PDA & Parenting

A critical-insider perspective on PDA and parenting

This post is based on a presentation I gave at the PARC event ‘Critical Perspectives on Pathological Demand Avoidance’ on Tuesday 15 May 2018. This is very much a walkthrough of the presentation, using a combination of material from the slides, in text and image form, and supplementary narrative where needed.

Please note that this is a long post, but there is a lot to say! A summary will shortly be available on the PARC website.

Both me and my son believe we would meet the criteria for PDA, yet we do not identify as PDAers. I recognise us both in accounts by and about PDAers, in programmes like ‘Born Naughty’, or as described on social media by parents and PDAers themselves, but we would both describe ourselves as ‘just’ autistic. I hope to write about my own ‘demand avoidance’ in a future post. I will not be describing in any detail how my son is PDAish because that is his story to tell, but there are times when I cannot tell my story without reference to him, and he has consented to this. I understand why parents need to talk about their children, because I know how isolating our situations can be, and how we need to learn from each other to be the best parents we can be. I would just urge caution, use anonymous accounts, delete your posting histories, use pseudonyms wherever possible.

Why am I talking about PDA parenting?

I have spent around 10 years hanging out and sharing ideas and support in online forums, with a particular interest in children and young people who exhibit demand avoidant, aggressive and violent behaviours, and I have around 10 years’ experience using PDA strategies and techniques as a parent.

I have over 20 years’ experience supporting often vulnerable adults, including 18 years’ probation work with adults in the criminal justice system, many of whom were almost certainly undiagnosed autistics, including those with a PDA-type profile. Very few had formal diagnoses. As a result, I have considerable experience supporting a wide variety of people who exhibit what is often called ‘challenging behaviour’.

I also have a personal and academic interest in the discourse of ‘mother-blame’ and I have noticed how mothers of PDA-type children often experience considerable judgement and intrusion due to poor understanding of autism by professionals.

I recognise PDA as a ‘profile of autism’ (I will come back to ‘profiles’ later) and I am concerned that critique of PDA could harm PDAers and parents of PDAers, by supporting discourses centred on behavioural problems, bad parenting and mother-blame.

My aim for the presentation was to explore and ponder the tensions between my experience and observations, including the usefulness of PDA for me as a parent, and the clinical and academic construct of PDA. In essence, I am seeking to balance my pragmatic use of PDA as a signpost and shorthand for me as a parent, with my ideological and theoretical concerns about PDA for me as a fledgling academic.

Aut-o-biography

  • My son was diagnosed age 6 under ICD-10 with Asperger’s Syndrome.
  • I was diagnosed age 46 under DSM5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder, having received a ‘non-clinical diagnosis’ the year before to evidence my need for workplace adjustments.
  • I had suspected for both of us since he was 2, when, at his 2 year check the health visitor recommended I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘The Essential Difference’ (lol).
  • He was initially referred for an SEN assessment at 3, for an Educational Psychologist assessment at 4 and then for autism assessment at 5, largely as a result of escalating behaviour that ‘looked like’ bad parenting.

We both have a similar ‘profile’:

  • Sensory problems
  • Masking/camouflaging
  • Anxiety
  • Demand avoidance…

My cognitive dissonance

PDA was not well known when my son was younger and Newson’s original PDA criteria included ‘passive early history’ and ’language delay’ which did not appear to ‘fit’ my son.

Despite my son exhibiting all other PDA characteristics, this stopped me describing him as having PDA, yet:

  • He presented with extreme demand avoidance and a PDA-type ‘behaviour profile’.
  • PDA techniques were highly effective.
  • My main support network was other parents of PDA-type children.

PDA is often confusingly described as both different to autism and as an ASD. As I consider autism and ASD to be synonymous, this does not make sense to me.

In 2016 Phil Christie (at the National Autistic Society’s Professionals Conference) said that the above 2 criteria (passive early history and language delay) were no longer considered essential criteria, and this got me thinking…

Can someone meet both a PDA and an AS profile of autism?

If I was to describe my son, or even myself using clinical, diagnostic terms, it might look something like this:

But, now look at the next 2 tables:

That is the same child (or the same adult) showing a perfect combination of 2 supposedly discrete autism profiles.

