Saturday 15th August 2020 – by Harry Thompson
It is no secret to my listeners, readers and friends that in my experience in working with PDA families, I have come to loathe one, simple question: “How do I get my child to X?” Now on the surface, this question may seem harmless and reasonable, but let me explain to you why I find it so bothersome, and why it could potentially be damaging.
PDA (which stands for “Pathological (horrible word)” Demand Avoidance is understood by most as an ‘anxiety-driven need to be in control’. A demand represents the venom which drips from the fangs of a viper. A demand is a dangerous agent that poses a direct threat to a PDA person’s sense of freedom – our most essential nutrient. When you are PDA, feeling free or in control takes precedence over anything else. If control or freedom are lost, the PDA person will resort to most anything to regain it. I describe the PDA person’s relationship to control and freedom as being comparable to that of a mother and her child, in the sense that it is maternal. Losing control can feel like losing something you need to protect and keep an eye on at all times.
Asking the question “How do I get my child to X?” isn’t only indicative of the parent consciously or unconsciously trying to seize control from the child, but it also illustrates that there is an emotional and psychological gulf between the parent and their PDA child. Being PDA means that in order to cooperate with a person, we have to be on the same level as them. It is for this reason that establishing a rapport and presenting oneself as the child’s equal must be the go-to approach. Any attempts by an adult – the parent or teacher, et cetera – to impose upon the child an instruction, or authority in general, will be met with resistance. The PDA child is unable to cooperate with a person who has not yet earnt their trust. Furthermore, the idea of fixed roles – teacher, doctor, and even parent – can be perplexing. If an authority figure presents themselves as the child’s superior and keeps their role at the fore, this in effect conceals a person’s humanness. Who could possibly comply with a non-human presenting itself as your superior who wishes to steal your life-force?
I also find the question “How do I get my child to do X?” problematic in the sense that it suggests there is little or no interest on the part of the parent in accessing or learning more about their PDA child’s world – which would be a preliminary stage in meeting the child on their level. This is an example of invalidating the child’s experience. The PDA child intuitively knows who is or isn’t on their level. It is my personal belief that this in part marks the inception of the positive or negative PDA social obsession – which is, for the record, part of the diagnostic criteria.
For example, when I meet a new person, I instinctively start trying to work out whether or not there can be harmony between us. I am on the lookout for absentmindedness, limited capacity to understand autism, PDA and neurodiversity, and self-centredness. If either of these things exist, I am on high alert. I know I have to be on the same level as people in order to cooperate with them or form relationships with them, so if there exists an unbridgeable gulf between myself and another, I either want to find quick and efficient ways of reconciling my world with theirs, clown around and be silly, or just stay away completely.
Despite everything I have said thus far, I am aware that sometimes parents phrase a question in such a way due to it being, say, a non-negotiable. Even still, there are alternatives to asking, “How do I get my child to X?” I often encourage parents to become entrepreneurial – to see themselves as selling a product. As opposed to being dictatorial – ordering their child to do something. My PDA law is inspiration over instruction – you cannot push us into anything, but we can be lured in.
If a parent can neutrally convey or demonstrate the intrinsic value of an activity, ritual or practise, and so long as we are aware that doing something will not lead to loss of control or diminishing returns, there isn’t a reason why the thing can’t be done. Reciprocity isn’t only important in personal relationships; it’s also important when it comes to a PDA person’s activities too. If taking a step forward means that control is lost and no benefit reaped, then the activity itself is flawed and inherently demanding. When it comes to PDA, there has to be a compelling ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor. I always say that I don’t write books or blogs, I don’t give talks and I don’t make YouTube videos. I BECOME the article I am writing. I BECOME the talk I am giving, and I BECOME the YouTube video I am recording. I don’t DO anything – if I am doing something, this implies separation between myself and the thing I intend to do, leaving room for a demand to wiggle its way in. If I become the physical embodiment of the thing I intend to do, there is no separation, and thus the thing becomes possible, not because I do it but because I become it. This process can partly be described as a flow state – becoming so immersed in an activity that you become one with it.
It is important to note that this is not the same as offering a reward – reward and punishment systems never works for PDA, as remaining in control is the greatest reward of all. Rewards set and defined by parents for good behaviour are forms of extrinsic motivation, whereas a PDA child being drawn to something on the basis they have ascertained the thing’s intrinsic value is a form of intrinsic motivation – the only way a PDA child CAN be motivated.
Instead of asking “how do I get my child to X?” perhaps some better questions would be “is X really that important?” “What is the true meaning of why we do X?” “Why does my child avoid X?” “What could it be about X that my child finds so unsafe?” These questions are less anxiety-provoking for me because they succeed in challenging the notion of X, and at no point does the child’s experience get invalidated, because there is a genuine desire to understand the child’s world, and not just an attempt to get them to comply.