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 changingthenarrativeaboutautism

Author: Integrative Counsellor, BSc (Hons) Psychology.

Neurodivergent Mother, passionate about the acceptance and respectful treatment of neurodivergent children and adults.

My personal experience, relationship and connection with my son, provides me with a depth of insight into PDA. Our family's lived experience and love for our son, has driven me to research and write about PDA.

In addition to this lived experience, which I am very gradually making sense of, my professional background supports my ability to critically reflect and make sense of some of the strengths and difficulties we face.

My career started in 1999, when I graduated with a 2:1 BSc Hons Psychology degree. As a graduate I worked in a residential care setting for Adults with Autism and Learning Disabilities. I went onto complete a further three years Integrative Counselling training and then later; two years clinical psychology training. My clinical experience includes working for the NHS, Action for Children and Relate:

For the NHS, I worked in a University Hospital Psychology and Counselling service, a Community Mental Health Team, a Parenting Team and a Community Neuro Rehabilitation Team.

For Action for Children, I worked in a Leaving Care Team, and in a residential care setting for Looked After Children.

For Relate, I worked in the young people's service providing therapy to children facing a range of difficulties from trauma, loss and separation to depression, anxiety and self-harm.

I first developed my interest in Neuroscience as an undergraduate. I connected more fully with this during my time working as a trainee alongside a very inspiring Neuropsychologist in a Community Neuro Rehabilitation team. My passion for neuroscience became even more valuable to me, when I became a parent.

The Polyvagal Theory, in particular, has been central in helping me to develop a deeper understanding of PDA.

This led me to hypothesise and write about the relationship between neuroception and PDA in my article “Highly Sensitive Neuroception May Be at The Heart of PDA”.

I hope you find this site helpful and I thank you for your participation and feedback.


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