Teaching pupils with PDA (pathological demand avoidance) can be draining and frustrating. The key to success is understanding what’s driving your student’s resistance to demands.
In this episode, we interview Ruth Fidler, expert and author on the subject of PDA. She reveals the best way of supporting children with PDA in the classroom - and explains what kinds of strategies are effective (and what to avoid).
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Show notes / transcription
Ruth Fidler 0:00
What works best in my experience for youngsters with a PDA profile is to have a start point, which is about understanding. It's not about judging or forcing. It's about let me get to know you. Who are you and what works for you? And how do we navigate your experience of education together?
Simon Currigan 0:22
Welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course students. When classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural special needs whole school strategy and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the school behaviour secrets podcast.
Welcome to Episode 16 of school behaviour secrets at 16. The podcast is now old enough to get married, fly a glider, join the army buy a lottery ticket and drive a tractor. But it'll still have to wait two more years to get a tattoo that says I love my mom. I'd like to welcome my co host Emma Shackleton to the show. Hi, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:19
Simon Currigan 1:20
Emma, before we talk about today's episode, I'd like to ask you a question. Tell me about a time you tried to get out of doing something you've been asked to do.
Emma Shackleton 1:29
Well, I remember quite a long time ago, being invited to a party that I really didn't fancy going to. And I was a little bit on the fence and I was trying to make up my mind whether to go or not. And then my friends started trying to convince me that I should go. And the more that they tried to give reasons why I should go, the more that they tried to encourage me, the more it made me dig my heels in until eventually I was absolutely determined not to go no matter what.
Simon Currigan 1:59
Hold on, was that in 2017? Was that was that my party? You said you're at a funeral. I think that example links perfectly with what we're going to talk about today. Because we're going to speak to Ruth Fidler who's an expert on pathological demand avoidance or PDA as you might hear it referred to. She is going to explain what PDA is, how it affects people's behaviour in the classroom, and what support strategies can help.
Emma Shackleton 2:24
But before we get into that, I'd like to say that if you find today's episode useful help other teachers and school leaders find the podcast by giving us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Every review encourages Apple to recommend school behaviour secrets to other listeners, so they can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms. So now let's jump straight into that interview with Ruth.
Simon Currigan 2:50
I'd like to welcome today's guest Ruth Fidler. Ruth's an educational consultant who specialises in complex forms of autism, including pathological demand avoidance, and pupils emotional well being. Before becoming a consultant, she worked as a senior leader in an all age special school for 94 students with autism. She's got plenty of practical experience, working with high needs pupils. Ruth's a member of the National PDA development group, and she's co author of a number of books including Understanding pathological demand avoidance syndrome in children, and Girls and Autism to name just two. And today, she's going to use her expertise to help us understand PDA, how its impacts on children's emotions and behaviour in the classroom, and what we can do to support students with the condition. Ruth, welcome to the show.
Ruth Fidler 3:38
Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me.
Simon Currigan 3:42
So let's start with the obvious question. What is pathological demand avoidance?
Ruth Fidler 3:47
Well, I feel that pathological demand avoidance is best understood as one of the autism spectrum conditions. So our profile on the autism spectrum, that means, of course, that you can't have PDA without having an autism spectrum condition. So the starting point is looking at some of those core differences that we would see across the autism spectrum. So differences in how people make sense of their environment and their social environment, how they will use their social communication, how they manage social relationships, how they respond flexibly in everyday problem solving situations, and how they're impacted in terms of their sensory profile. So those are the four key areas of difference in autism. Then if we start to look a little bit in more detail at an individual, we'd then be wanting to find out well what is their personal profile of autism? How does their autism help us to understand them and how does their autism impact upon them, and for children and young people? Well for all individuals, With a pathological demand avoidance profile, what we see is that they are characterised by extremely high anxiety. That anxiety is often triggered by a perception or an interpretation of demands. So those demands might be actual real observable demands that somebody might be telling them go and do this, put that there. But there might be implied or implicit demands as well. So that could include demands of the environment that we usually do this at this time, or mum always looks at me like that when she's trying to start the bedtime routine, or my teacher always enters the room with a pile of papers when they're about to ask me to do a task. And interestingly, and importantly, for young people with PDA, that demand avoidance can even be triggered when we are asking them to do something that is within their capability. So lots of us try and avoid doing things that we aren't very good at, or we don't know how to do or we don't like doing that is part of the human condition. And that's not a surprise. For individuals with PDA, they will also try and avoid or feel driven to avoid rather doing activities, which they often enjoy. Or they might even have been their idea, or certainly they are within their capability. That is the main characterization of that PDA profile. And then we also see a difference in comparison to other autism profiles in terms of their social communication. Often, they may come across as having a high degree of social surface sociability, but it might lack the depth that people will assume if they're not tuning in well enough to that young person.
