PDA in Gifted Kids

PDA was originally defined as “pathological demand avoidance,” and early conceptualizations focused on kids who avoided the demands of everyday life – sometimes through outright refusal, but often through complex social dynamics such as negotiation, avoidance, delay, distraction, or fantasy.

These days, many PDAers prefer the acronym “pervasive drive for autonomy.” I think the autonomy-focused acronym is also more useful for understanding what PDA actually is and what it’s like to be a PDAer.

​If you have an intense or sensitive gifted kid, I think it can be helpful to learn at least a little about PDA because many intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids have PDA characteristics and benefit from PDA-informed parenting approaches.

​In this article, I’ll give a short introduction to PDA in gifted kids and I’ll share some of my favorite resources if you want to learn more.

What are some signs your gifted kid might be PDA?

I’m going to start by sharing common experiences, characteristics, and behaviors that I hear about when parents describe their gifted PDAers.

This list is not exhaustive and it’s not diagnostic. Kids also don’t need to have all these behaviors or characteristics to be a PDAer. Instead, these are things I hear about frequently that make me wonder whether a kid is a PDAer and/or if PDA-informed approaches would be helpful.

  • The child is very emotionally reactive at home; they have big emotional reactions to things that seem small to others. They may have long meltdowns or become inconsolable at times.
  • The child seems to resist, argue with, negotiate about, or avoid most requests and demands. This can include small requests like asking them to pick up trash or wash their hands, or larger demands like doing chores or homework.
  • Parents have a hard time figuring out what triggers their child’s emotional reactions or avoidance; they can’t find clear patterns. A task or request might seem fine one day but lead to a meltdown the next.
  • The child seems bossy or wants to control others; they tell others how to act, how to move, what they can and cannot do (e.g., they tell a parent not to eat or not to go to the bathroom; they tell people to stop talking or to not say certain words).
  • The child is very strong-willed and wants to do things their own way.
  • The child yells, “Stop talking!” or “No!” when a parent tries to talk to them.
  • The child sometimes gets upset or angry when activities are suggested, even if they usually enjoy that activity.
  • When the child is upset, talking of any kind (even naming emotions or affirming the child) upsets the child even more. They may yell at others to stop talking or say, “Why would you say that to me?!”
  • The child seems to want their parent’s constant attention, unless they are using a screen or deeply involved in a book.
  • The child will not play alone; they always prefer or need an adult to play with them.
  • When the child is stressed, they have notable difficulty eating, sleeping, doing hygiene tasks, or toileting. They may need help with these tasks (e.g., they only sleep well if they co-sleep with a parent, or they may need hands-on help with hygiene tasks).
  • The child becomes extremely upset if they lose a game or if someone out-performs them. They may bend the rules, lie, or cheat at games to make sure they win.
  • The child wants an equal say in family decisions; they see their opinion as just as important as the adult opinions.
  • The child says means, hurtful things when upset; they “put down” or frequently criticize others, especially siblings. For some kids, these mean comments seem almost constant and parents can’t identify specific triggers.
  • The child resists suggestions from others; it seems like they can only engage with activities when it is their idea.
  • The child craves novelty and new belongings or experiences (e.g., they beg for new toys or purchases frequently), but they lose interest relatively quickly and again want something new.
  • Although the child is often overwhelmed, aggressive, or dysregulated at home, they behave well at school or with relatives; they seem like two different kids in the different settings.
  • The child is overwhelmed by school, strongly resists going to school, or begs to stay home from school or reduce time at school. Or, parents have decided to homeschool or unschool because their child could not tolerate the school environment. Or, the child has burnt out at school and the parent is not sure what to do.
  • The child or teen has low energy and does not seem able to do or tolerate the tasks and activities they could do/tolerate in the past. (This describes a PDAer in burnout – PDAers are particularly vulnerable to burnout.)
  • The child or teen has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or they have received a long list of other diagnoses over time (e.g., anxiety, depression, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, psychosis, OCD, tics, ADHD). Often the true underlying diagnosis is PDA autism, which has been missed.


So what is PDA?

If some of the items in the list above resonate with you, you may find your child’s behavior confusing and concerning. In this section, I’d like to explain what PDA actually is so you can understand a bit of the “why” behind the list of behaviors and characteristics above.

Many families I work with find that a PDA framework finally explains their child’s behavior and helps their experiences make sense when no other framework really seems to fit.

​I’ll give a brief overview of PDA characteristics, and I’ll focus on the characteristics that seem most prevalent for the gifted PDAers I’ve worked with (or whose parents I’ve worked with).

​If you want to learn more, check out the resources at the end of this article.

