It can be more difficult for teachers to understand how best to support pupils with a demand avoidant profile. This is because traditional management techniques such as structure, routine and rewards that can work for pupils with other autism profiles are generally ineffective.

Here we have educational guidelines for teaching pupils with a demand avoidant profile, sometimes known as pathological demand avoidance or PDA. This includes starting points, the benefits of visual supports, using intense interests, negotiation and choice. Using these techniques may help to lessen a pupil's anxiety and improve their school experience.

These guidelines come from Jilly Davis, a teacher at our Robert Ogden School who has experience of working with pupils who have a demand avoidant profile. 

Starting points

Empathy and understanding of demand avoidant profiles and a child's individual personality and tolerances are crucial in helping pupils learn.

Good questions to ask yourself when getting to know a pupil with this profile are: 

  • Does a pupil’s curriculum include personal relevance with curriculum choice?
  • Does a pupil’s learning nurture their unique talents and strong interests?
  • What strategies can you use to enable pupils to take an active part in their educational experience? 

At Robert Ogden School, we have developed an educational resource called The Inclusive Learning Hub (ILH). Here we offer pupils who have a demand avoidant profile the opportunity to follow a personalised bespoke package of educational and behavioural support. We facilitate a child-led learning environment, which the child feels they have some control over.

This resource gives the pupils the optimum opportunity to re-engage in learning, as the majority of these children and young people have been excluded from a range of educational provision including autism-specific environments. Our starting point is where the child is at and what they want to learn, rather than what we want the child to do.

For these children, it’s creating a whole package of measures that makes a difference, rather than isolating just a few key issues. There are no absolute or clear guidelines to working with these pupils, but a range of approaches.

One of these approaches is about adapting your teaching style to each child or young person’s capacity to learn at a given time, taking into account the pressure and anxiety they may feel. 

Your ability to be flexible and adaptable, to facilitate and not dominate are vital. Try to realise there are times when you need to cut back or reduce demands but also recognise when you can add expectations.

Visual supports

Visual support methods such as daily schedules or planners that can be successful for pupils with other autism profiles can also help those with a demand avoidant profile, but often for a slightly different reason.

They can be used in a way that de-personalises demands and gives children spontaneity, choice and novelty, which are all approaches that aim to include them.

When a pupil starts with us in the ILH, we negotiate with them what lessons they want to learn and the best time to do those lessons. We also talk about when to do lessons they are not so interested in. This not only empowers them, but gives them responsibility for their learning and builds up self-esteem. It helps them to feel like they have some control over their day.

We also identify any strengths a pupil has and their strong interests. These are embedded into their curriculum. For example, a child’s interest in Minecraft can be included throughout the day. This could be in Geography, History or English lessons.

Their planner will have pictures of the different characters in Minecraft and can be changed regularly in order to capture interest and help a child learn to accept that seeing information on a piece of a paper can be a positive experience.

As these children and young people are visual learners, it’s important for them to accept that seeing information on a piece of a paper can be a positive experience. This can help them to begin to tolerate and accept direction from written text.

Using intense interests to create structure

Case study one

We found that a very successful strategy for a child with a strong interest in football was that his Monday planner could have each lesson related to football, however slight the connection.

We recognised that Mondays were a difficult transition for him after the weekend and any learning we imposed on him would result in either a major meltdown in which he’d have verbal or physical outbursts, or total noncompliance.

But introducing a different picture of a football player onto his planner meant he would come into school in a positive manner to see if he could identify the player. If he couldn’t, his first lesson would be to Google the player, or if he did, it would be to produce a biography of the player. His next lesson would be a Maths lesson and we would have created a worksheet based around the league tables from the weekend. The afternoon included a sports newspaper and a physical activity, which would obviously be football or ball skills.

If his tolerance to learning meant that even his very motivating lesson in the mornings was too difficult for him to comply with, then the visual support became a negotiation tool. We would take responsibility to reduce the child’s anxiety, and change the day around such as bringing the football or ball skills lessons earlier on in the day, and giving a reason, for example "the paper hasn’t arrived" or "the printer is not working so we cannot print off the worksheet".

Case study two

A child who was interested in the games Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto had to have a more indirect approach as we cannot allow those games to come into school. What was acceptable for us and also motivating for him, was that in his history lesson, he produced timelines of all the different consoles and console games over the years. He produced an encyclopaedia of this information, which many of the other children were interested in.

He also produced a number of PowerPoint presentations about the timeline of consoles and games for his ICT lessons, which we were able to use in lessons for some of the other children who play on console games. One of his strengths was drawing but he refused to participate in Art. However, we allowed him to draw characters from the games, and this flexibility allowed him to re-engage with the lessons. He is incredibly proud of his portfolio of pictures and has many of them up on his bedroom wall.

His planner identified his lessons but then gave more information about the content of the lesson so he was reassured that it would be something he was interested in.

Negotiation and using planners

Another point to remember is to use a planner to check with the pupil about any negative feelings they may have about the day ahead. You can then put proactive strategies to avoid noncompliance into their planner. For example, the top of their planner could contain a question such as "is your planner ok for you today?" If they indicate some anxiety about a topic, a lesson or the person they are going to work with, then be prepared to take control to avoid stressful situations and make the necessary changes.

If the child says they are not going to do Maths, do not comment initially – don’t ask why or try to encourage them to do it. At some point prior to the lesson, ask another member of staff to mention that this has been cancelled today so that it can be crossed off the planner and an alternative lesson can be put in its place.

If for some reason a member of staff is causing anxiety, changes can be made to give the pupil the choice of another member of staff. However, be wary of over-dependence as one of the diagnostic criteria for a demand avoidant profile is an obsessional interest in people.

Generally speaking, children and young people with this profile want to learn, but there are times when their anxiety based need to be in control stops them.  It doesn’t mean that if they misbehave or are noncompliant they feel they have won and can do whatever they want.

Giving pupils choice

Offering choice on visual planners is another effective way to help children access education. It gives them a feeling of being in control – for example, you can ask "do you want to do Maths or English first?" and then make changes on the planner. Another technique is to give a choice of tasks with the same objective, making the task you want the child to do easier. Again, identify this request in a visual format so it appears that someone else is making the request.

This technique may help you to negotiate with the child until you reach a compromise. Sometimes you have to move the goal posts but try to finish on a positive note, even if you have to blame someone else for the content of the work. If it’s possible, offer a choice on the planner of where the child can do the lesson, for example, "do you want to do this work in the library or in class?"

Be careful about putting times on the planner, as this can be difficult for some pupils to comply with. Check with the child if the format of their planner is acceptable, for example, would they prefer it on different coloured paper or in a tablet form?

These are only some aspects of the different approaches that are effective in teaching children with a demand avoidant profile.  Other areas to take into account are the physical environment, a non-confrontational approach to managing behaviours, the presentation of tasks and the philosophy of the whole school in terms of inclusion for all.

More resources from our charity

Top 5 autism tips for professionals: supporting pupils with PDA   
Meeting the educational needs of pupils with PDA
PDA and mental health

Last reviewed: 26 May 2017.