‘My PDA child is deliberately being naughty’
‘They’re behaving this way on purpose’
‘Your child knows what they’re doing, they’re acting like that deliberately’
‘They could behave if they wanted to’
‘You’re acting like that on purpose, it’s nothing to do with your PDA. Stop using it as an excuse’
These are, sadly, common statements people say about PDA individuals.
There seems to be a view on behaviour in society, that if someone is behaving ‘naughty’ or ‘badly’, it is a deliberate act to manipulate others.
This idea is so pervasive that most people will automatically think a child’s behaviour is a choice of their own making, completely ignoring years of scientific evidence that shows children often lack the skills, for a variety of reasons, to behave any differently than they are.
The worse a child behaves, the more people blame the child, or the parents for not teaching the child.
So it’s little wonder why PDAers are often blamed for being unable to comply or for acting differently to societies expectations. Even behaviours that bother no one but are merely different are still seen as ‘bad’ and the individual is told off for not being able to ‘control themselves’.
It’s also why we need more advocates like Ross Green to stand up for, not only children, but all people who behave differently than society expects, for whatever reason.
‘Kids do well when they can’ says Ross Green.
But why limit it to children. All people do well when they can, when people aren’t doing well, it’s because they lack the skills. Hardly anyone deliberately behaves badly for no reason, there’s an intrinsic part of us that craves societal acceptance, and that seems to only come by fitting in, playing the part, doing as others expect.
Standing out and being different often brings with it negativity, ostracisation, judgment from others. Fitting in is a survival mechanism from years and years ago when being part of the herd was the only way to survive.
But society has moved on from that, we no longer need the comfort of the herd to protect from predators, in fact standing out and being different helps push technological and sociological advancements. But when it comes to behaviour and acceptance, we are still living in the stone age.
Socialogically speaking, behaving ‘badly’ doesn’t benefit the individual. So why would anyone behave in ways that don’t benefit them?
All behaviour has a reason, we don’t do things that serve no purpose. Even negative behaviours such as hurting ourselves or others. Sometimes the reasons why a person behaves as they do is more important that the social repercussions, and often other people cannot see those reasons, so they attribute their own beliefs onto the person’s actions, often misinterpreting the reasons for the behaviour.
Because humans are inherently selfish and self centered (it’s a survival mechanism), we often wrongly attribute another person’s actions as impacting ourselves. We may see another’s behaviour as an attempt to hurt or undermine ourselves, or to manipulate or control us. We may see their behaviour as an attempt to sway us or get us ‘on side’, we may see it as them attempting to build a relationship with us or coerce us.
Sometimes we might be correct in our thinking, but more often than not we are wrong, or we are only half-right. This is because we cannot fully see the reasons behind another’s behaviour, we often only have part of the story, we don’t fully know what another person is thinking or feeling. We are all lacking in theory of mind, whether we are allistic, autistic, neurotypical or neurodiverse. None of us truly know what another is thinking, we can merely make educated guesses based on knowledge and/or experience of body language, linguistic patterns, cause and affect, percentages and experience of the individual themselves.
Every action a person makes is based on multiple factors, including (but not limited to): thoughts, feelings, routine, disabilities/abilities, skills, societal influences, experience, ect.
The majority of our actions are instinctive actions, based on repetition, routine and survival instinct. When we hear a gun shot we don’t stop to decide what is happening and then decide how to proceed, our body takes over and we react based on instinct or practice. Someone who has never experienced a gun shot will likely duck, as that’s the body’s instinctive reaction to a threat. Someone well practiced in how to behave during shootings might react differently, they may duck, or they may grab their own gun, or they may run towards the shot. Practice has trained their body in how to behave in certain situations, but they don’t stop to think before moving, the body moves automatically.
Think about everything you’ve done today so far, how much of that was thought out and deliberate? Did you decide whether to open your eyes this morning? Did you deliberately move each arm and leg when getting up, or did you just do it automatically without thought? Did you deliberately choose to move your arm and mouth to eat your breakfast, or did you eat without thinking about it?
Our days are filled with actions and behaviours that we do without consideration. We don’t think about what we are going to do, deliberately think to move our bodies, choose each and every facial reaction and body movement during conversation. Our brains make us act on instinct and repetition without thought because it’s easier. If we had to consider and manipulate our actions for every little thing we would get nothing done at all.