PDAers have a pervasive drive for autonomy and need autonomy to feel safe

PDAers have an overriding biological drive for autonomy. PDAers cannot tolerate the feeling that somebody else may be controlling them. The bottom line is that PDAers need to feel adequate autonomy to feel safe.

PDAers find demands stressful because demands represent a threat to autonomy

PDAers feel stress or panic when they perceive a loss of autonomy (e.g., when someone asks them a question and expects an answer; when someone prompts them to brush their teeth, get their shoes, etc.).

This dynamic can extend to activities the child actually enjoys; if they begin to feel a sense of pressure to do the activity or to perform at a certain level, they may no longer be able to engage with the activity or enjoy it because their autonomy has been compromised. (This is why many PDAers love the first session or two of a new extracurricular activity but then refuse to join subsequent sessions – the novelty has worn off and the activity now feels like a demand.)


PDAers have an extremely sensitive threat response

PDAers are believed to have an extremely sensitive threat response that is outside of their control. Seemingly small disruptions to autonomy can trigger a survival response where the child immediately goes into fight (e.g., screaming; ”you can’t make me!”), flight (e.g., avoidance, negotiation), freeze (e.g., ”I can’t move” when asked to do a task) or fawn (e.g., people pleasing, rule following, high performance; this usually happens outside the home). 

This threat response is likely why PDAers have a notable level of emotional intensity and seem to get very upset by seemingly small things or seemingly over “nothing.”

​Diane Gould of PDA North America put it this way – “We think kids go from 0 – 60 without recognizing their baseline is 50.” Many PDAers go through life feeling on edge and easily overwhelmed for reasons they can’t always understand.

PDAers use a wide variety of strategies to cope with or avoid demands

Gifted PDAers may seem to negotiate endlessly with their parents and caregivers about the details of daily tasks and how the tasks will be completed. They may appear to be manipulative or like they’re being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but their negotiation is a way to regain a sense of autonomy so the demand feels safer and more do-able.

​Many gifted PDAers also develop idiosyncratic ways of coping with demands, to make these demands and tasks their own. For example, a kid may climb on the counter to wash their hands or write their name backwards on all their homework. Instead of seeing these behaviors as difficult, it may help to view them as a creative coping technique.

I like to think of this process as “manufacturing autonomy.”

​Many PDAers also insist on help from their caregivers when faced with demands that they are physically capable of doing but that feel threatening because of the lack of autonomy. It can be helpful to remember that PDAers crave autonomy but not necessarily independence.

PDAers need equality to feel safe

Most PDAers dislike social hierarchies or disagree with social norms regarding hierarchies. They see people as people. They rarely believe in complying with another person’s demands just because that person is older or “in charge.” Instead, they are more likely to go along with an adult’s requests or demands once they feel treated and respected as an equal, in a trusting relationship.

​PDAers often talk to adults as an equal and expect to be involved in adult conversations or decisions. They may speak forthrightly to people who are supposed to be their “seniors.”

​PDAers are extremely sensitive to feeling “less than,” and often respond to this feeling with an instinctive “leveling” (coined by Kristy Forbes) or “equalizing.” If your kid seems to constantly criticize others, or frequently says hurtful things, this could be leveling behavior to return to a feeling of equality. For example, a PDAer may criticize their sibling soon after the sibling receives a compliment from a parent. Or, a PDAer may hit and blame their parent after they make a mistake in a video game (”You made me do it!”)

PDAers rely on another person’s nervous system to help them regulate

Many PDAers seem to need constant attention, usually from a preferred parent. Because PDAers are so easily stressed, they often rely on another person’s regulated nervous system to help them stay calm and feeling safe. Parents of PDAers know that it is often difficult or impossible to tidy up, go to the bathroom, or have a conversation with their partner without their PDAer requesting their attention, interrupting, or escalating into disruptive behavior.

Many PDAers rely on screens, books, or special interests to help them stay calm and regulated when another person’s nervous system is not available. It’s not uncommon for PDAers to rely solely on screens for regulating, particularly during burnout. Screens give a sense of autonomy while offering both predictability and novelty, at the child’s fingertips.

PDAers are high-masking autistics

Most experts agree that PDA is a subtype or profile of autism. However, PDAers tend to have a more subtle presentation of autistic characteristics and are often highly social. In fact, many PDAers have a special interest in other people, psychology, sociology, or specific people.

In my experience, many gifted PDAers are outgoing, charming, and/or well-liked. They may particularly enjoy talking with adults. They may even be seen as socially precocious when they’re younger because of their advanced verbal abilities and love of sharing information and ideas with adults and older children who are willing to listen 🥰

​Because autism is so widely misunderstood, and PDAers tend to have subtle characteristics, autism is often unidentified.


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