My experience and observations indicate that a more obviously- (stereotypically-) presenting Asperger-profile autistic child is likely to be diagnosed easier and quicker than a less obviously- (stereotypically-) presenting PDA-profile autistic child. My son was referred before his more PDA-profile type observable behaviours became more pronounced than his Asperger-profile type observable behaviours. This meant that identifying my son’s autism was fairly straightforward as he appeared to present with a textbook Asperger-profile of autism. We were lucky, and had we delayed, diagnosis might not have been so easy…

What is a typical path to a PDA diagnosis?

Sense of difference about the child:

  • Often an early suspicion of developmental delays but nothing significant.
  • Often skirting along fringes of typical development.

Escalating ‘behaviour problems’:

  • Which can look like ‘bad parenting’.
  • Which are often not consistent across home, school and other settings.

Usual parenting strategies don’t work:

  • Parents have often worked through a series of parenting guides and often attended parenting classes.
  • Parents might have got stuck in a vicious cycle of escalating ‘behaviour’ and sanctions/consequences.

Ask for help:

  • First line help often means more parenting classes and advice to strictly follow reward/punishment methods.
  • When the suggested strategies and approach does not work, parents are blamed for not being consistent, or not doing it properly.

Mother blame:

  • Parent blaming is almost always targeted at mums (for a range of often contradictory reasons see my previous blog post on the irony of parent-blaming).
  • Attachment theory is often used incorrectly to further lay blame on mums, often resulting in ‘family therapy’ (often run by underqualified and inexperienced staff using poorly evidenced and inappropriate techniques).

Autism assessment:

  • Along the way it seems not uncommon for the family to encounter a ‘renegade’ professional who sees something in the child that looks like autism even though nobody else can see it, and this results in a referral for assessment.
  • Initial autism assessment often indicates a failure to meet threshold and a conclusion of ‘autistic traits’ or ‘social and behavioural difficulties’ or non-specified ‘anxiety’.

Stumble on PDA:

  • By this stage parents (usually mums) have started researching and come across descriptions of PDA.
  • Parents (usually mums) voraciously read about PDA and start to engage with other PDA parents.

Find support in PDA community:

  • Parents (usually mums) find others like them and start to learn new, better, and considerably less stressful and anxiety-provoking ways to support their children.
  • Parents start to feel heard and validated, realising that they might have been right all along, and that they are probably not bad parents.

Find sympathetic clinician who can recognise ‘subtleties’:

  • Through recommendations, children are often taken for private assessments with clinical diagnostic providers who are known to be able to see beyond stereotypes and to see the often more subtle PDA presentation of autism.
  • This does mean parents are ‘diagnosis shopping’, it is inevitable that clinical expertise will vary and many clinicians across all disciplines have specialist areas of interest, for example, the highly reputable Lorna Wing Centre is often recommended for assessment of girls and women.

What are ‘PDA strategies/interventions?

PDA adjustments are built around reducing demands and reducing the stress and anxiety which results in ‘demand avoidance’, and includes things like:

  • Framing demands carefully
  • Using indirect demands
  • Explaining reasoning
  • Collaboration
  • Negotiation
  • Using humour and novelty
  • Supporting sensory needs
  • Choosing ‘battles’ carefully
  • Allowing initiative
  • Offering choices

But PDA-style parenting and support is about more than ‘behaviour management’…

What does good PDA-style parenting and support look like?

Reducing anxiety:

  • Ending the vicious cycle of increasing demands and increasing anxiety.

Adjusting expectations and environment:

  • Ensuring sensory and other needs are met.

Teach and model problem-solving skills:

  • Equipping and supporting children with thinking and communicating skills.

Focus on flexible and adaptable skills that will last a lifetime:

  • Reducing or removing time spent on learning transient skills.

Support autonomy and self-advocacy:

  • Encouraging children to be assertive and empowered.

It is my view that this set of aims should be the foundation for any autistic child, or indeed for all children.

How did PDA suddenly get so popular?

Online resources and forums:

  • Including specialist (PDA Contact Group and The PDA Resource) and non-specialist (Facebook groups, Netmums and Mumsnet).
  • Around 2010ish PDA became much more widely talked about and this had a snowball effect.