Simon Currigan 6:51
What do you mean by surface sociability?
Ruth Fidler 6:53
What I mean by surface sociability is that they might have learned a lot of the social nuances of how to navigate a conversation. And they might be better tuned in to some of the social timing, they might have a better understanding of jokes and teasing than some other individuals with autism spectrum conditions. But that can be lie underneath there can still be some disruption and differences in their social communication, and therefore in how they navigate their social relationships. That might be particularly tricky for some of those youngsters to deal with social repair. So if something is going along in their social relationship, and it's all going smoothly, that's great. But if something goes a little bit awry, understanding what's gone awry, where that issue has arisen from and how to repair it can present significant difficulties.
Simon Currigan 7:49
So I'm guessing that surface sociability might meet that some needs get missed if you weren't paying attention and digging down into what the child's truly understanding those needs might get missed in the classroom.
Ruth Fidler 7:59
Absolutely. And that is often the case, we also see that with the profile of some girls with autism, because similarly, they might have learned some more of those surface social skills. They might be tuning into mimicking a degree of social awareness. But there's something a little bit mistimed, or just missing the mark in their connection with that,
Simon Currigan 8:24
why does having a diagnosis or a distinct description of the PDA profile make a difference?
Ruth Fidler 8:29
Well, I think there are some really important key ways. One of them is fundamentally about the well being of the individuals with a PDA profile. Because often what happens and we see this across all sorts of differences, and certainly within the world of autism spectrum conditions. If somebody doesn't have a degree of understanding of their profile and of their differences, actually, it makes it much harder for them to manage their lives, their social relationships, their aspirations, and that's not about limiting them, that's about helping support their self awareness so that they are better equipped for knowing what is likely to work well for them. And therefore, to accessing the help that they need. It can also seriously support their self esteem. Because if you are experiencing differences that sometimes present difficulties into your life, and you don't have an explanation or a context to understand that within, then a lot of young people might turn that in on themselves and have a very negative view of themselves, or unfortunately might get really unhelpful, unkind labels if you like, from some of their peers. The other really key factor in getting a distinctive diagnosis is about having access to the right sort of approaches. So if somebody with a PDA profile is understood, as having In an autism spectrum condition, and a lot of the usual good autism practice strategies are put in place, because those are largely centred around clarity and predictability. And there are lots of benefits of that. But the downside of it is that what it can produce in strategies is an approach that is very structured and not very flexible. And that means that that approach is very heavy on demand. And so for the young person with PDA, it's going to be regularly and repeatedly triggering their demand avoidance.
Simon Currigan 10:35
Because they know exactly when to expect demands throughout the day?
Ruth Fidler 10:39
Yes, and because they come thick and fast. If you think about a sort of like a visual timetable or something, or teach strategies, where it's a do this first, then that then the next then you know you're finished on when you finish, you move on to something different. There are significant advantages of that in terms of it being structured and predictable. And that has a positive impact on reducing anxiety. But for somebody with PDA, that positive impact might be outweighed by the negative impact of receiving a shopping list of demands. Essentially,
Simon Currigan 11:12
it all comes back to looking at the individual child, what works for them, and looking at ways of helping them cope with the anxieties and demands throughout the day.
