Information for education professionals

What is PDA?

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is best understood as a profile on the autism spectrum – for more information please see About autism & PDA.

Our Being Misunderstood report highlights that 70% of children with a PDA profile of autism are not in school or regularly struggle to attend. This figure is much higher than for the ASD population as a whole, and shows how challenging school can be with PDA.

You may have a child in your school whose presentation is hard to understand, who may not respond to conventional teaching approaches (as highlighted in this article in SEN Magazine) and whose behaviours may differ considerably between home and school. If so, exploring whether a PDA profile of autism could be an underlying factor may hold the answer and signpost a way forward.

How PDA may look in school

This information has been adapted from the Autism Education Trust’s guidelines: The Distinctive Clinical and Educational Needs of Children with Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome: Guidelines for Good Practice.

Some key characteristics of a PDA child at school, diagnosed or otherwise, may be:

  • A desire to be on a equal or superior to others – a PDA child may see themselves as equal to adults and not confer ‘automatic respect’ due to someone’s job title
  • A poor sense of self-esteem – this may not always be immediately apparent as sometimes surface behaviours may seem to be robust
  • Very poor emotional regulation; extreme/sudden ‘mood swings’
  • An ambivalence about success, typified by a child who destroys his/her work on completion especially if praised
  • A lack of permanence and transfer of learning and experience; sudden/dramatic setbacks after periods of settled behaviour and progress
  • ​A desire for friendships, often inadvertently sabotaged through a need for control
  • ​Extensive involvement in fantasy/role play
  • Meltdowns/shutdowns/behaviour that challenges – or equally a child may mask and internalise whilst at school (please see below)
  • It is not uncommon for children with PDA to experience multiple exclusions from an early age.


Some autistic people are very adept at masking, and this is very common with PDA. Masking means that people may be able to hide or ‘hold in’ some of their differences/difficulties in certain environments or with certain people. Significantly, this means that challenges reported in one setting (often home) may not always be seen in others (such as school or other settings). This can and does lead to misunderstandings.

For further information about masking, please see Children who ‘mask’ or ‘camouflage’ their Autism and It’s not only girls who can mask written by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Judy Eaton and Different behaviour between school and home by the National Autistic Society.

Some children can continue to mask throughout school; some children find it harder to continue to mask especially as their peers become more socially sophisticated and school life becomes more demanding.

Attendance difficulties

As mentioned above, our Being Misunderstood report highlights that 70% of children with a PDA profile of autism are not in school or regularly struggle to attend.

School refusal – when a child is unable to attend school due to anxiety, phobia or trauma – should be treated as a health and/or SEN need. If a child isn’t attending school because his/her special educational needs can’t currently be met, the school and/or LA should be looking to provide suitable provision as soon as possible.

Neither situation should be viewed as truancy. The National Autistic Society provides useful information to help everyone understand difficulties with school and ‘school refusal’ – though please note that the strategies suggested would require considerable adaptation for a PDA child.

Working with families

Believing, supporting and working closely with families is key to successful inclusion of pupils with a PDA profile of autism.

Good practice & helpful approaches

Working with PDA as a teaching professional is both challenging and rewarding. Browsing the available resources may give valuable insights – some have been tagged as being especially helpful for teaching professionals including:

Whole-school training in helpful approaches with PDA is invaluable – courses are provided by the PDA Society and third parties, please see our training pages for more details.

Benefits of understanding the PDA profile

All research points to early understanding of strengths and needs, together with appropriate support, being key to positive long term outcomes.

We thought Zoe may be autistic but her needs were very different to other autistic pupils we had supported in school before, and none of our usual approaches helped. Searching for answers led us to PDA. Seeing Zoe through this lens enabled us to truly understand her and successfully adapt our practices by building trust and embracing a flexible and collaborative approach – Zoe’s teacher

Please see Benefits of understanding the PDA profile for more information.

Further info

PDA Education support group is an informal Facebook group (independent of the PDA Society) where educators can share ideas, strategies and seek support from each other.

For further information about any aspect of education and PDA please contact us.