“Girls With Autism” – a response

20 Jul

Last week, ITV screened a programme called “Girls with Autism”.

It centred around a Special School named Limpsfield Grange for girls aged 11-16 with Autism and featured a girl named Beth who has a PDA diagnosis.

I was excited to watch it, and publicised it to my friends as I was keen to encourage greater awareness of this lesser known autism spectrum disorder and perhaps provide a glimpse into our life raising a boy with suspected PDA.

But having watched the programme, I came away concerned that the message conveyed about PDA was wrong and quite contrary to the guidance provided by the PDA Society.

My biggest issue centred on the suggestion made by the teachers that what the student needed was “tough love” as she was no different to anybody else. They also stated that they needed to “flood her with praise” so she would learn that the more she participates, the more praise she would receive.

The Head teacher went on to state that “With Pathological Demand Avoidance we have to put a very tight, rigid structure around that student and she will not like it…. and it’s a bit like reigning a horse in and training a horse”.

My heart sank.

I was filled with disappointment.

Rather than highlight the recommended professional guidance for parenting and teaching a child with PDA, the school seemed to be endorsing exactly the type of behaviour modification techniques that would send a PDA child into meltdown. And the description of PDA children as horses that needed training and no different to anybody else just made me angry.

My child is NO horse and he certainly doesn’t need reigning in and training – and it is precisely the fact that he isn’t like everybody else that means traditional parenting techniques and “tough love” don’t work.

Believe me, I and many other parents with diagnosed or suspected PDA children will have already exhausted the tough love approach, and for me, having consistently applied firm boundaries and consequences for years with disastrous results, the thought that less informed people might watch this programme and kindly suggest to me that I need to be stricter and more rigid in my parenting makes my toes curl.

The concept of using lots of praise can also be troublesome for individuals with PDA, as it can raise anxiety levels. Praise is better received indirectly – for example, if they overhear you telling somebody else how well they have done. This is certainly the case for my son, who is noticeably uncomfortable if he receives too much direct praise and will “disengage” immediately from the conversation.

The PDA Society have since issued a statement confirming that some of the comments made in the programme appear to be at odds with the recommended guidelines for children with PDA.

However, since the documentary was aired, I have been fortunate enough to read further explanation from both Beth and her mother regarding the techniques the school has successfully adopted, and it is clear that these few unfortunate statements are not representative of the excellent work that the school have done to support and educate Beth. They have in fact put in place an individual and tailored plan to deal with the underlying anxieties and demonstrate to Beth that she can tolerate a level of demand. This approach fills me with much hope, that with the right diagnosis and support, my son may have a brighter future ahead.

Therefore, on reflection, I feel that the issues lie with the editing/lack of context, rather than the approach of the school itself, and I am grateful to Beth and her family for generously appearing and raising the profile of PDA.

If you watched the programme and would like to understand more about Pathological Demand Avoidance and the recommended parenting and education strategies, please consult the PDA Society website here.

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One Response to ““Girls With Autism” – a response”

  1. Kerry S. August 12, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

    My heart sank at the same moments. The idea that Beth is a young lady who needs taming like a wild horse is beyond objectionable – factually incorrect and morally reprehensible. I kind of assumed that the producers perhaps just don’t understand what PDA even is. Why would they? I know plenty of clinicians who are equally clueless – but for one of Beth’s educators to make such a comment – I actually couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I’m so glad to hear that that ridiculous statement was not actually representative of the school’s overall approach. K x

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