Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Managing the child with PDA in the classroom – Part Two

The second part of this article is aimed at both parents of children on the Autistic Spectrum, and those working with them in a school environment, and examines the impact of the various stresses of the school day for these young people, but also for those who have the job of supporting them, particularly teachers and teaching assistants.

First from the point of view of the young people.  We immediately come straight back to anxiety.  It is important to note that the level of anxiety for some of these children goes way beyond the everyday anxiety we all experience from time to time.  Imagine the worst you have ever felt – that important job interview, waiting for exam results or medical test results or that meeting with the boss which is not going to go well.  This is what these children can feel like EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Think how you felt in that situation, the thumping heart rate, the sick feeling in the stomach and, more importantly, that desire to run away somewhere safe and get away from the situation.  Imagine feeling like that every time you think about going to school.  On top of that, imagine that every day you know, at some level, that it is socially unacceptable to show this level of anxiety so you hold it all in – all day, every day.  Sometimes you may not manage this and you will end up ‘losing it’ over something apparently trivial (haven’t we all done this at some point?) but also imagine that you are not good at noticing when you are getting to that point, so your explosion of anger and frustration takes you (and everyone else) by surprise.  At this point, someone helpfully tries to get you out of the room so that you and the other children are safe.  Many children on the Autistic spectrum will have quite significant sensory processing issues, so being held or forcibly moved to another room will be almost unbearable.

Add social difficulties, rigid thinking and possible learning challenges into the mix and it is hardly surprising that so many children on the Autistic Spectrum struggle at school.

However, it is not only the young people who find this difficult.  Many teachers report feeling helpless and not being sure what to do for the best when a young person is clearly distressed, but at the same time causing havoc in the classroom.  Even those who do not visibly show their distress can inadvertently cause disruption, fidgeting, skin picking, interrupting, getting in and out of their chair, refusing to do certain pieces of work etc.

The answer is often to allocate a specific teaching assistant to support a particular child.  This can be a very difficult job and it is easy to feel disheartened.  With many children, particularly those with PDA, you can feel that, at last, you have made a breakthrough – the child you are working with appears to settle and be doing better, then suddenly, it all goes horribly wrong and you are back to square one.  In your darker moments, you may even feel that the child is deliberately sabotaging your efforts.  It does not help if you have been physically punched or kicked or been screamed or spat at by a highly distressed child.  It is hard not to take this personally.

One issue which is often overlooked is that of burnout.  Health professionals have regular supervision (a space in which to discuss with a colleague or manager how a certain situation, child or family has made you feel).  ‘Projection’ is a psychological term used to describe how a child can ‘project’ all their anger, fear and frustration onto you and make you feel useless and bad at your job.  

Without that space to be able to discuss how a situation has made you feel, it is not long before people start to doubt themselves and feel burned out.  Also, working with a child with Autism (and even more so with PDA) can be physically and mentally draining.  You will pick up on their anxiety levels (even if the signs are not obvious) and may feel like you are ‘walking on eggshells’ trying to avoid at all costs, saying or suggesting something which will lead to an outburst.  Regular breaks and, if possible, rotating the time spent with one child with someone else can ease this feeling somewhat.

Of course, all of the above not only applies to teachers and teaching assistants, but also to those parents who are home educating their children.  Most find that when their child is away from the situation they found so stressful, they tend to settle somewhat.  This does not mean that the stress for parents or the potential for burnout is any less.  Many parents still report the feeling of ‘walking on eggshells’.  There is no easy solution to this.  Within a school setting, it may be possible to rotate working with a particular child and take a break.  For many parents this is not an option.

I suggest the overall message of this article is the need to appreciate the effort involved in supporting a young person with high anxiety levels.  It is not just a case of providing clear boundaries, or adopting a consistent approach which is the advice given to many parents (and teachers) struggling to manage challenging behaviour.  What is needed is a sympathetic and joined up approach which aims to understand the underlying challenges for these children.

Finally, we do offer training courses for schools, and further details can be found on our website - http://www.help4psychology.co.uk/pdacourseschools.html 


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Managing the child with PDA in the classroom – Part One

The previous two articles have touched upon the challenges faced by parents when their children ‘mask’ or hide their difficulties in the classroom.  In the course of assessments and therapy with families, many parents have reported feeling blamed and judged when it appears that whatever they seem to try with their children does not work, whereas at school they perhaps behave like the model child. 

