Trying to get things done with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

demand avoidance parent strategic get things done


Can you imagine trying to get two kids under 7 out of bed, dressed, fed and ready to head out of the house without ever asking or telling them to do any of these things? 

This is a challenge that we face every time we want to head out as a family (in fact pretty much any time we want our Son to anything). 

For our Son, aged 6, who has a form of autism known as Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), the simplest everyday requests can lead to anxiety and resistance. The more you insist, the more he will resist. 

This means we've had to think of ways to get him to do things, without specifically telling or asking him. 

Over the past year we have tried many techniques, with varying degrees of success (and frustration) - the most effective of these has been the phrase "Last one to the car gets the rotten face paint".

For many people, I am sure that the measures that we go to in order to get things done must seem overly complex and involved.

I agree - and they involve a HUGE amount of thinking, mental effort and patience. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't wish we could follow Supernanny's advice to get the expected behaviour through consistent discipline.  

The problem is that without relying on the strategies below we would get kicking, screaming, running & hiding, verbal abuse, lying on the floor refusing to move, moaning that his legs/ arms don't work and repeated attempts to negotiate doing something else. Disciplining these behaviours would only make things worse, for all of us. 

These days we don't realise how much we manage this without thinking, until we go off script "for a break" or need a friend/ new childminder to look after him for a while, and we see the fallout of them trying to get him to do something.

Getting to the car, with coat and shoes on

We have been playing the rotten face paint game for years, well before we knew anything about autism or PDA, and my Son loves it. 

Despite this, I only recently worked out that the game had the power to help us avoid the regular battles linked to having to stop playing, head to the front door, put shoes and a coat on, and venture out to the car. 

I can't remember how it started, but my Son came up with the the phrase when we was 3/4 years old as he hates facepaint and rotten facepaint must be the worst. The one thing I do know is that it works!

As soon as we utter that phrase, he will race to get his shoes and coat on before rushing out of the door and into the car where he will wait excitedly to see who who is going to get the rotten face paint.

What could have taken hours, and a bucket load of patience, has turned into a fun activity with minimal fuss taking no more than 5-10 minutes. 

Getting dressed for school and eating breakfast

Mornings are full of demands, which is not helped by added time pressures of needing to be ready with enough time to get Daughter to nursery, Son to school and Parents (i.e. me) to work.

It starts with preparation the night before (thanks to a very organised hubby) - with school uniforms laid out and bags packed by the front door.

In the morning, we have a rule that  the iPad will be available to use by the front door once everyone has got dressed and eaten breakfast and brushed their teeth. Nothing like a little incentive to help with self-motivation.

Some mornings can still be a struggle, however this daily routine helps us to contain the level of fallout that we have had in the past - and MY morning stress levels are definitely lower as I don't seem to be managing to get out the door with much less effort these days.

Eating family meals at the table

At weekends we like to sit down at the table to eat as a family once a week. A lovely idea - but it can easily deteriorate into chaos.

I have lost count of the times I have spent hours cooking a Sunday Roast, only to have the kids refusing to sit at the table and eat. Any insistence on everyone sitting at the table usually ends up in some sort of battle, and an attempt to enforce Time Out for unexpected behaviour.

These days we don't nag about needing to sit at the table, however we do repeatedly say that "people sit on chairs when eating meals at the table" and we make a big deal of anyone who is sitting nicely. We make an even bigger deal when people are eating nicely.

It is amazing what a difference changing the way you phrase things can make - it is still the same thing, but the outcomes are completely different!

Stopping watching tellly / playing on iPad

Addictions / obsessions come in all different forms. In our house it is watching TV or playing with ipads/ iphones. As a result, we have specific times of the day that this is allowed, and screen time is limited as much as possible (with the exception of Film Fridays and Sunday Family Movies).

Switching off can be another source of tension, so we try to pre-agree the time allowed along with the consequences of trying to argue when it is time to switch off.

Before the agreed stop time, we give a 10min & 5min warning. And when it is time to stop, we will give him the option to press pause the TV show / game so that he knows that he won't miss out on anything.

The little bit of control to being able to select pause seems to make a big difference for him.

Heading upstairs to get ready for bed

Nights times and trying to get everyone upstairs for bed are almost as stressful for me as trying to get ready for school in the morning. The children are tired, I am usually weary and desperately wanting to settle down onto the sofa so that I can relax for the evening.

Depending on how tired I am I have one of two strategies for getting upstairs - the first is asking whether we are walking or catching the mummy express (a piggy back) to get upstairs.

Other days, I try a little competition between Daughter and Son, with a challenge of "How quickly can you get upstairs" or "First one to brush their teeth gets to chose their nighttime story"

By this stage I am usually sat on a stool in the bathroom, mustering my final ounces of patience as I try to remain calm while toothpaste is being smeared over the mirror (choose your battle) and counting down the minutes until lights off.

Going to Bed

The final challenge of the day is going to sleep. There are periods of time when sleep seems to come easily, and there are others when a new tactic to try avoid going to sleep means that this can take up to 3 hours each night for days on end.

Regardless we try and stick to the same routine each night
  • Read a bedtime story
  • Get water with ice-cubes (6 cubes to be precise)
  • State that it is sleep time
  • Cover him with a satin throw (which he claimed from our spare room about a year ago) 
  • Wrap him tight in his duvet
  • Dim the lights
  • Say Night Night
  • Close the door
  • Breathe a sigh of relief - and pray that it is going to be an easy night

If he does get up out of bed, we walk him back to bed trying to say as little as possible, repeating the bedtime routine from the point of covering him with the throw. 

Other strategies use to try get things done

We are always looking for new strategies to get through the day, and have already collected a number of them to pick & choose from as needed.

These include:
  • Bet you can't ...
  • Can you help ....
  • Who knows how to 
  • First one to ..... gets to ......
  • Talk about a topic of interest to him whilst guiding him to through the required action (e.g. getting dressed, moving him to where we need him to go)

At the end of the day the most important strategies for me have been to take each day as it comes, learning to recognise when we are heading towards a battle of wills so I can step aside, and lastly that a little laughter can go a long way - even if you when you least feel like it. 


For more information on PDA and strategies to use, you can go to The PDA Society.


Do you struggle with demand avoidant behaviour? What strategies have you come up with to help with the daily routines? 



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Sons, Sand & Sauvignon

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