If you saw the Channel 4 documentary 'Born Naughty?' last thursday, it might have been the first time you had come across the term 'pathological demand avoidance' or PDA for short. It is still not recognised by many professionals but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they do though!
Elizabeth Newson in the 1980s found that there was a group of children who had ASD but that they had distinct characteristics.
· obsessively resisting ordinary demands. If you view the child a being extremely anxious, the everyday request can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. It's about threshold and tolerance levels which can be very low. The more relaxed they are, the higher these can be. Absolute refusal is common but other techniques can include 'shocking' tactics or use of behaviour/language designed to put the reciprocating adult off their stride. I can't repeat on here, some of the things that have been said to me! The brighter the child, the more bizarre the behaviour they can counjer up! Many of the children I have worked with have had social workers who have had to come in pairs!
· appearing sociable on the surface but lacking depth in their understanding (often recognised by parents early on). This can be the smoke screen that causes others to dismiss ASD, as social communication is such a key part to an ASD profile. This level of sociability can lead to the child being able to be very manipulative.
· excessive mood swings, often switching suddenly. This is usually observed in all situations and worse where they aren't as relaxed. However, Parents report that sometimes, children can change as soon as they get home. This is because they are stressed throughout the day, manage to hold it in and then explode where they are more relaxed. I think its like a bottle of pop, shaken all day then you take the top off!!!!. Parents are often the brunt of the behaviour. The signs of anxiety can be many things but can usually be spotted, they include obvious body tension in hands, shoulders etc but you can also spot other things including their voice becoming higher as the tension affects their larynx. if you can identify the signs, it is sometimes possible to diffuse before a problem occurs. I have been very lucky to date to have been able to do this during assessments, so in the case of one child, was the only professional to avoid attack!
· comfortable (sometimes to an extreme extent) in role play and pretending. I have found that the pattern of play is different so that they like to control the play with others eg I observed a 6 year old playing 'mums and dads' which looked appropriate but was actually her fully controlling the situation. She wasn't able to listen to any suggestions from others. Honey from Born this way programme 1, played 'dressing up' with my colleagues Charlotte and Frances but she dressed them not the other way around.
· language delay, seemingly as a result of passivity, but often with a good degree of 'catch-up'. At first sight it can seem totally appropriate BUT closer analysis shows they are hiding it well. Coping with receptive or expressive language issues and masking them from others must take so much effort and is in itself anxiety provoking.
· obsessive behaviour, often focused on people rather than things.
All behaviour is telling us something and as professionals we need to identify the cause. there's no point in just working out a behaviour management plan unless we are addressing the core issues. The behaviour is merely the symptom. Many of the traditional ASD strategies don't work or don't work consistently but should still be tried. If we see PDA behaviour as 'panic attacks' it helps us to cope and deal appropriately. If we can help them manage the anxiety, reduce the the things which cause anxiety and help with any receptive and expressive language issues, we can go a long way to help the child.
There is no magic wand cure for PDA and the demands on their family is unimagine-able. Parenting is hard enough in usual conditions, so I take my hat off to each and every one!