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; an overactive neuroception system. 

Overactive or highly sensitive neuroception is not faulty cognition, it is a filter through which information is sent from the body to the brain. 

It powerfully determines which autonomic pathway is activated and this determines the response that is generated. 

When we talk about differently wired brains and start to become really curious about the neuroscience of PDA, we come face to face with how a brain wired for protection can present.

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

This article is just the tip of the iceberg though.  In it, I explore how the nervous system is constantly working hard in the background, out of our awareness, determining our autonomic state.   This is governed by what Stephen Porges refers to as Neuroception; our nervous system’s threat detection system. 

I hypothesised in my article linked above that highly sensitive Neuroception may be at the heart of PDA, which I absolutely believe it to be.  This article only covers the very early stages of this area of enquiry however, and needs to be quite considerably expanded in order to present all of the layers required for a neurobiological formulation of PDA.

To build such a formulation, we need to explore and understand the autonomic nervous system in greater depth and the way it relates to Autism and PDA. 

One of the key benefits of doing this, is that it allows us to start to build a respectful friendship with our own autonomic nervous system, and crucially to see, feel and experience how interconnected our nervous systems are.

Understanding how our own nervous system communicates with our child’s, can be and for us has been, deeply important.  I am working away on writing about this in a much more detailed piece of work, which I hope to update you on in the near future.
PDA, as a profile of Autism, is multifaceted and complex.  Many expressions of PDA can be understood as being in pursuit of safety.

In mainstream society our personal freedom, autonomy and agency is threatened every day, many times a day. 

This happens even more frequently for children. 

For those with an anxiety driven need for control, some of these ‘threats’ are packaged in the form of everyday demands.

Demands is a very broad term that needs to be unpacked and made sense of on an individual basis.

The PDA Autistic response to demands is akin to a person’s survival response to fear.  It is being driven by a neuroception of threat.

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

Effective support also hinges on a reliable understanding of Autism.

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


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By Jessica Matthews

Neurodivergent 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.