This post comes to you as a contribution to ‘Steph’s two girls’ series on her blog ‘This is our PDA story’. The PDA society are once again backing her plight to further raise awareness of Pathological Demand Avoidance by encouraging families to share their stories via her blog series, you can find out more here
Steph’s blog has been one of a small selection of fellow parent-carer warriors I have connected with and been positively influenced by since I have started blogging.
I’m going to start this blog painting you a picture. Its a dark, cold January night and a friend suggests we take the kids and dogs on an evening stroll around the village (part of our ‘we’re gonna be fit for the summer regime’). This is not part of any normal routine for my children, who are quite used to ‘gaming’, watching TV and reading before bed most nights. One is now 10 (known here as Biggerbruv) and an xbox addict, he is in year 6 and couldn’t think of much that would be ‘uncooler’ than being seen out with his mum. The other is now 8 (Our ‘babybear’ also referred to as my PDA’er). He likes his evenings to go ‘just-so’. He has PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) alongside some exciting ‘keep mum on her toes’ personality characteristics! Mum, being boss, can make decisions about what the family are going to be doing tonight, so with minimal coaxing and planning, everybody is wrapped up warm and the dogs are on the leads. There were minor objections from the PDA’er but humour and distractions helped. On arriving back, those cherubs who often bicker and fight sat together to read to each other on the sofa before snuggling in for some TV and then briskly heading off to do their teeth and jumping into bed. They slept through and in the morning got themselves dressed and organised before departing for school all without one single fall-out or ill word. This my friends is what we call a one-off and not a typical picture of a night in the life with PDA. But a pleasant one none the less!
12 months ago, we received a formal diagnosis for our son from the Local Authority Autism Spectrum Disorder Team. We’d known about PDA for approximately 4 years prior to this so although the diagnosis was more confirmation than a shock, it still hit us like a bus. I attribute some of the ‘grief’ I experienced to the traumatic previous 4 years of encountering un-supportive and critical finger pointing professionals who wore down any essence of confidence or self-esteem that I had as a parent. To gain a little insight into our post diagnosis grief, read my earlier blog on this here…Grieving and functioning … post diagnosis
PDA to our household a year ago looked nothing like the picture above and i’ve just ‘avoided’ writing about this by distracting myself with facebook, because to be quite frank, this is painful to reflect upon. Last year, my 7 year old son was critically vulnerable. He’d been excluded from his mainstream school for ‘periods of prolonged challenging behaviour’ and had endured an awfully (mis)organised ‘managed move’ to an alternative smaller mainstream for a whole 3 hours before absconding and being returned by the police. He was scared, scared of everything and anything, anxious beyond description. He did not have a healthy sleep pattern, he self harmed, he had obsessive and limiting food obsessions, he regularly lashed out, he was reclusive, he was destructive, he had frequent night terrors when he did sleep, he was defiant and avoidant by day and distressed by night and saddest of all he’d lost the light behind his eyes; that glimmer of ‘shiny sparkle’ I’d once known as a toddler, had gone. As parents we were at our wits end. We’d survived years of ‘challenging behaviour’ prior to this but we would have gone back to those days in a heart beat. At our worst (and probably my most painful memory) we were a desperate family quite literally clinging on to a little boys life as he attempted to throw himself out of an upstairs window and then when successfully rescued ran to the kitchen and pulled a knife on himself with tears streaming down his face telling me and his brother how he ‘just wanted to die’. I can’t recall the source of this meltdown. Back then I hadn’t really learnt to see past the challenging behaviours and this was a period of our lives that whizzed by in a blur and were tinged with heartache. It changed ALL of us. It quite nearly broke us in many ways.
I became Mummagrizzlybear. A parent-carer new to the world of parenting a child with a ‘label’. Prior to this I’d been the one labelled, from neurotic mother through to the anxious mother. The birth of mummagrizzlybear gave me a new platform to ensure I took care of myself and a way of documenting our journey. I found writing to be therapeutic and in many ways found myself able to intertwine my work head and reach out and help others along the way. I made a conscious decision to attempt to maintain my children’s privacy and dignity by keeping my blog anonymous. This has had some pitfuls in terms of being able to spread awareness and also in being able to connect with other families who may will prefer a ‘real’ face and name to interact with but on the most part I feel I have made the right choice for my family right now.
The ‘usual’ types of everyday PDA challenges that you will read about on sites like the National Autism Society, here and they can be used as a helpful summary and go a long way to help families and some willing professionals to comprehend that the underlying root of all PDA behaviours is an anxiety-based need to be in control. What these sites and information guidelines do not explicitly get across is to the extent that this can play out and I also feel they too often miss the opportunity to explain the impact that the excessive anxiety can have on other things like self esteem, mental health and ability to interact with the world in general.
