If the ideal school for the PDAer existed, what would it be like?

Given that the PDAer requires total freedom in order to function, does not recognise a pecking order, has no time for a reward and punishment system and is quick to develop cankered hatreds for certain individuals, it should not come as a surprise to people that the education system is not an ideal place in which such a life form can thrive. Teachers will often report that the child is ‘fine’ or ‘off the radar’ and thus not an issue inside the classroom. These (crude) observations render the teacher sceptical when confronted with the child’s parents who often report diametrically opposing stories about what happens at home - explosions, extreme violence, meltdowns to the nth degree, and so on. This unfortunately leads the teacher to believe that the child in question is not saddled with an abstruse neurological condition, largely considered to be part of the autism spectrum, but the product of bad parenting. Even more unfortunately, some parents may end up believing that this is the case, too, but rest assured, it’s not.

Now I am aware that some PDA children may enjoy attending school for whatever reason. The social life being one, but seeing as PDA children are prone to social obsessions, it may become problematic when they plug all of their focus into a single classmate, or maybe even a teacher, engaging in harassing or stalker-like behaviour inevitably leading them into one ordeal after another. Another reason they might enjoy school is when their special interests align with the curriculum. In my book, The PDA Paradox - The Highs and Lows of My Life on a Little-Known Part of The Autism Spectrum, I describe an ‘in-built curriculum’, which incidentally is not exclusively a PDA thing - any Neurotype with the tendency to ‘hyper-focus’ (autism and ADHD for example), experience a powerful, gravitational pull towards certain subjects, areas or things, rendering anything that falls out of this attention tunnel worthless or uninteresting. These interests may stay the same, but they can also change over time - hence why I employed the word ‘curriculum’ to describe this curious phenomenon. Should the attention tunnel drift towards Greek mythology at a time when this is being taught in school, the PDA child may find that they become the teachers favourite pupil! Alas, this could reinforce the teacher’s belief that the child couldn’t possibly be ‘flawed’ in another context. So, whilst PDA children have their reasons for wanting to go into school, one ought to know that these aren’t always the best reasons - quite the opposite, actually.

The PDAer possesses a fragmented sense of identity - they are unsure as to who they really are outside their natural habitat. The natural habitat being the PDAer’s unparalleled Elysium - like muck to a piglet. But the PDAer’s natural habitat can be few and far between and very difficult to locate. They have to go looking for it, and until they find it, they remain amongst the myriad shards of their broken identity. Each piece moves to the fore depending on the environment and depending on the company. I refrain from describing this process as ‘masking’ as the very word suggests that the PDAer is being ‘fake’. The metaphorical description I employ is that of the ‘Hydra’ from the Hercules myth, having many heads yet all are part of the same being. But masking does still occur, and especially in high-pressured, hazardous environments such as school. If a child ‘masks’ at school, then allow me to disabuse the teacher (and maybe the parent) of the ghastly lie that the child must in fact be ‘fine’. What is happening here is that the child goes into a witness protection program, camouflaging themselves, or tailoring one of their true selves, in order to become that of which school, or the outside world, approves. The child will internalise the idea that they are not acceptable to the world - they believe fundamentally that they are wrong, and if they are to succeed in life then they’re better off becoming something other than who they really are, as who they really are isn’t an option. So, masking proves to be a viable solution. Masking, whilst it is an automatic process beyond the PDAer’s control (ironically), draws upon the PDAer’s vital energy resources, exhausting them completely. The PDAer has to shrink themselves to an atom as they don their mask and from the moment the mask is on, the clock starts ticking, and the energy resources begin to deplete. After a long and gruelling school day, the mask finally lifts, which is cathartic to the PDAer, but devastating to everyone at home as they witness or become the recipient of meltdown after meltdown after meltdown.

The school system is essentially built on reward and punishment, on a macro scale and micro scale. You begin to write using a pen once reaching an acceptable level of handwriting, but for those who fail to reach this standard, however, it’s pencilville for life. Upon achieving good exam results, one ascend to a prestigious university, whilst lesser options lie in store for those who fail. The PDAer cannot conceive of a reward and punishment system, as they simply to do not operate in that way. This could be damaging beyond belief to the PDAer, and could totally obliterate their confidence - on top of having a shattered sense of self to begin with.

If masking isn’t an option, and the PDAer understands the futility of school, then there are another two options - school refusal and relentless disruption. The PDAer doesn’t care whether they are at a local state school or some whacky alternative school. The latter may seem like a better option, and I’m sure in some cases it is, but a system is a system regardless of its guise - if the PDAer feels as though they are expected to conform, to convention or otherwise, they won’t. If the PDA child find that masking is too exhausting or debilitating, and if the demands are minimal enough that they can attend, but not minimal enough that they can conform, then disruption is the way to go. Hijacking the classroom, taunting the teachers or their classmates, sabotaging lessons - the PDA child will do anything to retain their freedom and protect themselves. Such behaviours come naturally to the PDAer when they experience dissonance between themselves and their environment. If the PDA child resorts to disruption, but at the same time finds their special interest de jure is currently being taught at school, it can be especially confusing for the teacher who finds their most disruptive pupil becomes their most attentive following a segue from mathematics - for which the child has no time thus destroying the lesson - to astronomy - by which the child is totally enraptured and sits quietly hanging onto the teacher’s every word. The PDAer can do it the schools way and mask, thus becoming distressed and/or depressed, or they can leave their mask at home and do it their way, and get excluded. Whilst the latter may sound more beneficial to the PDAer, seeing as being themselves could sustain their well-being, it will still leave them feeling confused as they will soon learn that behaving authentically or doing what is natural to them is not deemed acceptable by those around them. This is where they will mentally intone the mantra of ‘I am wrong’, which might might cause them to take up masking in the future, but they are just as, if not more, likely to plump with the third option - school refusal, which I am sure I do not need to expand on.