Ruth Fidler 11:20
Yes, absolutely. I think it's important to be clear that when people like myself talk about strategies that are helpful for young people with PDA, and we talk about being flexible and adaptable and child centred, that doesn't mean that we're saying will lift all expectations, anything goes just do what works for them at any given moment. Because what we are saying is tune into that, know how far you can go know where to push the boundaries, where to prioritise different areas of learning, because long term, what we want is we want to increase their tolerance to expectations, not because we want to control them, or tell them what to do a lot of the time, but because of this thing that I was describing at the beginning, about a lot of those expectations are internally generated. So if we want to support young people to be aspirational, we want them to be able to see through some of their own aspirations and their own choices, not just those coming externally.
Simon Currigan 12:21
So when a demand is placed on the child. How do they experience it internally differently from other children? How can we put ourselves in their shoes?
Ruth Fidler 12:28
Well, that's a really interesting question. I think this comes full circle straight back to that you need to find out what that experience is like for that individual. And I don't think there's one answer to that question. I think it's very interesting to look at that broader context. So to not just look at, is this child not doing what I'm asking them to do in the classroom because they seem to come across as deliberately difficult? Or what are the broader explanations around that? If you keep in the back of your mind, that notion of, how does this individuals Autism Spectrum condition impact on them? Are there some issues around understanding? Are there some issues around social communication? Are there some differences around their sensory profile? has their anxiety just been triggered? Which I might not have spotted triggering myself, maybe I have done inadvertently, am I seeing some demonstration of anxiety that looks like this in that person, but might look different in a different person, some of us tend to be much more expressive and explosive, when we're anxious, and others tend to shut down. So we need to understand what that looks like in different individuals, don't we? And one of the things I talk a lot to school practitioners about is looking at what's running in the background. So if you think of it in I.T. terms, what are the background apps that you've got open at any given time? And is that little thing you're asking that child to do or just pop up on the table? Is that just one too many, even though it's not an unreasonable thing, and it's asked in a very polite and gentle and kindly way, etc. So being aware of what's going on for that individual, and how many simultaneously difficult things they are being asked to accommodate. And on top of that, I think there are lots of very valid reasons why many of us don't want to do what we're being asked to do. It happens to us all, doesn't it? And some of those reasons might be that I don't understand what you're asking me to do. Or I did think it sounded quite a good idea. But now it's happening. I'm not feeling in the mood so much or something else has come up. I prefer to do that now. Or I don't like the way you asked me. Or I want to do something else in a different way. Because that now looks more exciting, but I'll come back to this later. Can we negotiate on it? There are all sorts of reasons why somebody might not be in a position to cooperate. That is the very sad state of affairs. If education practitioners go too quickly to an assumption that the reason is they are being deliberately difficult, or they are somehow defying my authority in my classroom, because that's probably quite low down the list if you unpicked it.
Simon Currigan 15:24
I just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in that Inner Circle program. The Inner Circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform, filled with videos resources on behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions, step by step. Just like Netflix, you can turn an Inner Circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of Inner Circle for just one pound, get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with Inner Circle, visit beaconschoolsupport.co.uk and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.
So I've got a child in my classroom who's got PDA, and I can see that they're becoming more anxious, I can see that placing another demand on them is going to create difficulties for them. What should I absolutely avoid doing?
Ruth Fidler 16:57
Well, you should absolutely avoid making the situation worse if you possibly can. So come back to that point that I made earlier about how many simultaneously difficult things are being asked of this young person just now? And which of those are essential for this moment? And which of those can we just get rid of? Which of those can we postpone? Which of those can we bin entirely? Which of those can we just alter the emphasis of so if they're in a busy environment, and you think that might be contributing at a sensory level. How do we quieten and calm the broader environment down? And that's not always maybe by moving that child with PDA, it might be in fact much simpler to move everybody else. Because if you're asking the child with PDA, who's already agitated to move, you're then putting another demand in the pot. If you think of it like some sort of a cat with nine lives or something, and how many do you want to use up in any given day, you're making some careful and considered decisions about what matters most in that time. So essentially, what you're trying to do is reduce the number of additional agitators you put in place. Then maybe consider what is going to work to soothe this young person, what can I use in relation to my knowledge of them, my relationship with them, our shared interests, things that we can have a laugh about together, or I might just totally change the subject and go or did you see that thing on telly last night and talk about something that you know, might engage them. So looking at reducing agitating factors, and of calming things and of finding a direction forwards. Now, that doesn't mean that you are abandoning the thing that they're struggling with or that you're struggling with because you will really want them to do it. It just means you're putting it to one side, for now, to get everybody back into a state of equilibrium. And from that point, you can plan forwards.
