Last fall, I did something a little crazy. As the news rolled in that the schools would not be opening for in-person learning here in Michigan and my nerves frayed when I thought about trying to find childcare help from someone who didn't know about or understand PDA, I realized I needed to think way outside of the box. My husband and I decided to invite two dear friends from Colombia to live with us for six months and help us get through the winter with the boys. We met almost ten years ago, while I was conducting my doctoral research on grassroots peacebuilding and reconciliation in a rural area of Colombia, but had only been in sporadic, albeit heartfelt, contact since. To our utter surprise and delight, they enthusiastically accepted.
For the past five months Rubiela Zuluaga Salazar and Jacqueline Hincapie Tamayo have been living with our family -- helping us through quarantine, school closings, intense work moments for my husband, and all the extra challenges that come from raising a differently-wired child. These two women are the primary reason I have had the time and mental energy to think and write about PDA, while also parenting a young PDA child.
And as their return date to Colombia quickly approaches, I took a moment to formally interview Jaque about her experiences helping to care for Cooper. She brought to his care her expertise as an educator and has accompanied me as a mother through the difficult moments that inevitably come when parenting a PDA child. She has brought me hot ginger and lemon tea while tears rolled down my face in the kitchen after a meltdown, done art therapy with me in the basement on Thursday evenings to help me process my own pain, and repeated the following phrase which I hope will continue to ring in my ears long after she departs:
Nada es imposible, ten fe.
"Nothing is impossible, have faith."
Jaque has spent the last 25 years working as a teacher and educator for traumatized children and families affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. Her university degree is in special education, and she is also a trained Waldorf teacher and art therapist.
This interview transcript has been shortened and translated into English with her permission. I hope that hearing Jaque’s perspective is as inspiring for you as it was for me.
From your perspective and experience, what are the primary similarities between the outward behavior of a traumatized child and that of my son, Cooper?
Put simply, if a professional had never heard about PDA as a part of the Autism profile, that person might think that the PDA child was abused. From my experience, Cooper’s reactions and those of an abused or traumatized child appear almost exactly the same. It is very common for a traumatized child to refuse a demand or a request, or simply not respond to it. A traumatized child acts in a way that is preventative, to protect himself from the possibility of being hurt again.
The most important thing you can do to work with a traumatized child is to gain his or her trust. This has been the same starting point we have used with Cooper. His reactions are very similar or even identical when faced with a particular event or stimuli to a child traumatized by violence. Cooper responds with fight, flight, or freeze, and these reactions are normal for traumatized children.
What would you say are the primary differences?
When we arrived in your home from Colombia the first thing we tried to do was understand what was happening in the context of your home and family environment. We observed and asked ourselves, “Is it the environment or context that is making him respond like this?” We realized quickly that the root of the behavior is very different. Cooper is not a child who has been abused or traumatized by violence, it is his brain-wiring.
The primary difference is that a traumatized child seeks out the affection and attention of another adult, teacher, or loving authority. In my experience, the more attention and affection they get, the more they want, because it has been lacking in their home or environment. They seek out alternative maternal and paternal figures. They sit on your lap, they want kisses and hugs, physical contact. Cooper is not like that. He is simply himself. Although he feels trust, and wants to be close to us and interact with us, he doesn’t want the same type of affection and physical contact that I have seen with abused children. These children want to be held and hugged all the time, because this isn’t the type of affection that they get in the home.
I think it is important to distinguish between trauma and the brain-wiring of a child, which is the case of Cooper. A traumatized child may have a single moment or period of trauma and they can overcome it and transform it, although they also have regressions where they relive that experience. The difference with PDA is that each moment or stimuli is met as if it is the first time, as if it is new.
Regardless, I believe that the foundation for working with these children is the same. I don’t want to come off as overly-romantic, but from my perspective, love is the basis for all advances and development. Although there is a lot we don’t know about PDA and there is a lot that still needs to be researched, I believe that with accompaniment, love, and a protective environment the PDA child will learn, will advance. What I have seen here in this house over the past five months are small steps forward and improvements in the simple aspects of Cooper’s daily life. For example, he is tolerating a tiny bit more frustration now than when we first arrived. Now we can say to Cooper, "Wait just a minute," and even though he still gets frustrated and annoyed, he can now wait that small amount of time without a meltdown.
