Pathological Demand Avoidance: What Mainstream Secondary School Teachers Need To Know

Pathalogical Demand Avoidance (PDA) What Mainstream Secondary School Teachers Need To Know

What Is PDA?

Pathological Demand Avoidance or PDA as it’s often known comes under the autism umbrella. But students often have a distinct profile. Like other students with an autism diagnosis they will experience difficulties with social communication and interaction, and display behaviours, activities and interests which are repetitive and restricted. However, students with PDA will also exhibit a pronounced need to be in control.

Their need for this control, is anxiety driven and leads to a need to avoid the demands and expectations of others. Although PDA students often present with behaviours that look as though they are being caused by anger and/ or wilful disobedience, behaviours are much more likely to be caused by fear, anxiety and confusion. This last point should be remembered and at the forefront of any strategies used.

So Why Do Children With PDA Often Not Have It Mentioned On Official Paperwork?

Many authorities in the UK do not recognise PDA as a distinct condition which needs its own diagnostic criteria. Autism is a Spectrum and as Demand Avoidance is included in the NICE criteria for Autism referral many areas do not feel a separate diagnosis is necessary. Despite this professionals working with children with Autism are increasingly aware of the condition and of the need to use distinct strategies to ensure students are able to achieve their potential in school. Some authorities are beginning to write ‘PDA strategies will help this student’ within their EHCP, which can be helpful in signposting future staff and is a way of getting around the problems surrounding the lack of a distinct diagnosis.

What Strategies Can I Use To Help In A Mainstream Classroom?

Allow Control

Finding ways to allow students to feel in control is key. Whether that’s in small ways e.g. through providing choices about a topic to write about (remember if your objective is well developed sentences you can afford to be flexible about topic), or in bigger ones such as developing a personalised timetable which involves students spending some part of each day studying something that interests them (AQA even run a scheme which allows students to be accredited for doing so).

Wherever possible try to give students chances to see that you want to work with them rather than dictate to them. Ask them what would make their day better. And don’t be offended when top of their list is not to have to come to school. If students find it difficult to talk about what causes them the most anxiety to you directly, ask parents to help by discussing it with their child and reporting back.

Reduce Pressure

Some students may need a reduced timetable. For some that might involve having less hours physically in the building. For others it may involve having more freedom in the school day. Time out cards, access to quiet areas and time to focus on their special interest can all help to reduce a student’s need to exhibit challenging behaviour in order to escape the demands put on them.

Schools need rules, otherwise they would cease to function. However, where possible and where it would not be detrimental to students, flexibility should be exercised. The less pressure put on a student the more likely they are to succeed.

Special care should be taken not to sanction or be negative to students who come into the building late. Whilst this can undeniably cause difficulties for consistency of teaching, it is more likely to cause complete school refusal than it is to result in better attendance.

Be Consistent

As with all students with Autism consistency is key. Whilst flexibility is important, that flexibility must be consistent.

Allowing something one day and then arbitrarily (in the eyes of the student at least) not allowing it the following day will cause problems. Be clear about what your boundaries and non-negotiables are, and explain why they are important to you and to the school. A rule with a good reason is much more likely to be seen as reasonable than one that seems unimportant or pointless.

Displaying important rules, reasons for those rules and consequences visually can help to avoid confrontation. As can giving students a way out. So for example, whilst we are allowed to be flexible with the uniform our students wear they are not allowed into our main building without being in full uniform.

My visual rule would therefore say:

You can choose what you wear for school. I want you to be comfortable. But if you would like to go to the main building for lunch I need you to wear full uniform. We have this rule because other students get upset if other people don’t follow rules that they have to follow. If you aren’t in full uniform we can still order your lunch and bring it across to our building, so you don’t need to miss out.

My students therefore know that I am trying to be flexible. Parents don’t have a confrontation on days where they can’t face wearing uniform. But the needs of the school as a whole are also taken into account.

It’s a balancing act. Your rules will be different to mine. I just wanted to give you an example of how consistency and flexibility can (and need to) work together.

Work With Parents

I have put this strategy last because if you only take one thing from this post, this needs to be it. Students with PDA will stretch you to the limits of your teaching capacity. They will also stretch parents to the limits of their parenting capacity. You will be much more successful in ensuring the best outcome for the student if you work together.

Remember to ensure that parents know that you recognise when their child is successful as well as when they have difficult days. Positive phone calls or notes home can go a huge way in building good relationships. Do not be afraid to ask parents what strategies work for them at home. They will respect you more not less for asking their advice. You may be the expert in your subject, but they are the expert in their child.

Parental knowledge is something that all too few professionals remember is important. As the mother of a child with additional needs it never ceases to amaze me how differently I am looked at as a mum versus as a teacher and this is something that as a profession we really do need to change.

Where Can I Find Out More?

Join our tribe at the bottom of the post to receive our free PDA Strategies Checklist, perfect for sharing with others.

Read our post about easy ways schools can reduce  demands on students with PDA within lessons.

Our online autism courses are also a great place to learn more.

The PDA Society has some excellent information online and runs courses for parents and professionals.

Steph’s Two Girls, a fantastic blog by the mum of a girl with PDA, contains lots of information about PDA from a parent perspective and is a great resource to direct parents to.

Join our new private Facebook Group, which brings parents and teachers of children on the spectrum together to discuss strategies to help at home and at school.

For more general autism strategies take a look at The National Autistic Society.

And of course if I can be of any help then please just shout (or drop me an email).




12 thoughts on “Pathological Demand Avoidance: What Mainstream Secondary School Teachers Need To Know

  1. All spot on!
    We are very lucky to have found an autism unit attached to a mainstream school where they do all of the above and beyond! My son has gone from being thought of as ‘un-educatable’ in year 6 to thriving in year 10!

  2. Having two children with ASD & PDA, mainstream school has been a nightmare for them both in multiple ways and much of this has been caused by the poor attitude of school staff. One is now in a very small independent and the other (following 2 years of school-refusal due to mental ill-health triggered by school) went to an alternative placement, now at college but struggling (even with a very easy timetable and a course that offers a lot of flexibility). I managed to get the DfE endorsed educational support guidance put into provision of their EHCPs but what a battle to do so. I personally don’t think inclusion works for the majority of autistics anyway. We need more professionals who have autistic/PDA children so they can pass the word on in the profession of what works and what doesn’t.

    1. It definitely makes my job easier that I sit on both sides of the fence, so to speak. More training and awareness is desperately needed at the time of Initial Teacher Training. I honestly believe that that is the thing which would make the biggest difference to our children x

  3. Brilliant post. I think it’s important to realise that school can still work for some children with PDA if the right strategies are used, and if parents are worked with as a team rather than treated as interfering!

  4. Brilliant post 🙂 I’m currently attempting to do a bit of PDA awareness at my daughter’s school, she has recently had a diagnosis of ASD, but in Worcestershire PDA isn’t currently recognised and the diagnostic team say that my daughter is too young to have demand Avoidance recognised, although is it extremely evident to us as parents. 🙂

    1. The system can be very frustrating at times can’t it? Please do shout if there is anything I can do to help. More than happy to make a YouTube video of strategies etc. If you think they would use it for staff training x

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