Backlash against dominant interventions:

  • Around 10 years ago the main interventions being discussed among parents of younger autistic/possibly autistic children were ABA, TEACHH (including via the NAS Early Bird training) and Bio-medical (eg Tinsley House and Sunderland Protocol).
  • Many parents of PDA-type children tried these, to varying degrees, and found them ineffective, and often found they made things worse, so parents started to look for other ways for their seemingly ‘non-compliant’ autistic/possibly autistic children.
  • Many parents, me included, resisted the normalisation and cure narratives which dominated much of the autism parenting world, and wanted to find ways to support our children with more flexibility.

Increased autism ‘awareness’:

  • The rise of compulsory autism training across the teaching, clinical and broader public sector contributed to many professionals thinking they understood autism.
  • This training was (and indeed often still is) based on the idea of autistic people as ‘other’ (such courses are rife with ‘they do this’ and ‘they do that’), and is almost always based on a medical, deficit model of autism, often, in my view, resulting in more rigid stereotypes and less flexible thinking about autism among those who attend…
  • Such training often provides a narrow, limited and limiting toolkit of strategies and interventions, and this can hinder the flexibility and creativity of approach needed by many PDA-type children (and other autistic children too).

But was PDA really a new profile?

Back to the 1940s

I was somewhat surprised when I finally read Uta Frith’s 1991 translation of Hans Asperger’s 1944 paper, and that 3 out of 4 of the case studies he presents in some detail, described behaviours that now might be seen as evidence of PDA-type autism.

These are the extracts I used in the presentation, and there is more in a similar vein, but I urge you to read the case studies for yourself and see what you think:

… the conduct disorders were particularly gross when demands were made on him … when one tried to give him something to do or to teach something … it required great skill to make him join some PE or work even for a short while … it was particularly in these situations that he would start jumping, hitting, climbing … or some stereotyped sing-song.” (Fritz V.)

“… he was repeating the second year because he had failed in all the subjects. The teachers believed that he ‘could if only he wanted to’ … he made surprisingly clever remarks of a maturity way beyond his age … he often refused to co-operate, sometimes using bad language … ‘this is far too stupid for me’ … little things drove him to senseless fury … extremely sensitive to teasing … an inveterate liar … told long fantastic stories* …” (Harro L.)

“… reported to have been a very difficult toddler … unable to cope with the ordinary demands of everyday life … he could be very naughty and would not do as he was told … it was impossible to go to a park with him, as he would instantly get embroiled in fighting … he liked to tell fantastic stories … he had a strong tendency to argue with everybody and to reprimand them … he made life hard for himself by his awkwardness and endless hesitations.” (Ernst K.)

Fast forward to the 1980s

In Lorna Wing’s 1981 paper she describes ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ which was very much based on then contemporary understanding of autism and Asperger’s case studies, but she removed 2 interesting elements from Asperger’s analysis:

  • The possibility for imaginative play.
  • The ability to be original and creative.

In Uta Frith’s 1991 footnotes to Asperger’s paper she too seemed to struggle with some of Asperger’s observations:

  • Sceptical of ‘fantastic stories’ and imaginative thinking.
  • ‘… the claim that autistic children have a special gift for art appreciation is very surprising’.
  • ‘… little evidence that autistic children have the same sort of fantasy life as normally developing children’.

Elizabeth Newson, building on her 1970s/80s clinical work, and referred to in her 2003 paper, defined PDA as distinct from ‘classic autism’ and ‘Asperger Syndrome’ noting:

  • An equal sex ratio.
  • Demand avoidance using social manipulation as a key criteria.

What PDA did

  • PDA provided an easy shorthand to help us help our children.
  • Especially when the standard interventions did not work.
  • It gave us ‘permission’ to go off-piste with strategies and interventions.
  • It legitimised what we often already knew worked for our children.
  • It enabled the breaking of cycles of escalating behavioural interventions
  • Improving the lives of many children and families.
  • It helped us find peer support.
  • The nature of our children’s ‘behaviour’ can leave us extremely isolated.
  • It enabled autistic children who did not fit stereotypes to get an autism diagnosis.

