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Why is conventional school hard or impossible for most PDA children?

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

To understand why school is difficult or impossible for so many PDA children & teens, we need to know two important things about us as students:

(1) PDA is a nervous system disability

PDAers who struggle in school often look demand-avoidant and oppositional. But the underlying cause of these behaviors is not choice. It is a disabling brain difference: a PDA student was born with an overactive threat response that fires off when faced with a lack of autonomy, control, or equality. This threat response is outside the student’s control. .

(2) PDA learners need autonomy, the process of mastery, & purpose

Humans are intrinsically motivated when we have Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose (thanks Daniel Pink!). But PDAers’ drive for these is stronger than most people. While Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose motivate everyone, I have a theory that PDAers are only able to feel safe & learn when we have a solid combination of all three. A 2018 survey by the PDA Society in the UK found that 70% of PDA’ers can’t tolerate school.

Now we are set up to understand why school is hard or impossible for so many PDAers.

Loss of Autonomy

Conventional schools are chock full of moments that take away children’s autonomy - from being asked to sit on the rug at a specific time, to being asked to do a specific activity, to being pulled away from an activity that our Autistic brains are focusing on. Like many Autistic people, PDAers don’t intuitively recognize social hierarchy in the way neurotypical people do. But PDAers have an added disabling difference. We don’t just miss the neurotypical social cue about hierarchy. We feel threatened if someone is placing themselves in a position of power over us.

Loss of social equality

Conventional school settings are filled with lack of social equality for students. Staff are in charge. Teachers are called by their last names. Staff have the power to punish, reward, & rank children. Children are supposed to conform with adult expectations. Conventional school settings can feel terrifyingly out of control for PDAers. We can’t control the other children. We can’t control the teachers. We can’t control the built environment of the classroom. We can’t control noise levels. We can’t control the curriculum or schedule. We also can’t control how good we are at school subjects.

Loss of opportunities to equalize

“Equalizing” is one strategy PDAers use to feel safe. It refers to any behavior that helps us feel in control – of a situation, a person, a reality. A PDAer who is gifted at school subjects and interested in them can equalize all day by knowing the answers, getting positive attention from the teacher, & getting good grades. This was my strategy for dealing with social anxiety in school. But many PDAers struggle with executive functioning or are not intrinsically interested in school subjects. They cannot equalize academically, so the need to be in control comes out in demand avoidance, physical equalizing, or other strategies that are more problematic - & exhausting - in a school setting.

Loss of flow state: mastery & purpose

PDAers tend to be gifted autodidacts. The very same disabling brain difference that gets in the way in a conventional school setting can make us extremely fast learners when we want to learn something. The state of deep focus on a new skill or passion is tremendously nourishing to us, and is called a PDA flow state. Picture me, age 38, pouring over tree guide books in every spare moment, with a wild passion for mastering tree taxonomy, my eyes lit up, my pace of learning fast & furious & full of joy. Picture my son, age 6, focused in rapt joy & attention as he teaches himself Minecraft modding & the pre-skills for computer coding for hours each day.

Now picture us forced to spend hours each day NOT doing this.

One thing that‘s missing from the conversation about PDAers in school is recognition of this loss: When a PDA child spends all day engaged in standard curriculum, they are not spending that time in the flow state that is crucial to their mental health. Deep dive learning in special interests is crucial for mental health & regulation for any Autistic person. PDAers are especially vulnerable to nervous system trauma & burnout when we do not have access to this flow state. By taking children away from self-directed special interest learning for many hours a day, schools deny their brains of the safety, joy, and deep delight in learning that a PDAer only gets from engaging in special-interest based learning, or learning that is aligned with their values & triggers a sense of purpose & mastery.

Adapting a conventional school to accommodate PDA learners is like adapting soccer to accommodate a person in a wheelchair: it can be done, but the underlying rules of the game have to change. These changes should not be on individual teachers, but individual teachers can advocate and make as many changes as they can in their classrooms. As we work towards more awareness of PDA, and eventual DSM recognition, schools in the USA will be legally obligated to accommodate these vulnerable kiddos. Until then, we are relying on the love and care of neurodivergent-affirming educators.

Stay tuned for the rest of my series on school & PDA

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