The same happens with behaviour. We might try to control our actions but it’s difficult because we often act on impulse and training. If a child responds to a surprise the first time by kicking someone, the chances of them reacting like that the next time increases, it becomes a learnt behaviour. Learnt behaviours are hard to change. It’s why people, after moving house or work or school, sometimes walk/drive the wrong way before remembering the change. It’s why people forget to pick up that extra item on their usual shopping trip. It’s why people say the same thing everyday in passing. They’re learnt behaviours, we free up time and energy and mental space by acting on rote, we learn how to behave a certain way so we don’t have to think about how to behave every time.
When we do act in a way that we have never acted before, when we are placed into a new situation that requires a new way of reacting, we rely heavily on survival instinct.
If you add in all the extra things that impact a person’s behaviour (emotions, thoughts, change in environment, sensations such as pain or arousal, ect), you end up with a whole host of influences that affect how a person behaves. Someone who makes the same cup of coffee in the same way every morning, whilst acting based on learnt behaviours, may still behave differently if there are other factors involved, for example they may slam doors and bash the cup if they’re angry, they might stop making the coffee halfway through if they’re stressed, they may make tea instead if there are other people around causing societal pressure to conform, etc. If the person lacks the skills to make the cup of coffee on that particular day, that means they are not doing well, there could be any number of reasons for this, and it’s highly unlikely they are doing it because they are ‘choosing to be bad’.
So can PDAers be deliberately bad?
When you take into account the instinctive need to ‘be good’ in order to fit in, and the fact that there are many factors influencing a person’s behaviour at any one time, it’s unlikely that anyone deliberately chooses to ‘be bad’.
(Keeping in mind that good and bad are objective perspectives, what one person may see as bad may be seen as good by others. There’s a difference between legal good behaviour, morally good behaviour, socially good behaviour, religiously good behaviour and many more)
One of the many factors in determining behaviour is ability, both physically and mentally. Disabilities can prevent a person from acting in certain ways. For example, a physical disability might prevent a person from running away when faced with danger. A mental disability might prevent a person from responding in the way society expects during conversation.
For PDAers, every action we try to take triggers a danger warning in our brain. Our brains see our actions as dangers, just the same as if we were to try yo step out into a busy road or jump off the edge of a cliff. That causes our brains to try to protect us by stopping us from acting. We might try to pick up a dropped sock off the floor, our brain might see that as a danger so we might be forced to leave the sock until our brain no longer sees it as a danger or thinks not picking it up would be more dangerous.
This demand avoidance impacts our behaviours to such a degree that it often overrides other factors such as societal expectation. If you felt in such great danger you would care less about what society thinks about you trying to save yourself and more about your own survival. When PDAers have learnt behavioural responses to certain situations, and those situations cause a danger warning response, the PDAer will often behave in a way that they have learnt works best to ensure safety, even if it’s not a way that they wish to behave. For example, a PDA child may have an ingrained learnt behavioural response to being told to wear clothes where they hit the person telling them to get dressed. This may be because that’s how they reacted instinctively the first time the situation occured, that became a learnt response so now everytime they behave the same way, even if they feel such sorrow and hate towards themselves for hitting someone they care about. Adding in that, when the PDA child tries to force themselves not to hit, this is also seen as a danger by their brain which then tries to stop them from stopping themselves hitting others.
For PDAers, trying not to do something is seen as a demand in the same way that trying to do something is. It makes changing our behaviour even harder than it is for non-PDAers.
Because of the way PDA works, even if we desperately want to do something we often cannot do it. Whether that’s behaving in a ‘good’ way or a ‘bad’. Ultimately this means that when others attribute the actions of a PDAer as deliberate, there is only a miniscule chance that they are right. So when people decide a PDAers behaviour is a chosen behaviour to try to hurt others, they are missing the huge amount of factors affecting the PDAers behaviour that means it’s likely not a chosen attempt to hurt others but more an instinctive response to the situation they are in. And it stands to reason that if a person wants the PDAers behaviour to change, they need to alter the factors that are affecting the PDAers behaviour in the first place.
So to conclude: Can PDAers be ‘deliberately naughty’?
It’s very, very unlikely that any PDAers are ever deliberately naughty.
In fact I’d say if a PDAer was to be deliberately ‘bad’, they must have put a lot of effort into doing so to be able to overcome years of learnt behaviour, social expectations, peer pressure, emotions and demand avoidance. There would have to be a really big reason for someone to actively choose to behave that way.