The tables started to turn in our household with 2 key events occurring virtually simultaneously. Firstly, Babybear post diagnosis was seen by CAMHs as a matter of urgency and the Psychiatrist prescribed medication to alleviate some of the symptoms. Secondly, we entered the world of ‘alternative’ education provisions. As parents we had to shift our ‘expectations’ and throw out the typical ‘rule book’ spouting out parenting strategies. We needed to prioritise ‘well being’, ‘happiness’ and ‘mental health’ for all of us in the grizzlybear household over and above the practical things like education, finances and employment. We learnt to measure ourselves differently and became more open to viewing the world through the eyes of our PDA’er. A successful positive day became a ‘calm’, low on demands kind of day. One where we could be tucked into bed unscathed at the end of it. One where nobody had been excluded during that day. One where no one had been injured or property destroyed. For many months our focus was completely on getting our babybear re-settled and in fairness this became a far easier task once we stopped trying to squeeze our square-shaped peg into the round holes of a mainstream education. The transformation from chaotic, misunderstood and destructive family life to a calmer, respectful and compassionate world was by no means overnight and had us riddled with guilt and heart ache as we felt we neglected Biggerbruv whilst tending to mountains of meetings and appointments all with the limelight on the youngest. You can read about my thoughts on Biggerbruv’s justified resentment here (although it’s just made me cry re-reading it!): PDA Sibling resentment
During these months of adjustment, we like many parents in our boat attended courses on ASD and a particular favourite of mine a Sleep workshop bringing about one of the more significant changes in our house in helping Babybear to sleep alone, in his own bed, through the night! (When you get a chance check out my posts on the Sleep stand off or PDA and sleepboxes, if you too are a family having a night time sleep crisis). We also had many moments of feeling like we couldn’t go on or wanting to quite literally run away. It was not easy. Mummagrizzlybear read heaps. Anything that could offer glimmers of hope and ideas we had not yet exhausted. My favourites being ‘The Explosive Child’ by Dr Greene for introducing me to the idea of ‘lagging skills’ and ‘Can I tell you about pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome?’ by Ruth Fidler which was a great book to share with my sons (as its written from the perspective of a child with PDA) so that they came to recognise that other people have PDA too. We also had varying professionals come in and out of our lives ranging from a Family worker, a Behaviour specialist, an Educational Psychologist, a Psychiatrist, a mental health worker, A SCIP worker (supporting families with complex disabilities), Disability team social worker, an Autism specialist and the alternative provisions’ SENCo and teachers to name but a few. On each new meeting we had to share our ‘story’ from the beginning with each new member of the team. Whilst the support was invaluable in many ways it was infuriating in others and we also faced soul destroying responses from those we assumed ‘would help’ but instead said things like, “You’ve done everything we’d suggest, there’s nothing more we can offer” or “I’m sorry but you do not meet the threshold for that support” etc. We’ve overcome obstacles and hurdles and we have fought for what we know is right for our PDA’er. We are so close to getting our son a place at our dream school for him. We are so so close. I can’t quite describe my excitement for him! We have defeated so many demons that we are a family embarking on new adventures in the months to follow, and a year ago we simply COULD NOT have done this and nobody could have convinced me otherwise.
Reflecting back over the things we have gained in a year has me feeling quite proud of our little grizzlybear family. Much of the things we have learnt have benefited both our PDA’er and his Biggerbruv (our virtually neurotypical pre-teen!) We have become calmer, less anxious parents who are more self assured and aware of our resilience. Mummagrizzlybear’s blog posts kind of archive our achievements really but here’s a little summary of our highlights:
- Overall reduction of meltdowns both in terms of frequency and intensity. We have all developed a far better understanding of the triggers and the required coping strategies. Over time we have helped babybear to learn how to communicate better about how he is feeling and what he needs. This also progressed into him being able to reflect over incidents and help us to understand what might have helped or what we could all do differently next time. We have action plans for certain known triggers and make a huge use of humour. A bit of reverse psychology often helps but overall the key thing to reducing meltdowns has been about learning to modify the environment to reduce his anxiety and ultimately to minimise direct challenging demands and help him to feel more in control.
- We conquered SLEEP! We all now sleep in our own beds once more. We recognised that only we could change the unhealthy rituals and patterns babybear had become reliant on and we took control.
- As a family we developed the united front and focussed our energy on feeling like a team. Our social circle became small but we became less frantic and more attentive to each other. I think we have moved into a phase of acceptance and we now embrace not being ‘ordinary’. We no longer make apologies for the quirky things we need to do in order to function happily. We stopped seeking approval or denying that we needed to make accommodations in order for us all to thrive as a family. As parents we have come to identify that all behaviours have a function (equally valuable to remember this with a pre-teen as well as with a child with PDA!) and we see it as our job as superhero detectives to fathom out what any given behaviours are attempting to communicate so that we can collaboratively develop a strategy to overcome it. We involve our children in problem solving and make sure that they understand that we are human too and learning as we grow.
- My work role (although very sadly became compromised by the overload of work involved in fighting for the right education for my son) taught me a lot which I have been able to transfer to our home life. Most importantly our way of combating negativity and seeing the glass as refillable. We know that we encounter hiccups and ‘life blips’ but these are all great opportunities to learn something. If we keep encountering the same kind of life blip, then it is my belief that there is a lesson in there somewhere that has not yet been learnt!
- Another bonus from the support work I have been so passionate about is that you had to practice what you preach. In my case this was heaps of self care along with holding up a mirror to see just what I am accountable for and responsible for. I am accountable and responsible for my happiness, my behaviour and my sense of worth (as well as many other things). We share this with our children because no matter what the circumstances (even for children with a diagnosis that labels them as challenging) even children must come to recognise the power they have and that we are all responsible for our actions. It voids us of the ‘I can’t help it’ type excuses and makes us look at how we interact and communicate with each other as well as how we feel about ourselves.
- We now have a very comprehensive and very specific EHCP (nearly finalised) despite being told a year ago that my son would not meet the ‘criteria’ for a plan. We have beyond doubt evidenced that the mainstream school he was at, very severely let him and us down and because of this, our local authority has been quite responsive to more recent threats to take them to court to ensure that my son receives the very best education available to him. My opinion about the alternative provisions that I so desperately tried to avoid a year ago has completely changed and I now recognise that ‘everything can change if you first choose to’. In our world, a year really has changed everything.