For many children on the Autistic Spectrum, though, this is far from the case. For some parents that feeling of dread when they receive the phone call from school or the teacher comes to find them at the school gate to talk about their child’s behaviour, is all too frequent.  It impacts upon their self-esteem, their confidence as parents and ultimately on their ability to hold down a job – how many employers are able to be sympathetic and that flexible?

A high number of children on the Autistic Spectrum, particularly those with PDA, will be temporarily (and sometimes permanently) excluded from school. To be fair, if the child is so distressed that they are putting themselves, or others, in danger as a result of their behaviour, this is probably the only option schools have.

However, all behaviour is a form of communication.  Children on the Spectrum who are throwing furniture around or hitting their teachers and peers are not ‘naughty’, they are distressed.  They often do not have the words to express how they are feeling, or the social imagination to predict the consequences of what they are doing.

School staff often feel at a loss to know what to do for the best.  Children with Autism struggle with change and will often find a change of routine, or teacher, unbearably anxiety-provoking, but often with the support of visual timetables and clear structure, many can cope.  Those who appear to experience the greatest difficulty are the children with PDA.  Everyday demands are often unbearable and they can quickly escalate into full ‘meltdown’. This can include screaming, punching, kicking and biting or running out of the class.  Some children might need to be restrained for their own safety which is distressing for both the child and the staff, who even if they have received appropriate training, often feel uncomfortable.

The following strategies may help some of these children to succeed at school. They are taken partly from the National Autism Standards, ‘The Distinctive Clinical and Educational Needs of Children with Pathological Demand Avoidance: Guidelines for Good Practice’, produced by Phil Christie, who was formerly the Director of Children’s Services at the Elizabeth Newson Centre in Nottinghamshire, and partly from advice and guidance from the staff at the Robert Ogden School, a National Autistic Society School in Doncaster who have experienced good outcomes with children with PDA.

Children with a demand avoidant profile tend to under-perform in terms of their potential, due to their anxiety and need for control.  Key issues for any school will be how best to create an environment where they feel comfortable, can be kept on task, and disrupt the other children as little as possible.  This can be tricky as the type of environment and management they need will not be a typical classroom environment for many.  By making changes, it may feel that these children are ‘getting their own way’ and being given privileges the other children are not.  Simply, trying to make them comply is unlikely to work – schools have to work to find a balance and this is often a challenge.  Help for Psychology run courses for both parents and teachers and we are well aware of how hard it can be to accommodate the needs of a very distressed and anxious child. (Full details of our training courses are on our website.)

The guidance states that teachers need to be ‘flexible and adaptable’.  Children with PDA find direct instructions and demands difficult.  Again this can be a challenge if you are a teacher, working within the confines of the National Curriculum with 30 other children in the class.  However, they often can cope if they are provided with options – ‘would you like to do X first or Y?’  The expectation is, of course, that they need to do something but at least giving them a choice can reduce the demand somewhat.

Also, unlike children with more classic forms of Autism, providing lovely visual timetables and schedules are unlikely to be effective for children with PDA. Quite often the anxiety provoked by worrying about what is going to happen leads the child to sabotage the activity rather than deal with those uncomfortable feelings.  This can be very difficult for both parents and teachers to understand, particularly if the activity is something you know they would enjoy, but talk to any adult with PDA and they will confirm that the stress of expectations (both their own and those of other people) can be simply unbearable.  Rewards and positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviour can often provoke the same reaction because if you do well once, the expectation (and therefore the demand) to do the same next time is also a challenge.

Finally for part one of this topic, both parents staff working with children with PDA need to be aware that what works one day may not work the next. Everyone may be congratulating themselves and feeling that they have turned a corner when suddenly – boom, everything explodes and you are back to square one.  Everything depends upon the level of anxiety at any given time.  The less the anxiety, the more co-operative the behaviour, the higher the anxiety, the more likely you are to see challenging behaviour. 


Part two of this article will look at ways in which school staff can help to build emotional resilience in children on the Autistic Spectrum, what to look out for in terms of mental health issues, and how to avoid burnout when working one to one with a child with PDA.