There Is Only School Refusal

The PDAer is boundary blind, does not recognise a pecking order, learns through direct experience driven by special interests whilst deflecting information that is spoon-fed to them and expected to be regurgitated on demand, and is completely intolerant to a reward and punishment system; a most abstract concept to a child with PDA. Here we can see precisely why a child with PDA would struggle in a mainstream educational setting. School, after all, is essentially based on reward and punishment; it is the foundation upon which the education system is built. It permeates everything. If a child demonstrates proficient handwriting ability, the right to bear ink and use the coveted fountain pen is bestowed upon them by the teacher and they thereby leave the degrading pencil behind. If the child does not or is unable to sufficiently prove themselves, however, then they are left to dwell in the lowly rungs of graphite and wood. If a child achieves high marks on an exam, they ascend. If a child is unable to start let alone finish an exam, they stay put, perhaps being held back a year. If a child does not conduct themselves in a manner that is held by the school as being ‘proper’, they are punished accordingly; staying in at break times, receiving detention and so on. Are autistic children, or children with ADHD or PDA really defective? Or are they only defective by school standards? Or further still, are they merely trapped in an environment to which their different brains do not lend themselves? The school environment amplifies the downsides of autism, ADHD and PDA, and obscures their merits, attributes and strengths. Alas, being neurodivergent is a gift or a curse, depending on the environment or company in which the individual is placed or finds themselves. 

The PDA Society conducted an online survey, entitled: ‘Being Misunderstood’, for two weeks in March 2018 through their website and social media. 1,445 parents, professionals, adults with PDA and their partners or family members contributed. 

The results demonstrated that, in practice, the constellation of traits is being identified by some who diagnose ASD, and that this is most often done through use of terminology which reflects the idea of a ‘Pathological Demand Avoidance profile of autism’

A second report, entitled: Being Misunderstood in Education, describes the education findings in more detail. Overall 70% of 969 children and young people with PDA were not able to tolerate their school environment or were home educated. It was found that staff in special schools were more likely to be knowledgeable about the PDA profile, but that they still struggled to provide an environment that these young people could access easily. Of those surveyed who were enrolled in a school, 40% had experienced temporary exclusion from school and 7% had been permanently excluded at some stage.

The data from parents is irrefutable; the school environment clearly doesn’t suit the majority of these young people.

Of the 30% of those children who were able to attend school, supposedly without incident, one must ensure not to be too quick to rejoice. Excuse me for what may sound a little cynical, but the chances that these children are ‘masking’ are very high. Masking is a pan-autistic camouflage tactic, and is no stranger to the PDAer. Very often, a teacher will mistake masking for the child doing well, as superficially, they are complying and behaving appropriately, but in reality, the total opposite is true. Masking is one of few things over which the PDAer has no control. Masking is an automated response. A robust outer layer, shielding the PDAer from harm. A sheath the PDAer must don if they are to withstand the heavy, unforgiving blows from the outside world; the world beyond their safety zone. Before the PDAer dons their mask, they utter to themselves the mantra ‘I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong’. The only way for me to accepted, is if I become someone, or someting, I am not. Masking, although an instinctive reaction, draws heavily upon the PDAer’s vital energy resources. The mask is on a timer; as soon as it envelops the PDAer, the clock starts ticking, and begins to suck the life out of the PDAer. But what happens when the child with PDA gets home from school after a gruelling day ‘under the radar’? BOOM! The mask melts away because the PDAer is now safe from any danger, and they explode; discharging all of the nasty triggers they accumulate throughout the day. This leads teachers to believe that because the child with PDA is behaving to an acceptable standard at school, which deceives them into thinking that the child is fine, the child’s condition must be the fault of the parents; which we all know is wrong on every level.

Another important thing to note is that when it comes to PDA, there is only school refusal, with one exception that I will come to in just a moment. The child has three choices: 1) Withdraw into fantasy or role play, or masking as we’ve just spoken about. The child may be all too aware that being themselves isn’t an option, so becoming someone else, or masking, may prove an effective strategy to the PDAer who might want to bestir themselves and fit in, despite the inevitable damage to their self-esteem that they are likely to incur. 2) Being themselves but at a cost. As discussed, the PDAer does not recognise a pecking order and are a breed of person for whom reward and punishment systems are ineffective; and if they have cooccurring ADHD, sitting at a desk for seven hours a day will not exactly be their idea of ‘fun’. Because the nature of the PDA child does not lend itself to a school environment, in this case, the school will end up refusing them. We can now see that an ultimatum befalls the PDA child: do it the school’s way and become miserable and damaged or do it their way and get rejected and excluded. And finally, 3) classic school refusal; on which I needn’t expand.

 The exception I alluded to earlier is the phenomenon of the intersection of the child’s in-built curriculum with the school curriculum. Autistic people are prone to developing special interests. The PDA child is no different, but because the PDA child thrives on novelty and gets bored easily, these special interests are likely to change a lot, hence why I have called this phenomenon ‘the in-built curriculum’; more often than not out of sync with the school curriculum!

Personal anecdote: When I was at school, I was the most disruptive child in my class. I sought to hijack lessons where I could and destroy them. This changed, however, when my special interests aligned with what school were teaching me. I developed a fascination for astronomy when I was 13. My teachers would watch in amazement and confusion as I segued from a Maths class, where I’d be bouncing off the walls, to an astronomy lesson where my eyes would be lit up and my focus unwavering, only to go onto a French class where I’d be hyperactive and unruly once again. This is an example of the intersection of the in-built curriculum and the school curriculum. 

And finally: Of course if a lesson is presented to the PDA child in a way that is consistent with their idiosyncratic style of learning (through equality, a collaborative effort and inspiration over instruction), it should not come as a surprised that the teacher in this case can help the PDA child to develop a new special interest.

Harry ThompsonComment