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How 'high status' roles can help with PDA Autistic social anxiety

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

A particular kind of social anxiety

Some of the most stressful situations in my life have been when I am in a group of people without having a specific job to do. This is not uncommon with Autistics – the back and forth of unstructured conversation can be confusing or overwhelming for us. We may miss unspoken cues and rules, talk more than others find acceptable or talk not at all, or spend hours ruminating over social interactions that just didn’t feel quite right to us without knowing why.

But for us PDA Autistics, there is an additional level of social anxiety. As Will Stor explains in The Status Game: On Human Life & How to Play It, human beings are subconsciously obsessed with status. Like other social mammals, our species has a natural inclination towards hierarchy and knowing our place in it. Without structures, even the most egalitarian-minded group will naturally end up with a hierarchy (Check out “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” for an amazing read on this).

The issue for PDAers is that we easily feel threatened on a subconscious level when our nervous system senses that someone (or something) has power, authority, or status over us.

While it’s said that many Autistics don’t “see” social hierarchy, I would say PDAers see it and feel it keenly – we just cannot easily abide it unless we are equal or higher status compared to others in our group.

In my personal life & coaching practice, I have seen that when a PDAer can be in a social role that feels safe to them it can make a difference as to whether or not they can engage in a social activity. These social roles can also offer us opportunities for meaning and purpose and connection.

The right social roles help us thrive. For many PDAers, these are what I would call “high status” social roles, for instance:

The Leader: i.e. directing others’ actions or attention, making decisions, being first

The Expert: i.e. sharing valuable knowledge with others

The Creative: i.e. coming up with ideas or ways to do something, manipulating the physical world to make something new (What Casey Ehrlich beautifully calls the Alchemist)

The Hero: i.e. helping others in a way that draws positive attention to oneself

Other examples of high status social roles:





Problem solver










Preparer of a space

I want to emphasize that if we accommodate a PDAer to be in a particular social role, it does not mean others should be belittled or taken advantage of for the sake of accommodating the PDAer. (When the other people involved aren’t comfortable with the PDAer’s high status, which often happens with siblings, it’s important to frame & explain what is happening & offer other opportunities for the sibling to feel in control without the PDAer in other contexts.)

Offering a high-status social role means framing the PDAer’s experience in such a way that they feel themselves to be high status. This may or may not highly impact others. This allows the PDAer to relax and engage socially in safe and fun ways, instead of avoiding the activity or subconsciously seeking status through equalizing.

I played soccer as a girl.

Soccer was in my Safe Circle, any other sport was out. I played half back or forward, and was very fast for my age. Those sprints down the field to score were heaven. When I was twelve I made the traveling team for my town. Now instead of being one of the strongest players on my little neighborhood team, I was one of the weakest players. Between the loss of status & the act of traveling to other towns on a bus with other kids, my (undiagnosed) PDA anxiety immediately ratcheted up.

My mom gave me a suggestion that helped me be able to stay on the team. She suggested that I pretend I was a journalist, reporting on a story about being on the traveling team. This role play, which no one but she and I knew about, gave me my sense of status back. I was "undercover" with the other girls, which gave me a sense of being special & set apart, which for me helped a lot. (Not all PDAers would like this particular role, but it worked for me). Instead of focusing on what felt scary to me I got curious about all the new elements of this experience. I didn't need to jockey for high status on the team because I was playing a different social game entirely - I was reporting.  

My experience on the traveling team is an example of how a PDAer can feel "high status" without needing to impact others.

I talk about the idea of social roles in The PDA Safe Circle™. It’s is new strengths-based approach I am developing that addresses the question, “How can PDAers of all ages use our strengths to thrive within the limits of our disability?” The PDA Safe Circle™ begins with a visual model of the PDA nervous system and the accommodations we need. Then it goes on to explore how a PDAer’s strengths and preferred social roles can bridge more of life to come inside our Safe Circle once we are out of burnout and deep into recovery or equilibrium. This bridging is done in service of the PDAer‘s joy and thriving.

Here are some more examples of bridging something into my & my son‘s Safe Circles using social roles:

1) My 6yo was out of burnout and needed a dental cleaning. Just telling him we were going to the dentist wasn’t gonna fly. So, I told him the dentist wanted to learn how to incorporate Minecraft references into his practice so kids would like the dentist more. I gave the dentist a heads up & he was delighted to receive the consult. My kiddo got a tooth cleaning, but he was in the role of Minecraft consultant, so he loved it.

2) Parties are often very stressful for me, but I wanted to have a singing gathering for my birthday last year. I invited a few close friends & family members. I explained we would all get a chance to pick songs to sing, but that I would perform two solo songs. Performing is a social role I love & it grounded me during the rest of the gathering.

3) My kiddo is just starting to try out playdates with children again after 18 months of other kids being outside his Safe Circle. Any first playdate happens in our home. My son preps the playdate by making different “stations” & gets to show the kid around our house & his special sensory bedroom. He feels in charge, & the other child gets to play with new toys & activities. Success is not guaranteed but it is possible!

4) After decades of wanting to be a climate activist but experiencing extreme demand avoidance around it, I eventually found a social role for myself within the climate movement as a public speaker, song-leader, and organizer. These roles brought activism into my Safe Circle and allowed me 10 years of meaningful activism. (I even have a book coming out next year!)

(recording available if you miss the live session)

The PDA Safe Circle™ begins with modeling the PDA nervous system, burnout, and recovery. But it doesn't stop there. Ultimately the model asks a courageous question that I deeply believe - and know from lived experience - has an answer: "How might PDAers use our strengths to thrive within the limits of our disability?"

At the July 11th workshop you’ll walk away with:

- A compelling visual model of the PDA nervous system

-Basic polyvagal theory as it applies to PDA

- An appreciation of common PDA strengths

- Awareness of your own or your child's specific strengths

- Ideas for how to intentionally use these strengths to support yourself or your child in thriving.



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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