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Can PDA Kids Love School? Yes - I did. But the conditions were particular.

My child and I are both Autistic and PDA. PDA stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance, or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy. Understanding of PDA is emerging. Research is in its infancy. I believe PDA is best understood as a particular neurotype within the Autism spectrum, and a nervous system disability in its own right.

(For more on PDA from me see FAQs on PDA by a PDAer).

When my child burnt out at school at age 5, I wondered: Why did school work for me for 18 years, but my child burnt out after one year? What can we learn about PDA and school from this comparison?


While my son and I are both triggered when faced with a lack of autonomy, control, or equality, we manifest the threat response differently. My go-to threat response is to fawn – to people please, or to over-comply so that no one else can control me. His is to resist – which can look like full panic attacks. While a fawn response can wreak havoc on a person in the longterm, panic attacks are more stressful for the nervous system in the short term. PDAers who externalize the threat response through fight/flight are more likely to hit burnout young, while those who go to fawn or freeze primarily may not hit burnout til teens or adulthood.


A common age for first PDA burn out is 6 years old. This is likely because 6 is when a child leaves early childhood, and the expectations and demands on their performance and behavior increase. For first grade, my parents pulled me from public school and sent me to a progressive private elementary school where we called teachers by their first names (less social inequality), did project-based learning (lots of opportunity for exciting mastery), and had copious open time each day where we could work on different creative projects (autonomy). My son went to a public inclusion classroom with very little autonomy, no project-based learning, and lots of social hierarchy. All perceived as threats.


To say I loved my elementary school does not get to the heart of it. My school was central to my life. I felt safe, in control, and in flow state at school. I cried and developed autoimmune symptoms when it was summer vacation. In grades 1-5, I had a special interest in two different teachers. They provided an external nervous system that helped me regulate and feel safe in much the way my parents would. While the second of these teachers ended up being a complex relationship (see my post Autistic Limerence: The risks of when a person is a special interest), the infatuations were one way my PDA brain made school feel safe. I don’t think my early success would have been possible without them.

I also loved the school work. The school was based on the work of Regio Emilia and Waldorf. In addition to open play time, we had creative writing, quiet reading, and small group math every day - each of which offered opportunities for autonomy, mastery, & creativity within the activity. Since school was a special interest, I could access all the gifts of my particular twice-exceptional Autistic brain to succeed in the work. This is the clincher. For Autistic people, our special interests signal deep safety, delight, and belonging. When the special interest drive leaves, it can be much harder or impossible - especially for PDAers - to engage in work or access the strength of our brains.

School was a special interest for my son in his first year. Because of his focused, passionate love for his classmates and teacher, he felt safe enough to surrender a significant amount of autonomy in exchange for access to his special interest. But the special interest waned after one year. School STAYED a special interest of mine through college (though I had a much harder time in grades 5-6, when I did not have a favorite teacher to co-regulate with). You can’t predict or force if school will be a special interest, or when it might stop being one.


One of the big triggers for a PDAer’s nervous system is feeling socially unequal or inferior to others. I believe that school was possible for me because I was able to ‘equalize’ with my peers and teachers through academic achievement. For whatever mysterious reasons, the cognitive gifts I was born with map almost exactly onto the skills an American kid needs to succeed in school. Had I struggled academically and seen my peers succeed “above” me, I likely would have burnt out from threat response years earlier. This realization also helps me understand why I was so resistant to trying new things I might not be good at. My son is cognitively gifted, but could not access most of that gift in school.



My special interest drive tends to be project-based more than topic-based. School fit me perfectly. Each semester gave me a set of projects to do, and I would focus on them with the zeal of an Autistic on a special interest. Then I’d be done and onto the next set of assignments. This is exactly how my brain naturally works. My son’s special interests are more topic-based. Almost all his play and learning goes through his special interest topic – and he learns tremendous skills and content there. A set of assignments at school would take him away from the hours of flow state he gets from his special interest, and would not allow him to access the cognitive gifts he can access while he feels safe.


1. School is not a natural environment. There is nothing in our evolutionary history that prepares children to learn in groups of same-aged peers with adults dictating their curriculum. If your child does not do well in school, the fault is not with your child. It is simply that conventional school is not a good fit for how their brain works. Many PDAers do best at home.

2. If school taps into a PDAer’s special interest, it can be a healthy learning environment for them. But this can’t be forced, & still requires respect, autonomy, & accommodations to be sustainable.

3. When safe & resourced, PDAers are often strong, self-directed learners. But seeing this gift in your child may require letting go of societal expectations of what learning looks like.



Are you ready for compassionate, neurodivergent-affirming support from an Autistic PDA person who gets it?

I bring the full power of my rabbinic training, lived experience, & deep study of Autism & PDA to my coaching sessions.


I work with Autistic & PDA people, 

our family members, & allies.

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