Simon Currigan 19:03
You used the word earlier in the interview flexible. And it sounds like here, it's all about the adult having a flexible mindset and more kind of shepherding a child towards a destination rather than insisting on a fixed path, take the sheep in many different directions and then respond to where the flock goes rather than just having a straight road that you expect everyone to march down.
Ruth Fidler 19:23
Yes, absolutely. So that's a very nice analogy. It's sort of bearing in mind that the the quickest and the safest route may actually be the scenic route rather than the point A to B route. And by choosing the scenic route, you also have other opportunities along the way. So bear in mind for people working in schools, all of your time with young people is accountable teaching time. So you don't want to just give away 20 minutes falling out with a child about are they or aren't they going to put their shoes on in the P.E. changing rooms. That's quite hard to justify that as a good use of teaching time, whereas if you to go back to that previous analogy, if you travel the scenic route, you can continue to build your relationship with that young person, you can build a sense of trust and rapport with them. And it's that trust and rapport that will support more cooperation on other occasions, and you might be able to slip in some other learning slightly under the radar, about emotional awareness and about problem solving, and about managing feelings and about communication. And those are really, really important areas of learning and development for youngsters with an autism spectrum condition.
Simon Currigan 20:40
So given that, what do you think characterises the sort of educational setting that's most likely to meet the needs of pupils with PDA?
Ruth Fidler 20:47
Well, I think it's very much about the ethos and the personality of that educational setting. It's not about what it says in the brochure, or it's not about what designation of school it is, I do consultation work across the United Kingdom, and I've seen children have their needs beautifully and dreadfully met in every type of education setting. So it's not about is it a specialist school? Is it a mainstream school? Is it a rural school? Is it an inner city school, it's about the approaches that are used within that school, and the people and the personalities in that school. And what works best in my experience for youngsters with a PDA profile is to have, as you say, this flexible approach to have a start point, which is about understanding, it's not about judging or forcing, it's about let me get to know you. Who are you and what works for you? And how do we navigate your experience of education together. It's about using a degree of structure. So that it's you're not having too much uncertainty, because that's anxiety provoking for everybody staff, as well as the young people but having a flexible structure. So you have some sort of scaffolding, if you like in place for a school day or for a lesson or for a playtime or whatever, but you slip in lots of choices within that. So you might use a youngsters personal interests, for instance, and they might be working on two or three different projects at any one time. On your timetable, it might say it's a project lesson. So it's going to be in that room with that member of staff, there's your structure, but what you might say to the young person is which project you fancy working on today. And there's a genuine sense of alliance in that learning experience.
Simon Currigan 22:46
So that sense of choice alleviates the anxieties that they're experiencing?
Ruth Fidler 22:51
Yes. However, having said that, it's really important that you don't flood a child with choice, because for a lot of youngsters with autism, and those with a PDA profile, having too much choice and too open ended choices can be anxiety provoking as well. So you might be in charge of what the choices are. And there might just be three choices. They're not going to be 33 choices,
Simon Currigan 23:17
What would you say to a teacher who is listening to this saying, Nah! PDA isn't real?
Ruth Fidler 23:22
Well, I would be interested in asking them why they think it's not real. On what basis? Do they think that is a truth, I would also be querying with them, how else might one explain what we see before our eyes and what we know of the profile of these children. And the benefits of viewing things as a PDA profile. What we often see in schools is some children have like a buffet of different diagnostic descriptions. And for some youngsters, yes, they do have overlapping an interlocking condition. So that is perfectly valid in those instances. But for others, rather than having this long list of things, there might be a way of drawing those features together and going are because of X, Y and Z, the best way of understanding that is to view it through the lens of a PDA profile. And the benefit of that is that leads me to these specific strategies.