Do we need a PDA profile of autism?

  • Autism profiles do not stand up to empirical testing.
  • Profiles can perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Profiles can be divisive.
  • Profiles can cause confusion.
  • But, profiles can also be useful:
    • To highlight under-represented groups eg girls and women.
    • To reach under-represented groups.
    • To challenge narrow views of autism.
    • They can support and affirm identity.

Why PDA matters to PDAers/PDA parents

Validation:

  • PDA recognition often follows years of failing to secure an autism diagnosis.

Identity:

  • PDAers report feeling different to other autistic people.

Representation:

  • PDA experience under-represented/marginalised in autism literature/resources.

Isolation:

  • PDAers/PDA parents can feel alienated from autism/autistic community.

Investment:

  • PDAers/PDA parents have an emotional (and financial?) investment in PDA.

So, what’s my problem with PDA then?

The name is awful:

  • Pathological can mean disease-state, extreme or compulsive/obsessive and, as well as the negative connotations and potential for stigma, I am just not sure how such a narrowly-defined term reflects the complexity and nuance of PDA-type autistic people.

It cannot be simultaneously an autism and a not-autism:

  • Over and over and over again I keep seeing PDA being presented as an autism spectrum disorder but ‘not like normal autism’ and I want to shout, ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL AUTISM’.
  • PDA is presented as distinct from ‘Classic Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome’ when we already have research that says these are not distinct conditions.
  • On a theoretical level the reliance on Newson’s ASD tryptic (CA – PDA – AS) presents a false dichotomy for PDA, ie that it is different to CA/AS, and we now know that the ASD sub-types are not stable categories.

Perpetuates stereotyped/outdated notion of non-PDA autism:

  • PDA literature often describes ‘normal autistics’ as having less empathy, being less creative, less imaginative and more rigid, more restrictive and more serious and literal than PDAers.
  • The problem is that our understanding of autism has moved on considerably since Newson first theorised PDA, and we now recognise how empathic, creative, imaginative and social autistics across the spectrum can be.

No empirical evidence that PDA ‘demand avoidance’ is different from autistic ‘demand avoidance’ or non-autistic ‘demand avoidance’:

  • Every single feature, trait, sign, symptom, whatever we call it, of autism, is present across the entire human population.
  • Autism ‘traits’ and PDA ‘traits’ are fundamentally human traits. Just as no feature of autism is unique to autistic people, I do not believe that demand avoidance is unique to PDAers.

PDA strategies/interventions are not only useful to PDAers:

  • It is often suggested that PDAers are a distinct group because ‘normal autism strategies and interventions’ don’t work, and again I want to shout, ‘BUT THEY DON’T WORK FOR MOST OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE EITHER’.
  • PDA strategies are not unique to PDA, they are built on therapeutic methods which are well established and have broad application. We need to move away from this exclusive and silo thinking.

Inadequate recognition of fluctuating ‘demand avoidance’:

  • I have heard some PDA supporters suggest that if a child (adult) is not demand avoidant all of the time it cannot be PDA.
  • I would suggest that if a child is so anxious that they are demand avoidant all of the time, something seriously needs to change as that child is not being properly supported to reduce their anxiety.

The acceptance of ‘demand avoidance’ (and therefore high levels of anxiety) as a permanent state:

  • Gillberg’s 2015 Faroe Islands study indicates that demand avoidance reduces as children mature.
  • Based on my experience I would suggest that as children develop better communication skills, more self-awareness and improved self-regulation, that they find alternative (more socially acceptable?) ways to express their non-compliance. It is not that the instinctive fear response to perceived and actual demands is fully removed, more that we become more able to self-advocate as we develop more skills.

Whataboutery

If PDA is a distinct profile because of the “extreme” nature of response to anxiety, what about other “extreme” anxiety responses?

  • Selective mutism
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Substance misuse

Would we want:

  • Pathological Selective Mutism Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Eating Disorder Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Self-harming Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Substance-misusing Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What about compliance?

  • Is “extreme” compliance perhaps more pathological and more harmful to autistic children and adults than “extreme” demand avoidance?

I would argue that compliance is one of the greatest risks to autistic children and adults. The ability to say, express or indicate discomfort, displeasure or distress, or even just not wanting to do something for any or no reason at all, is a vital skill.

