Why unschooling works for PDA children

Time outs, naughty steps and reward charts were never on my radar. None of that has ever made any sense to me. Even so, when my eldest son was younger I had to marvel at friends who did these things, and at how their children accepted them with minimal resistance. It was beyond my comprehension. The idea that my son would sit on a step until I told him not to? It wouldn’t have just been wrong, it would also have been impossible. It would have made him angry, resentful and hurt, and he would have fought it all the way. My son’s way of being has always meant that authentic communication and understanding have been the only possible path forward. There is no wiggle room for bribery, coercion or any adult show of power in a relationship with someone with PDA. They are the most exacting and formidable teachers in radical unschooling a parent can have. And there will be no doubt when the parent gets it right and when they get it wrong.

Pathological Demand Avoidance is part of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). In the US it is not yet recognised, and in the UK, it is usually diagnosed as part of an ASD diagnosis. Among other things, a person with PDA is likely to suffer extreme anxiety when they feel out of control. They are fine tuned to their environment (often with heightened sensory processing), and changes can be disturbing to them. Specifically, they can find demands made upon them stressful, including everyday things, and even things they find enjoyable and that they themselves want to do. School can be particularly traumatic for a child with PDA, as there are so many demands and they have so little control over their environment. Many learn to mask at school as a coping mechanism then blow up with anxiety at home. Others become school refusers. Or worse, they are are labelled early on as ‘naughty’, then dealt with in ways that exacerbate the stress. Authority, being told what to do, being controlled – these are all massive anxiety generators for PDA children and can easily send them into fight or flight mode.

During lockdown, I was fascinated to hear (through groups I’m a member of) how PDA children were doing at home. Though there were certainly many struggles, with school out of the equation, many children were calmer, though few would engage willingly in any school-style learning. A frequent response by other members to parents struggling with homeschooling was to take a look at unschooling. Over the months there have been many posts by people who have fallen into unschooling as a way to keep their home calm and to avoid the inevitable blow ups from trying to force schoolwork. These parents adopted a low-demand approach to life, giving their child as much autonomy as possible over their time and their choices. They stopped doing any formal learning and let the child follow their own interests. The parents that took this path have often been surprised to find how much easier their lives are and how their child, no longer in constant fight or flight mode, is happier, more relaxed, and engaging with their own interests.

Without a pandemic forcing our hand, our journey took some time to unfold, but if my eldest son had been neurotypical, we might well not have ended up in this place. His resistance to control of any kind meant I had to throw most things I had ever taken for granted about parenting out of the window, and discover what actually worked for us.

It doesn’t surprise me that families where someone has PDA live more happily unschooling. I’ve often thought that the strategies recommended for PDA parenting have a lot in common with an unschooling philosophy. They are based on trust, understanding, letting go of control, taking responsibility for our own behaviour, and always putting the relationship first.

Respectful relationships
Being patronised, feeling that someone else controls their time, not having their opinions respected. A child with PDA is unlikely to have much appreciation for authority and may well be passionate about justice and fairness. When the anxiety does kick in, it is often a result of a boundary being crossed. Without a deeper appreciation of what it means to them, the boundary may seem unreasonable or just unfathomable to us. To help them return to a place of calm requires understanding what happened, acknowledging our own part in it and reestablishing trust and connection. Although this is likely to be immeasurably more intense with a PDA child, it seems the basis of a healthy and respectful relationship with any child.

Being recognised for who they are 
This is so much easier when school is out of the picture. There’s no struggling with or against the system, no need to hear conflicting advice and theories, no arguing about homework, no frustrating mornings trying to convince them to go to school. There’s just you and your child. With other people’s expectations off the table, you are free to see your child for who they are, not who they are not. All the things that were hidden under the ‘needs’ and the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘what ifs’ are free to emerge. These things may be unusual, obscure, or unexpected, and they may take a while to emerge, but when they do, the child will light up.

It’s all about the parents
This is where most things inevitably come to land. This is deschooling for the parents to the power of a thousand. To stay calm and grounded in the storms requires us to dig deep inside and take an honest look at the things that trigger us. To move beyond our own triggers and to keep holding space and looking for the connection may well require some healing of our own. An anxious child needs a calm parent. This means taking care of ourselves, and nourishing ourselves so that we have the resources to nourish our children. Long walks in nature, reading, meditation, singing, dancing…just look for whatever you need to stay grounded. It doesn’t just help us be present with our children, it also shows our children that we believe self care matters. It encourages them to find their own ways to be with their emotions and to be compassionate with themselves when things are hard.

Let the learning happen
No one learns under duress or when they’re anxious, and for a PDA child, formal schooling is likely to be inherently stressful. When a child is relaxed and free they will engage with what is meaningful to them. I can’t imagine a child more suited to unschooling. Their particular way of viewing the world deserves to be seen and heard on its own terms and is likely to bring up many fascinating topics. They will learn so much more through their own curiosity than they possibly can through a curriculum they’re fighting against.

So, when I read advice about how to engage with a PDA child, and when I reflect on my own experience, I see that every child deserves to be engaged with in this way. Trusting them, letting go of ideas of control, accepting them for who they are, being able to accompany them honestly and emotionally, and taking good care of ourselves. All solid building blocks for any unschooling journey.

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