Simon Currigan 24:24
If you're a teacher or a parent listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take to learn more about PDA?
Ruth Fidler 24:30
I can't recommend strongly enough the PDA society so I would recommend looking at the PDA society website. There is a wealth of free downloadable resources on there. And there are also the Jessica Kingsley publications on PDA. And fortunately, that's growing all the time and there are a couple of us as jkp authors who have used our time in lockdown to add to that publication. In this list, so there are more coming, I think I would also encourage them to talk to colleagues who have an understanding of PDA to really help share their experiences. And I think particularly for professionals, I would strongly encourage them to listen to the families, often children with PDA might present very differently at home to how they present at school. And it's really important to listen to both sides of that story. So for parents to listen to how they're presenting at school, and vice versa, and particularly for education professionals not to go, oh, they're not like that when they're with me, because that is closing our eyes and our ears to a holistic understanding of these youngsters. And it's not unusual for a lot of these children and young people to hold it together for a specific period of time whilst they're at school. And then it all spills out at home. So we need to know what we're seeing where we're seeing it and why we're seeing it. It just keeps coming back time and again, to that core principle of understand the individual.
Simon Currigan 26:09
Finally, we ask this of all our guests, who's the key figure that's influenced you that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids,
Ruth Fidler 26:18
I think I can choose three people. The first person I'm going to choose is Phil Christie, who is a colleague and a friend who I've known for over 25 years now. And his role and influence in the world of PDA and helping us all understand that has been incredibly significant for me. And at a more personal level. His encouragement, and his kindness, along with his knowledge has really supported my understanding and my career, I'm going to add on Judy Gould, and Judy Eaton who have both been real forces in the field. But not only are they very knowledgeable and respectful of colleagues and supportive of other families, they are just really some of the world's most lovely individuals who approach supporting young people with autism with grace and kindness.
Simon Currigan 27:17
Ruth, thank you for being on the podcast today. I've learned a lot and I'm sure our listeners have to thank you very much.
Ruth Fidler 27:23
Emma Shackleton 27:24
How interesting Ruth is just so knowledgeable about PDA and gave us so many strategies and ideas, I should say as well that Ruth has two brilliant books that you can check out if you've enjoyed this interview. They're very clear, very simple introductions to PDA. One is called Understanding pathological demand avoidance syndrome in children. And the other is Collaborative approaches to learning for pupils with PDA -strategies for education professionals. I'll drop the links to those in the episode description. And Ruth's also got a new book coming out in August called Being Julia.
Simon Currigan 28:03
If you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you want to understand possibly why they're acting the way they are, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEN Handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you see in the classroom with possible causes like autism or ADHD. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. We're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place for our students. It's completely free to download, go to our website beaconschoolsupport.co.uk Click on the free resources section near the top. And I'll also put a direct link to the handbook in the episode description.
Emma Shackleton 28:47
Next week, we're going to look at the top five classroom management skills every teacher should possess and perfect. So if you're having difficulties with whole class behaviour, this episode will be perfect for you.
Simon Currigan 28:59
And to make sure you find out what those top five skills are. Open your podcast app now. And then don't just smile lovingly at the subscribe button. That won't make any difference. It's just glass and metal, you'll actually have to tap it. And then your podcast app will automatically download each and every episode of school behaviour secrets so you never miss a thing.
Emma Shackleton 29:20
And finally, if you find today's episode useful, please leave us an honest rating and review on Apple podcasts. This makes a huge difference because when you rate and review us it makes it more likely that school behaviour secrets will be recommended to other listeners, and then other teachers and school leaders can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms.
Simon Currigan 29:44
Thanks for joining us today. Have a brilliant week. And we'll see you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye now.
Emma Shackleton 29:51
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)