Conclusion

The dismissal of some of Asperger’s observations perpetuated a narrow view of autism:

  • Excluding more PDAish, social and creative autistics.

Effect of egos and competition on diagnostic categorisation:

  • If Newson had been part of the in-crowd of autism researchers could the PDA-type characteristics of autism have been incorporated into the autism spectrum sooner?
  • Was Newson ahead of her time in recognising, like Asperger before her, that autistic people could be creative and imaginative and that not all autistics crave routine and sameness?

Impact of increased ‘awareness’, stereotypes and prescriptive interventions on non-compliant autistics:

  • It has been suggested that autistics did better before the rise of early interventions (see Michelle Dawson for example), perhaps when parents and teaching staff weren’t restrained by prescriptive autistic training models and packages (from intense ABA to social stories and emotional literacy teaching) and had to be child-focused, creative and experimental.

Dimensional nature of demand avoidance is akin to other ‘extreme’ anxiety responses:

  • Should we actually be talking about ‘extreme’ anxiety?
  • Is demand avoidance just one of many anxiety responses?

The PDA profile of autism, like other profiles and attempts to highlight under-represented groups (eg BAME/women and girls), has some use in the short-term to raise awareness and inform clinicians:

  • Asperger’s Syndrome served a purpose in increasing understanding of the breadth of the autism spectrum, and enabled previously unrecognized autistics to be recognised as autistic, but proved to be an unstable categorisation, resulting in it being absorbed in the broader autism/ASD category.
  • It is my hope that in time the PDA-profile and its criteria will be similarly absorbed and that we will develop better ways of describing the nuance of the different and varying (across people, time and culture) presentations of autism.

PDA techniques and interventions should be more widely used across the autism population to support autonomy and self-advocacy:

  • Done well, the PDA approach supports children to become excellent negotiators, collaborators and activists. That has to be a good thing!

I finished my presentation by asking how do we build bridges across the spectrum?

A little bit autistic?

The UK’s Channel 4 is currently promoting its upcoming series ‘How autistic are you?’ [edit: link no longer works]. The blurb asks if you “think you might be autistic?” as a precursor to a whistle-stop tour of reasons you might indeed be autistic: 

“Struggle with social interaction, maintaining eye contact, or understanding the expressions and gestures of those around you? Do you have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and managing your own? Or perhaps bright, loud or crowded places make you anxious?”


This isn’t helpful.

  • When free to create our own spaces for social interaction we form strong bonds and lasting relationships.
  • I have heard of too many children and adults refused assessment or diagnosis because they can do eye contact.
  • We are empathetic of others, we just might need them to communicate in a way we understand.
  • We often know exactly what to do to manage our own feelings, it’s just that external expectations often lead to us ignoring our own feelings, because ‘other people don’t feel like that’ so we must be wrong.
  • We can also be hyposensitive and crave loud, bright and busy (or have a perfectly well-calibrated sensory system).

Apparently the series intends to demystify autism. I’m really not so sure it’s going to do a very good job of it. The above paragraph ends with this gem:

“Theory and research suggest that autism is a spectrum, with autistic traits distributed along a spectrum in the general population. This means, to a certain extent, that everyone has some degree of autistic traits.”


This theory, that the population ranges from thoroughly-not-autistic-in-any-way-at-all along a straight line through to extremely-very-autistic-in-every-way-possible at the other end, is a fundamental part of Simon Baron-Cohen’s contribution to autism theory, which also includes how we lack empathy (err, nope) and how autism comes from an extreme male brain (err, nope, again).

The series will apparently “feature leading experts and people from the autistic community”. Experts and autistic people. Not autistic experts. Experts and autistic people. Nuff said.

Having preambled for longer than planned, I’m going to return to my title. Is everyone really a little bit autistic? I don’t think so. Does having an autistic trait or two mean you’re a little bit autistic? No, it just means you’re human. Autistic traits are human traits, for us they’re just in a different constellation.