Love is the basis for all human development. And what we need to remember is whether a child is traumatized or whether it is a PDA child, the most important thing we have to ask ourselves is, Who is this child? What capacities and strengths does this child have? In Cooper, we have focused on the strengths, and love is what allows us to see his strengths.
This is the approach I use with all challenging children. Let me give you an example: when a person arrives in a hospital after an accident with injuries and their body is basically destroyed, the doctor has to look past the injuries and see what part of that person is healthy and intact. That is where the doctor begins. The responsibility of the doctor is to help heal, by seeing what part of that person is healthy and to focus on that as a starting point for healing.
What has been the most surprising part of working with a PDA child, like Cooper?
For me, the surprising part of working with Cooper was how much it has caused me to reflect on my own professional training. He is a reminder of what they don’t teach you in the university. For example, when I did my special education training, they present you with a case or a category and say, ok, if this child has speech or visual disabilities difficulties, you do x, y, z, if the child has down syndrome, you do x, y, z, if the child is Autistic, you do x, y, z. There is a plan, a program. Cooper let me know, “It’s not like this Jaque,” this isn’t the way to work with me. What has been most surprising to me is how he has told me that some of my methodology is irrelevant, that it doesn’t work. I don’t know if it is because of my previous experience and interest in working with traumatized children, it has been a really enriching experience for me.
What strategies or mindsets would you say are helpful for working with a child like Cooper or a PDA child?
Observe the child. Try to figure out what he likes, what he doesn’t like. Observe what excites him. One of the biggest challenges has been to observe and differentiate between Cooper’s needs and his wants. There are times when – due to the fact that we are so attentive and attuned to his needs – he goes beyond what he needs and like all children, he takes advantage of the situation to ask for things he simply wants, rather than needs. This is a very delicate point, but it is also very important to sharpen our own awareness and observation to be able to distinguish this very fine difference.
For example, there are moments when we watched Cooper come into the house from the backyard and he is either dysregulated or accelerated, and we have spent time trying to figure out what is happening. Did something happen outside? Does he need protection? If so, we are there with him. However, there are other moments in the house, when he simply wants someone to attend to him or serve him. It is important to remember that he is capable. We must observe him carefully and push him carefully so that when he is older he can be autonomous and not completely dependent on someone else. He is conscious of his brain differences, that his brain works differently. We must be careful that as he grows older we don’t add trauma to his brain wiring differences.
What have you learned from working with Cooper?
It has been amazing because he reminded me -- as I said before – that we can’t simply deal with human beings through stimuli and response. He is deconstructing those methods for me. Every human being is diverse, the human being has different ways of being. Each feels differently in response to different types of stimuli.
This is why I insist that Cooper is a gift. When they are born, each child brings us information. This information lets us know what needs to change on the level of families, the education system, within society, how we need to modify, adjust, change. What information is this? How should we change exactly? We don’t know, time will tell.
A child like this transforms your entire life. He is a transformation and he is showing us a different path. It is difficult and sometimes we want to look away because we are accustomed to a different training, a different system, and when we feel that movement, that transformation we feel like “Ok this child is wrong, this child is flawed.” But by responding like that, we forget that maybe the societal system in which we are living is perhaps what is flawed. It is a form of questioning. Not everything about them is “right” or perfect, but it is an opportunity to change ourselves as well, because we are often too rigid and focused on cause and effect. I believe these PDA children come to us for this reason.
What advice would you give to another educator who works with PDA children?
The primary advice I would have for an educator is to be open to the new challenges that these children bring to our lives. That it is a reminder that we need to unlearn some of the things that we have learned in formal education. Also, that an educator has to take care of herself. It is only when the educator can heal her own trauma – every human being has trauma – when I can take care of my own and transform my own pain, I can help any child that comes to me. The base of this again is love. Love can do anything.
What advice do you have for other moms of PDA children?
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of doing what you need to do to support your child. You are doing what you need to do and your child understands that you are trying to do the best for him. Not being afraid is true freedom.
(Photo of Jaque on her farm in Granada, Colombia).