is engaged in fantasy, it is also a really wonderful opportunity for us to meet them where they are and to genuinely be alongside them whilst they explore their emotions. If they are happy for us to do this (or to give us the script they want us to follow or the character they want us to be) these are really critical moments for us to embrace; without agenda or direction, but rather with lots of unconditional love and support. 💛

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By Jessica Matthews

Neurodivegent Mother, Independent Researcher, and Writer. Background in Psychology and Counselling with postgraduate training in Clinical Psychology (BSc Hons Psychology and Trained Integrative Counsellor). Passionate about Neurodivergent Identity, Non-neuronormative Narratives and Polyvagal Informed Parenting.

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