  • If I tell you I wear reading glasses, would you say I was a little bit blind?
  • If I tell you I have a headache, would you say I was having a little bit of a migraine?
  • If I tell you I was a bit sad, would you say I was being a little bit clinically depressed?
  • If I tell you I sprained my ankle, would you say I was a little bit paralysed?
  • If I tell you I am unable to read a foreign text (whilst being perfectly capable of reading in my usual language), would you say I was a little bit illiterate?
  • If I said I didn’t like peas, would you say I had a little bit of an eating disorder?

I could go on. The point isn’t that being autistic is so awful that it’s worse than everything else, the point is that suggesting everyone is a little bit autistic trivialises and vanishes the experiences (good and bad) and the support needs of autistic people.

Assessment denied

IMG_1711.PNG
[image shows the text ‘Assessment Denied’ on a brick wall]

Gatekeepers, hurdles and ignorance on the path to diagnosis

Despite increased awareness of autism in women, there are still too many cases of women being unable to access or denied assessment. Whilst the average waiting list time for adults from referral to diagnosis in the UK is around two years, many women are not even getting on the waiting lists as their access is scuppered by gatekeepers, hurdles and ignorance.

The NICE Guidance for Autism in adults provides a set of principles to identify who should be referred for assessment and best practice guidance for the assessment and diagnostic process. Very simply, if an adult might be autistic they should be referred for assessment. Local health authorities are supposed to provide clear diagnostic pathways to carry out assessments, staffed by trained, competent professionals. Unfortunately, the postcode lottery of the NHS means that whilst some areas have fantastic services, others are fragmented, inaccessible or non-existent.

Gatekeepers

When I first started seriously considering assessment for myself I looked into my local provision and researched the experiences of others in my area. I quickly concluded that the cumbersome set-up here would require me to get past a series of gatekeepers and I did not feel strong enough to do that. At the point where I most needed diagnosis I was least able to advocate for myself.

For me, these gatekeepers would have started with my GP and progressed through the filtering layers of local mental health services. I would have had to ‘state my case’ repeatedly to a series of people with the power to let me through to the next level, until eventually, if I was lucky, I would reach the autism specialists. The prevailing ‘deficit model of autism’ would have meant me needing to repeatedly explain my failings and inadequacies to new people. Over and over I would need to elaborate on my deficiencies as a human. I just couldn’t face it.

The fundamental problem with this model is that the gatekeepers are not autism specialists, they often having minimal training and little experience of autism. If they are relying on the prevailing stereotypes of autism, and I have met many professionals who do, they are unlikely to see the autism in a superficially capable autistic woman.

Like me, many women who seek diagnosis as an adult have reached a point in their lives where demands have exceeded capacity. We are often fragile and vulnerable at the point where we ask for help. Many women, when told by a gatekeeping professional that they do not meet the criteria for assessment (bearing in mind that this criteria is often outdated and sometimes unfounded) give up. Often these women have far more knowledge and awareness of autism than the professionals tasked with gatekeeping.

Gatekeepers need to be be equipped with the knowledge, skills and tools to ensure that those in need of assessment get assessed.

Hurdles

Once past the gatekeepers the path to assessment may still be littered with hurdles. A common hurdle is when diagnostic services will not diagnose without the involvement of a family member who can provide information about childhood development. The reason given is that for a credible diagnosis there needs to be evidence of autism being present in early childhood. This particular hurdle is problematic in several ways.

Many adults seeking assessment do not want to tell their families of their suspicions. This might be because they don’t want to worry their families, or they feel that their family would be unsupportive, or because of difficult family relationships.

As we get older the pool of people who might be in a position to verify our early development gets smaller. Memories become faded and unreliable. Our loved ones might struggle to remember long ago details or may feel disloyal recounting detail of our struggles and problems.

Some adults lose contact with wider family members. Our social and communication difficulties might mean we struggle to maintain relationships with our families. We might have cut off, or been cut off by, family members who we find hard to maintain relationships with.

Autism is always a ‘best guess’ differential diagnosis, one made on a balance of probabilities. If evidence from adulthood, through self report, clinical presentation or scores from recognised diagnostic tools, is indicative of autism, it is my opinion that diagnosis should be given.

