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How do internalized PDA'ers assert control or "equalize"?

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

I am what is known in the PDA community as an internalized PDAer. In this post, I explain what that means with examples from my life.

From the outside, 6-year-old me did not look like the PDA kids who are most talked about today - children whose anxiety causes very challenging behaviors for their parents & teachers. I had big emotions, but was well-behaved, highly capable, & pleased adults at home & at school. I had several close friends outside of school. I functioned in Kindergarten. I never hit the classic burnout stage that my child and so many other young PDA’ers hit.

But I have very clear memories of my childhood, & a PDA brain wiring explains a great deal about me. The main difference between me and my son is that my childhood strategies for asserting my autonomy and “avoiding demands” caused little distress to those around me. Adults were concerned, but not distressed. The idea that these were signs I was Autistic or PDA was, of course, unheard of in the 1980s-1990s.

Since I found workarounds for most activities of daily life, I didn’t look “demand avoidant.” I looked rigid, inflexible, picky, bossy, & purist. But all my behaviors were coming from the same place as my son’s more obvious externalized PDA.

Like my son, my overactive autonomic threat response was getting triggered when faced with a lack of autonomy, control, or equality. Like my son, I subconsciously found creative ways to assert my control & autonomy to feel safe in the face of both internal demands of my body, and the external demands from other people and reality around me.

In the PDA community, this asserting of control is called "equalizing."

While externalized PDA'ers tend to have obvious equalizing behaviors directed at other people, much of my equalizing behaviors were less obvious if you looked at me. But - and I can't emphasize this enough - they were constantly happening inside my mind.

Which is an exhausting way to live.

What does equalizing look like for an internalized PDA'er?

One of the ways PDA'ers equalize (assert our control when we feel threatened) is by creating what in my house we call "PDA rules." The rules help us feel in control in the face of a threat, such as the sensation of hunger, the demand to wear clothes, the demand to bathe, the demand to consume items that come from sweatshops. Examples might include: I only eat this kind of bagel. I only wear clothes with Minecraft on them. I don't take baths anymore. I can't buy anything that isn't second hand.

My son has the benefit of a positive Autistic PDA identity and awareness that his rules come from his mind. (This doesn't mean he can break them - it just means he has no shame or extra exhaustion around the experience of having the rules.)

But I had no idea where my rules came from.

Instead, the rules felt like natural law that only applied to me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to break or bend them. It’s that I could not without feeling that my life was in danger. Reason could not make me change the rules.

Note that my rules did not involve repetition or needing to do certain rituals. They involved needing to avoid doing certain things that did not align with my sense of self & safety.

Examples of Internalized PDA equalizing:

FOOD: I had strict rules about which foods I was allowed to eat, and complex rationales about why those rules existed. Some rules were around avoiding classic kid foods - pizza, soda, candy. Others were about avoiding meat. This was on top of more classic Autistic eating sensitivities. I could not eat meat. I loved cheese but could only eat sharp cheddar. I eat pasta but with no sauce.

CLOTHES: I had strict rules around which clothes I was allowed to wear. For a few years as a little girl I could only wear skirts and dresses. I certainly could never wear stripes (the first striped shirt I wore was when I was 40). Colors had to match exactly.

CONSUMPTION: I had strict rules about other forms of consumption, i.e. minimizing water I used at the sink. I winced in pain every time I threw something away, or heard a car turn on, and sent out silent messages of guilt and apology to the Earth. I realize now these thoughts were a (very flawed) way of trying to equalizing against the environmental crisis.

BATHROOM: I could not complete certain toilet-training milestones for several years after my peers had accomplished them, which I can see now was a way to assert control over my body’s demands.

READING: I had strict rules about which books I was allowed to read, and would read the same ones over and over. This lasted well into my chapter book reading days.

LOSING TEETH: I resisted losing my first tooth, keeping it in my mouth as long as I could. I also kept hair from my first hair cut, hating to lose or change anything about my body.

SCHOOL: I strictly followed all rules in school & at home. This strategy was: “I will control myself so well that I will be absolutely sure it is me who is in charge, and not you. Authority figures therefore can’t punish or control me.”

TEACHERS: I had very strong feelings about my teachers, & needed to be a favorite. I often preferred to socialize with them instead of my peers. I needed to feel socially equal with them.

PEERS: I had close friends with other likely neurodivergent children outside of school. In school, I was a natural leader, and my reports say my classmates looked up to me. I could not, however, step out of the role of leader. I remember being called bossy by kids.

ACADEMICS: I easily mastered any content that interested me. I could not engage in content that didn’t. Fun fact: In 5th grade my class learned long division. I deemed it “not me” & refused (i.e. could not allow myself) to learn it. At 41, I still have no idea how to do long division.

RISK-TAKING: If I wasn’t ready (i.e. didn’t feel safe) to try something new, very little could persuade me to do it. If I somehow was persuaded, I would melt down or shut down during the activity. When I was ready (i.e. felt safe) doing something new, I could do it quickly & masterfully. This is all still true.

I am developing a model to work with PDA'ers on expanding our comfort zone when PDA rules get in our way. It's called the PDA Safe Circle. Book a coaching session with me to work with you or a child in this developing model.

For links to studies on internalized PDA, check out this article.



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