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PDA And Language

What kind of language might be considered to be PDA friendly?

Language that is underpinned by an understanding, respect for and acceptance that all children, but especially children with a PDA profile of Autism, need autonomy, agency and the freedom to express themselves openly and authentically, is much more likely to be PDA friendly. 

Non threatening and non instructional language is a great start.  It is also crucial that the language we use reflects our authentic meaning.  Carefully choosing words in order “to get” something to happen, will be detected and will nearly always have the opposite effect.

It is important that we find authentic and organic phrases that are for our children and not simply lifted from a “textbook” approach.

That said, reflecting on working examples can help us to consider the way we communicate with our children and how we might start to modulate our approach.

I have found it really helpful to notice which phrases are more easily accepted by William and to keep these in mind for future discussions.  Equally, paying attention to the phrases that elicit a stress response and making sure that we avoid these wherever possible, is incredibly helpful.

At the most basic level, we noticed very early on that using the word NO elicited a very strong response in William and that this word needed to be avoided at all costs. No child likes to be told No, but for the PDA child the word NO is not just difficult, it is incredibly threatening.

Some exemplars of PDA friendly phrases, that may help spark further ideas and reflections on this topic include:

  • Sharing our thoughts out loud, such as:

I’m wondering whether…
I noticed that…
I was thinking we could…
I had an idea about…

  • Using open invitations can be less anxiety inducing than specific suggestions or prompts.
  • Use of the word we is also really helpful.

Shall we go and choose a game to play together?

  • Using declarative language.

Declarative language invites discussion rather than demanding it. It helps put the listener at ease and promotes a sense of relationship through the sharing of thoughts, feelings and ideas. Declarative language can be thought of as a form of commentary. It is a non threatening way of creating shared experiences through descriptive language.

Declarative language can be used to share knowledge in a relaxed and open way. Declarative language can also reduce power imbalances in relationships, such as the parent-child or teacher-student relationship, where an inherent power imbalance exists. The infographic below provides a basic overview of how declarative language differs from other common types of language.

Non PDA friendly language includes direct questions, prompts and demands. This form of communication puts immense pressure on the nervous system and can feel very threatening.

I found it interesting to reflect on how I used to use declarative language automatically with my peers, but less so with children. Making this necessary shift in my communication has definitely helped my son. Declarative Language can be a much less demanding form of communication. It is less directive and invites engagement. It is not a way to get compliance, it is a gentle and respectful way of approaching tasks and activities, using language that is less likely to trigger anxiety and panic.

Declarative language is just one layer of a PDA friendly approach, but it is a very important one to explore.

When we do integrate questions as part of our interactions with our children, we can phrase them in ways that are more PDA friendly. I have found that well worded questions, within narratives that are otherwise dominated by declarative language are received more easily. I have also found it helpful to notice which phrases are more easily accepted by William and to put these on our list. Equally, I notice phrases that elicit an anxiety response, however well worded they are and I make sure we avoid these wherever possible.

Declarative language is just one layer of a PDA friendly approach, but it is a very important one.

Here are some examples of simple statements using declarative language and some examples ‘PDA Friendly’ questions.


Reflecting on the language we use with our children, is just one part of our connection with them.  It is yet another part of the rich tapestry that contributes to relational safety.

For more information, you are very welcome over at:  Changing The Narratives Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ChangingTheNarrativeAboutAutismAndPDA/

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.

3 replies on “PDA And Language”

I have worked for many years now with autism – mainly high functioning, but also with other types like PDA. This article on changing the language is exactely my approach. I call my work, Organic Disentanglement. It is true that the declarative language you have identified is very much the key. Tell me if the following also rings true for you? There is a deeper level even than language, but which language must support and it is the level of trust. Gaining trust is a slow but deliberate process, of showing one’s humanity, one’s vulnerability, one’s imperfection because it is how we are. We choose to striving for excellence and truth and fairness and we make that explicit in a kind and respectful way. This gives a message of permission to the other. Permission to be imperfect. It refocuses from product to process, growth, empathy, alignment and this dynamic relationship builds the trust. Slow, step by step, moment by moment, over a long period of time so that layers and networks of brain plasticity and connection grow in organically. The process is non-formulaic. It is human, sensitive to the other, more like a dance where creative responses interact with receptive responses and the lead changes back and forth. The lens of every moment through which we interact and relate, focuses our eye, our attention, on building trust. If people use sarcasm, irony, parody, sattire, metaphor etc, it sends double signals to the brain of the other. If they are autistic, it causes degrees of confusion and undermines sending waves of ‘threat’. I appreciate your research and your articles. They are crucial for evolution of humanity. It is my work too.

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