I’ll never ‘overcome’ my PDA neurobiology.
Aug 13, 2021
I’m often asked how, as a PDAer, I am able to overcome my need for control in parenting my own children with a PDA profile of autism.
I’ll never ‘overcome’ my neurobiology.
It is central to my being and doing.
I have, however, made peace with my inherent, organic nature and autistic expression in every sense.
Most importantly, to encapsulate PDA by only understanding it as having an extreme need for control, or extreme anxiety seriously undermines the beauty of my inherent drive for autonomy and freedom.
I’ve not always had the connection and relationships I have with my children and myself that I have today, at this moment.
They feared me. They masked. I was not a safe person. I didn’t feel safe. I exercised extreme control and held an unyielding power of instability that oozed fear into my family home.
When that drive for autonomy and freedom is compromised, my threat response is active.
My inherent need for autonomy and freedom is often understood as wilfulness, insubordination, stubbornness and unwillingness.
It is not aligned with any of the above; as those all suggest choice and control.
For a person to be identified as having an innate pathology outside of their control driving much of their experience of the world, there first must be a struggle.
Early life, our early years are where the greatest struggle is met.
Limitations, restrictions, rules, a collective understanding that children do not know what is good or right for them; an absence of respect or even recognition that children are individuals causes our threat response to be highly active.
This interferes with our sleep, our eating, our interests and hobbies, our relationships, all stemming from the brain’s concrete understanding that all of the above are dictated to us or heavily governed by others; mostly our parents.
That inherent drive within me was painful, to say the least.
It caused me to be not only misunderstood; but for others to think the very worst of me in most environments.
As a young person without an understanding of myself, misunderstood by others, feedback from my environment was crucial in order to help balance those experiences with a positive sense of self.
When a child ‘behaves’ in a particular way, they are most often met with rigidity, disapproval, dismissal and invalidation.
For children with a PDA profile, our cup is mostly always empty.
What often comes next is a barrage of interventions, mostly behavioural. Reward and punishment (sanctions, limitations, restrictions), of which all heighten the threat response more.
The added pressure of well-intentioned individuals wanting what is good and right for us (nourishing food, exercise, to leave our room, to put down the screen, to eat with family, to visit Grandparents, to attend school) heightens our threat response.
I was hostage to my neurobiological response to environments - people, places and things.
I needed something different.
Even today, the support I offer families is radical. A complete paradigm shift in parenting. In being and in doing.
And yet, I can still present on PDA for an hour, talk about the neurobiology, the difference in brain activity, in neuroception.. and still have someone feed back to me at the end that “No child wants to go to bed though” or “Children need to be told what to do”, “Screen time should be limited”.
How is it that we continue to miss the point here?
Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, PDA are neurodivergences. Different brains.
We require different supports. We think and do differently.
We are NOT neurotypical; and yet, the first line of support and the unrelenting line of supports mostly available to families are based around what neurotypical people need, how neurotypical people think and do.
This is called ableism. It is called oppression. It is political.
And it’s political because we’re talking about human rights.
So how do I overcome my need for control when parenting children with a delicate threat response?
I know who I am, and I still have so much to learn.
Through pain, grief, trauma, I learnt from rock bottom, from the view of being at that bottom that the means I had been using for a very long time (my entire life) to make my way up were based around the ideas of others.
The assumptions from others around what I needed by observing my behaviour and doing some serious guesswork.
I tuned out. I switched off, put my blinkers on, prepared to lose people, places and things along the way and set out on the journey up by tuning in.
By fine-tuning my neurodivergence.
By allowing my organic, inherent behaviours to guide me, to teach me that all I need is already within.
I learnt how to move my autistic body.
I learnt how to trust in my intuition.
I learnt to tune into the language of my neurodivergent neurobiology so that I knew, understood and respected my limits and my strengths.
I made peace with autism; with PDA.
And when I began to live in alignment with my needs and to show up in the world in my unique autistic expression; I felt less desperation around that need for control.
I learnt that where I place restrictions, limitations and rules around any aspect of my life; my brain responds in a desperate attempt to counteract those restrictions with the need for more, more and more (screens, food, etc).
I learnt that to live in alignment with my PDA nature, I must trust in and live from a space of intuition always.
And as a result of practising these, I felt safe.
My PDA brain began to trust me. It began to trust that I would do right by it.
And when it received concrete evidence that it was safe; consistency through actions, it calmed down.
My need for control calmed down.
When faced with an event, a challenge, a situation around my children where my learnt response from the social constructs of conventional parenting would kick in, I take a moment.
I ask myself three questions:
- How important is this? Does it really matter if we rip up cardboard and throw it around the room? Does it really matter if my child eats with his iPad away from the table? Does it matter if they sleep in our bed?
- What is the worst-case scenario? How bad might this get? Will I be judged? Will my child be in danger? Will something break?
- How willing and/or able am I to sit with the discomfort of the aftermath? Will I lose people over this? Were they really worth having in my life? Will I be able to clean up this mess later? Do I absolutely have to have the answers to this right now, or ever?
I then practise reframing the moment.
I see every moment with my children as an opportunity, an invitation to experience their freedom. To learn about them. To connect with them. To meet me, to connect with the child within me.
I return to the moment. I tune out and tune in. I let go of seeing myself through the eyes of others.
I can choose to control and be an authority over my child’s experiences of the world.
I can choose to focus on their behaviour and be offended by it, panicked by it, to project into the future of what it may or may not evolve into (this is never good).
I can choose to fear everything getting out of control and never being safe and okay ever again (most of us have already experienced or are already experiencing this now).
Or, I can be curious. I can remember that my children are not as conditioned as I, that their intuition about what they need and how they feel can also act as a light that shines into my darkness; that guides me to understand myself.
I don’t always have to say Yes. And, I can also say Yes and choose not to join in.
But I never forget this very important fact:
In our family, we do differently as the result of doing typically for a long time first and experiencing trauma, disconnection, pain, loss and grief.
As parents, many of us are pioneering new pathways for our neurodivergent children.
Isn't that equally sad as it is beautiful?
We carve a new path, many new paths to different destinations for ourselves and our children because there hasn’t existed what we or our children have needed.
We know and understand that the foundational years of a child’s life are the most important in the beginning development of their sense of self.
In a PDAer’s foundational years, safety is key. The message of safety.
Validation, acceptance, love, curiosity and openness.
But I must extend these values to myself first and foremost in order to communicate to my neurobiology that I am safe, in order to calm the desperate attempts to take back what many of us have not had for so long.