If you’re a parent, therapist, or teacher of a child with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), we’re sharing 7 helpful PDA strategies that can be used both at home and in the classroom. While PDA isn’t a universally recognized disorder and is often misdiagnosed as Conduct Disorder (CD) or Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), it’s gaining attention and recognition as a subtype of autism spectrum disorder. Additional research is still needed to assist individuals with PDA as well as their families, and I hope the information in this post helps explain avoidance behaviors in children with PDA while also providing actionable behavior strategies for long-term success.
What Is Pathological Demand Avoidance?
Also known as PDA, Pathological Demand Avoidance was originally proposed in the 1980s by a UK child psychologist named Elizabeth Ann Newson. Although not recognized by the DSM-V, PDA is becoming an increasingly recognized subtype of autism, characterized by extreme and obsessive avoidance of demands and expectations. PDA is a pervasive developmental disorder driven by anxiety, but goes beyond avoiding anxiety-provoking situations and tasks that are deemed unpleasant or difficult. An individual with PDA may also avoid basic everyday tasks, and their self-imposed expectations can cause them to avoid things they enjoy, which can be extremely upsetting to them.
6 Symptoms of PDA in Kids
One of the key characteristics of PDA is high anxiety that causes an overwhelming need to resist/avoid demands to increase feelings of control. If you suspect your child may have Pathological Demand Avoidance, here are some key features of the disorder:
- Appears to have better social and communication skills than a typical child with autism
- Comfortable with role play, pretending, etc.
- Resists/avoids ordinary demands and requests
- Uses social strategies and manipulation as a way to resist/avoid demands (i.e. providing excuses, using distraction, etc.)
- Exhibits excessive mood swings and impulsive behavior as a means of feeling in control
- Exhibits obsessive behavior, which tends to be focused on other people
A child with Pathological Demand Avoidance will use any or all avoidance techniques to feel in control, including distraction, delaying, withdrawing, noise (singing, yelling, etc.), and imaginative play (‘I can’t do that because I’m a giraffe!’). If these avoidance techniques are unsuccessful, a full meltdown may ensue as a means of avoiding demands placed on them.
7 PDA Strategies for Parents and Teachers
1. PLAN AHEAD
If you’re looking for PDA strategies to help your child at home and/or in the classroom, planning and preparation is key. As exhausting as it may seem, taking the time to think ahead and anticipate potential triggers will help you put strategies in place to help your child cope if they feel anxious and overwhelmed. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher so you can work collaboratively on any upcoming events or projects that may trigger your child.
2. REPLACE DEMAND WORDS WITH REQUESTS
Language is another important yet often overlooked strategy that can help parents and teachers of kids with PDA. Since avoidance behaviors stem from a need for control, the use of ‘demand’ words such as now, need, must, can’t, won’t, etc. can be extremely detrimental in that they imply you are making non-negotiable demands of a child. A much better strategy is to make requests using the following language:
Do you mind…
Would it be okay with you if…
How do you feel about…
What you are finished X, could you please Y…
3. USE HINTS INSTEAD OF DIRECT INSTRUCTION
In addition to wanting to feel in control, people with PDA enjoy doing things that make others happy. This can be a very positive attribute, but becomes tricky when reminders and/or expectations are attached to these acts of kindness. A great way to avoid this is to use hints instead of direct instruction, as demonstrated in the examples below:
I’m really looking forward to seeing what you make for dinner tonight!
I can’t wait to see how your science project turns out!
I’m so excited to see what you buy your brother for Christmas!
These are all great ways to remind your child of an upcoming event, allowing them to take accountability and initiative without feeling as though any expectations have been placed on them.
4. OFFER CHOICES
While using requests and hints can be helpful in ensuring a child feels in control, there will be times when you need your child to complete a task regardless of whether or not they want to do it. One of the best PDA strategies for these types of circumstances is to offer a choice to help them do the things you want them to do. Here are some examples:
If you want your child to eat vegetables, ask: ‘would you like peas or carrots with your dinner?’
If you want your child to wear a nice outfit for a special event, ask: ‘which dress are you going to wear for Aunt Sally’s wedding?’
If you need your child to be ready for school at a certain time, ask: ‘how long will it take you to get ready in the morning?’
5. AVOID POWER STRUGGLES WHERE POSSIBLE
Another great tip for those who are searching for PDA strategies for kids is to pick your battles. While certain demands will be unavoidable, not everything needs to be dealt with right now. If you know a certain request is going to inflame things, carefully weigh the pros and cons before asking. For example, while you may need to put your foot down about a book report your child is supposed to hand in tomorrow, is it worth arguing over things like outfit choices and the tidiness of his or her room? Over time you will learn to assess your child’s mood and level of cooperation, and can pick and choose your battles accordingly.
6. MAKE THINGS INTERESTING
If your child has special interests, make sure to use that to your advantage! While it can be challenging to motivate a child with PDA and traditional reward charts aren’t typically effective, you can use their interests to try and entice them to do certain tasks. Drama, pretend play, and role playing are all great ways you can incorporate your child’s special interests into activities he or she may otherwise avoid.
7. LEARN TO GO WITH THE FLOW
Final final tip for those who are looking for PDA strategies to use at home or in the classroom is to be as flexible as possible. Whether your child has PDA, high functioning autism (formerly known as Asperger’s syndrome), ‘classic’ autism, or Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), chances are you spend a lot of time walking on eggshells trying to keep things ‘just right’. An outsider may not even notice all the hoops you jump through to help your child tolerate his or her world, and while it may feel exhausting and downright overwhelming at times, remaining flexible is perhaps one of the most important PDA strategies for parents and teachers. Having a fixed mindset will prohibit you from reading your child’s nonverbal cues and adapting to whatever he or she needs in a given moment to be successful. Try to keep an open mind wherever possible.
If you’re looking for PDA strategies to help your child at home and/or in the classroom, I hope the tips and ideas in this post proved useful to you! Remember to plan ahead, offer choices, and appeal to special interests. Be careful not to use demand words or phrases, and avoid power struggles as often as possible.
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