Abuse is both easy to define and hard to define at the same time. Intent on behalf of the abuser is very important. For example, I’m sure we can all agree that a parent subjecting their child to daily beatings, gaslighting and psychological torture would be utterly traumatic for a child. But trauma is also subjective - what is traumatic to one person isn’t necessarily traumatic to another. I find it incumbent to use autism as an example here. Let’s say that an autistic child lines up all of their toys. Let’s imagine that this induces feelings of contentment, euphoria, ecstasy, and so on. In other words, lining up their toys brings about a sense of internal balance and homeostasis. Suddenly, they can relax, life is beautiful, the world is in order! Now let’s imagine someone, say, a sibling, bursts into the room and kicks the toys across the room, effectively destroying the external and internal order the autistic child has put in place. To a person unfamiliar with autism, whilst they may concede this is annoying or inconvenient, they may struggle to understand that this is in fact traumatic to a child who doesn’t just see their toys strewn over the floor, but experiences the world before them completely dissolve, thus eviscerating their sense of self. So, let’s bring it back to PDA: Where the autistic child I described earlier needs structure and order in order to feel alive, the PDAer needs control and freedom. Imagine, if you will, how traumatic having to enter a school environment must be for the PDAer, where their only choice is to destroy (making them look naughty), mask (completely rejecting and negating themselves because they feel and are told they are WRONG) or refuse to go in entirely.

So far, I have spoken about the PDAer’s relationship with school whilst incidentally omitted all mention of the demand to go to school. Even if the PDAer enjoys school due to a strong social life, unwavering social obsession, or their in-built curriculum is in sync with the school curriculum, if they feel a demand to go to school, that is to say, if they feel their freedom is being restricted, they won’t go. Simples.

Remembering that PDA is a behaviour profile within the autism spectrum, PDA children are still highly likely to have sensory issues, which could make being in a crowded room full of smelly children making loud noises distressing.

So, what would the perfect school be like to the PDAer? Hmmm. For starters, we have to ditch the word ‘school’. The infernal word is completely meaningless to the PDAer as it implies that learning begins ‘NOW’! Even the word ‘learning’ is meaningless, as that is the PDAer’s default state. Pathological curiosity is sometimes a more befitting name I find. The PDAer requires a direct experience in order to comply, learn, or establish their own boundaries. For example: a parent and their PDA child are going on an outing in Winter and the parent asks their child to put their coat on. The child protests and asks WHY?! The parent tells them that it’s cold. This request is unnecessary. When the child steps outside and begins to shiver, they will have a direct experience of being cold and needing to put their coat on. This is one reason why natural consequences are effective for PDA children - getting burnt is more likely to stop them from playing with hot things again - thus giving them the opportunity to establish their own boundaries - than heeding their parents injunction to not play with hot things. The PDAer starts from the inside and works their way out. Having good table manners and saying please are lost on the PDAer as it does not teach them about decorum or gratitude. The PDAer explores their interactions with other people and picks up lessons along the way - lessons of what works and what doesn’t work and how treating a certain person a certain way may be beneficial or unbeneficial to them, but they have to figure it out for themselves. The in-built curriculum isn’t solely about academic pursuits; life skills are just as important to the PDAer and are a huge part of their in-built curriculum. So the word school ought to be scotched! It doesn’t even need a name, the weirder and more confusing the better! If it’s confusing they will feel incentivised to work it out for themselves, and maybe even give it their own name! And between them, come up with many different names as time goes by.

The attitude of the teacher… Oh… another rotten word. I am aware at this point I am succumbing to the scourge of radical political correctness, but I assure you this isn’t the case! There is political correctness and then there is correctness. The word teacher is meaningless because the PDAer enjoys fair exchange, the PDA wants a learning facilitator (and they may not even want to call them that!). The PDAer wants to learn but also wants to give a little something back by teaching something to the person teaching them. The attitude of the person teaching is paramount. Sometimes no words need to be expressed for the PDAer to detect a demand; just a haughty, authoritarian attitude alone can be enough to rouse suspicion. The PDAer wants to be on par with those around them and often resorts to what I call ‘environmental levelling’, whereby they level and equalise their surrounding environment if needs be. A teacher represents a protrusion in an otherwise level plain. The protrusion must be flattened out immediately. The PDAer will proceed to override and overthrow the teacher, making them look domineering in a regular school because teachers don’t compromise their authority, but if the teacher submitted to the PDAer in this case, they will find that the PDAer becomes less overbearing once they adopt a more equal air. The learning facilitator (this is beginning to make me cringe actually!) ought to join in the activities with the children and most importantly, the activities have to be agreed on by everyone present. There could be many different activities dotted around the environment for people to gravitate towards, with a learning facilitator (I’m going to try not to use that word again..) at the ready should a child stroll on over. When the PDA child is permitted to follow their interests, they cover a lot of ground very quickly.

I said environment earlier…hmmm…. outside and in the countryside would be ideal. A farmhouse for example, ideally with animals running around and a big tepee somewhere in the grounds. I call this ‘The Neurotopia’.

All a bit idealistic I know, but this is essentially what the perfect learning or ‘being’ environment would be like for the PDAer. A beautiful place in which neurodivergent individuals can connect with one another and learn about what they want when they want, and find that they are not broken, but a different species. This isn’t going to become reality anytime soon; this is something I cannot afford and something that will take years to plan. I just wanted to paint a picture of the perfect schoo… place…The natural habitat.