Interview with Special Education Teacher: Sarah
Sarah is a special education teacher and works in the public school system in the state of Michigan. We had the pleasure of interviewing her about her insights on how she works with PDA children and how this might be a different approach to working with Autistic children that demonstrate a more “classic” presentation.
Sarah has a bachelor’s degree in special education, with a specialization in cognitive impairment, and also a Master’s degree in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She has both taught – and worked as a respite care provider for – PDA children.
From your perspective, experience, and training, what have you noticed are the primary differences between a more classic Autism presentation and the PDA presentation?
When working with Autistic children, there are specific tools and strategies that are most often used to support them in their learning. For example, this may include visual schedules, “first____, then____” statements, concise directives…and the list goes on! However, the primary difference when supporting a child with the PDA presentation is their higher comparative need to maintain control and autonomy in all situations, as well as their proneness towards anxiety in almost all situations.
Although a teacher may be trying to provide supports that are designed for Autistic individuals, the PDA child may interpret this type of support as taking control from them, which induces an anxiety reaction. Depending on where their current regulation threshold is, the ability for the PDA child to participate, engage and comply with demands may change daily, depending on their current regulation threshold, which is generally lower than a more classic presentation of autism. This can be extremely confusing for a professional, as these children appear to have average social skills. In my opinion, this gives us the notion that we can always “talk things out with them” when, in reality, they often need to utilize techniques or “tools” to get to a more regulated state before these conversations can take place.
What have you found the most surprising about working with a PDA child?
While working with Cooper and other children like him, it has been surprising to witness the fight/flight response when presented with simple tasks. Although these children are able to demonstrate success with the same skills when regulated, their need for control within the environment has the ability to “out-win” in these situations and they actually might not be able to access the same skill in those scenarios. After recognizing this characteristic of PDA, a teacher is better able to manage the situation and adapt their behavior to meet their needs.
What has been the most challenging aspect of working with a PDA child and why?
As a special education teacher, I have been trained to work with the unexpected and to work through the unique challenges presented by all children. However, before getting to know a PDA child intimately, it was difficult to understand why the supports and adaptations I’d been taught didn’t work the way they should or the way I expected them to. Yes, they help some (as they do with other children who are Autistic), however, there is a disconnect. Just as it is challenging for PDA parents in the home, it can also be challenging to find effective ways to support a PDA child’s learning in a classroom environment with other students of varying abilities.
What strategies, approaches, or mindsets have you found to be effective when working with a PDA child, like Cooper?
In my opinion, wording is everything! For students with the classic autism presentation, short and concise statements are the most effective (e.g. “Sit down please.”, “Put on your coat.”, “Wash your hands”). However, these direct statements can trigger a reaction with PDA children. I am very cognizant of using statements that show what I am seeing or feeling to get my point across without, fingers crossed, inducing an anxiety response.
In the classroom, it has been critical to teach the Zones of Regulation. This helps give PDA children the basis and ability to begin identifying how they are feeling. Following teaching the zones, it is important to teach about tools in their toolbox when things begin to feel overwhelming or when they enter the “yellow zone.” By teaching these skills during all points of their day (regardless of the zone), they are better able to manage their dysregulation when it occurs.
What would be your advice to educators working with PDA children?
It is critical to be flexible and understand that although you may be educated and have specified training on autism, this presentation is not the same. It will take patience and knowledge beyond what has been taught to you previously. All I can say is research, research, research and then just try! You won’t always be able to stop the meltdowns or verbalize your demands in a specific way to avoid a fight or flight response (as you are still teaching a room full of other children who need your attention as well.)
All you can do is teach the child as many tools as you can to help them stay regulated throughout their school day and support them when it’s just a hard day. We all have them! Also, as always, it’s so important to build a connection with the family. They are struggling at home as much, or more, than you are in the classroom setting. By working together and touching base frequently, you are able to learn from one another and make the best situation for the child in all environments.
What would be your advice to parents or caretakers working with PDA children?
You are doing a wonderful job! It is important to remember that you know your child best and as educators, we are there to support you on this journey. It may feel as though you are having to advocate for your child against a school system that doesn’t understand their specific needs, but please be rest assured, there are supporters out there (you just have to find them!).
Although this could be through the school, it could also include private therapy, parent groups, park play dates, etc. It takes a village to raise a child and yours is no different! Continue to ask for the supports that you know that your child needs and find a place where you feel like you’re being heard. Only from a place of understanding can you begin to develop these positive relationships to help your child flourish and grow into the person they are meant to be.
Thank you, Sarah!