Lisa Sanders’ 2010 book ‘Diagnosis: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Medical Mysteries’ (London: Icon Books) describes the centrality of ‘patient story’, how 70-90% of medical diagnoses are made on patient account alone. If this is the case across medicine, it begs the question of why autism diagnosis is held to a different standard. How can a patient’s account be enough for most of medicine, but not for autism?

Autism diagnosis should not be withheld in the absence of family verification. Clinicians need to have faith in their patients, themselves and the tools they use.

Ignorance

Having spent a long time exploring and working myself up to request assessment, I became increasingly aware that many women were being denied access to assessments because they were considered too capable. It seems that for some gatekeepers, clinicians and assessment teams, being educated, having a job, a mortgage, being married or in a stable relationship and being a parent, means you can’t be autistic.

These clinicians seems to have missed the part in the DSM5 which states that ‘symptoms’ “…may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life”. I knew that, superficially, I was doing great. I have a home, a family, an array of academic and professional qualifications, and a job requiring adaptable and nuanced communication across a very broad range of clients and needs. How could I persuade the gatekeepers that I was, in fact, about to crumple?

I have written before about masking and performing normal. Masking can be an active choice but is often more subconscious, a product of our socialisation and experience. Some of our masks may start as choices but over time they become almost automated. Without thinking about it our subconscious applies the correct mask enabling us to adopt the roles we need to manage the spheres of our lives.

Dig a bit deeper beyond the surface and very often you’ll find a hoard of sophisticated coping strategies. We have no choice but to develop these coping strategies to help us lead our lives as best we can. Masking is often a big part of this. We often spend so much time on managing our coping strategies that we have no time left for ordinary life. This is where you find the hidden autism. And when you look deeper, it’s often not very hidden at all, you just weren’t looking properly.

Denying assessment to people who appear too successful to be autistic implies that autistic people cannot be successful. This is a very worrying assumption.

It is also wrong.

edit: I was lucky to be able to fund a private assessment through a charity. Many people are not in a position to do this. That is why I wrote this post.

Hiding in plain sight

Getting a diagnosis as an adult woman

My route to diagnosis reflects that of many women like me. In seeking knowledge and understanding of our children’s needs we start to make links to our own lived experience. We come to realise that we are more like our children than we imagined. As we submerge ourselves in assessment and scrutiny, the professionals we encounter are seeking evidence of difference from the norm. It is not always easy to recognise and highlight your child’s foibles, challenges and developmental delays when they mirror your own.

This is the first of three posts which build on a talk I gave in early March at the National Autistic Society’s Professional Conference. I was asked to give a personal perspective on ‘support and diagnosis of autistic mothers of autistic children’. I had little time to prepare and this was my first time speaking in public. As part of my preparation, I co-opted a small group of autistic mothers who I chat with online to help me identify the priorities for my talk. There was no attempt at random sampling in the choosing of my sources, this was not an academic study or an attempt to present objective findings. I chose them because I like and identify with them and it was our voice I wanted to present. I cannot speak for all autistic mothers, but I can speak for some. I pitched my presentation at an audience of professionals associated with the support, assessment and diagnosis of autistic mothers and autistic children. What follows is both a summary and an elaboration of my talk.

If you’re autistic, you’re autistic

Autistic women and girls are both under-diagnosed and, often, harder to diagnose than men and boys. If girls and women are autistic at near or equal rates to men and boys it follows that there is a huge population of autistic girls and women without a diagnosis. Increasing numbers of women, like me, are being assessed following the diagnosis of our children. If we consider that most autisms have a hereditary origin, it is likely that professionals working with autistic children are encountering many undiagnosed autistic mothers. Yet, services and access to provision and support are generally not very autism-friendly. Professionals seem to operate from a premise that mothers are neurotypical. This is problematic and it is this assumption that underpins these blog posts. Autistic mothers do not become autistic if or when they receive a formal diagnosis. It is not enough to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ and accommodations only for diagnosed women.

Achieving self-awareness

A common factor among many late diagnosed women is how adept we become at maintaining a pretence of competency. Masking, social echolalia and the performance of social roles, become a way of life for us. We slip between social realms trying to fit, but often failing to ‘pass for normal’. We look around and see our friends, family and strangers appear to engage effortlessly in the social world, and wonder why we find it so complicated and exhausting. