Making Sense of PDA

The current view of PDA is that it is an anxiety driven need to remain in control.

Research into PDA is still in its infancy and there are many ongoing questions around PDA. 

One of these has been around whether PDA is in fact anxiety driven.

Anxiety has many and varied presentations, some of which are invisible, many of which are misunderstood. 

We sometimes refer to anxiety as though it’s definition is a universally accepted truth. 

But anxiety can be seen in many forms and the way we understand it, makes a big difference to how insightful and compassionate we are in navigating it.

When we look at anxiety through a Polyvagal lens, it becomes much clearer, and for me most fully applicable to PDA. 

Through a Polyvagal lens, anxiety is; a highly sensitive neuroception system. 

Highly sensitive neuroception is not faulty neuroception, it is simply part of having a differently shaped nervous system. 

A nervous system that experiences the world deeply and intensely, in a way that can be frequently overwhelming.

Our neuroception powerfully determines which of our 3 neural circuits (or states) are most dominant. 

Each of our 3 states determines the responses we have and the meaning we make of our experiences.


Becoming really curious about the neuroscience of PDA, may bring us closer to understanding how a brain wired for protection can present.

Protective responses in the form of the Five Fs, was set out in one of my earlier articles here:

In this article I explore more about how our nervous system’s are constantly working hard in the background, out of our awareness, determining our autonomic state, governed by our nervous system’s safety and threat detection system (neuroception). 

In the article’s exploration of whether highly sensitive neuroception may be at the heart of PDA, I speak to the importance of building on this formulation, by exploring the nuances of our autonomic nervous system.

The benefits of doing this, include starting a journey of befriending our nervous systems, and beginning to experience just how interconnected our nervous systems are with other nervous systems around us.

Exploring this in terms of how our nervous system communicates with our child’s, can be and for us has been, deeply important. 

PDA, as a ‘profile of Autism’, or as a distinct part of one’s Autistic experience for some, can be thought of as part of a complex and multifaceted response system, that needs to be understood in context.

For me, and in our family’s experience, PDA is a quest for safety in a world (and systems) that are both traumatised and traumatising.

Having a PDA Autistic response system, may be thought about as a set of distinct responses that arise when experiencing a neuroception of threat, or the absence of sufficient cues of safety.

Understanding the Autonomic Nervous system (ANS) is so important in helping us to support Autistic children, and ourselves as adults, to feel safer in a demanding world.

Effective support may also be deepened by understanding the Autistic experience from multiple Autistic perspectives.

I highly recommend reading the following two articles as part of reflecting on our understanding of what it is to be Autistic.

What is Autism?


What Is Autism?

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By Jessica Matthews

Writer, home educator and Autistic advocate, with specialisations in psychology, polyvagal theory, Autistic / neurodivergent wellbeing.
BACP Integrative therapist, Post Grad training in Clinical Psychology , BSC Psychology Hons degree.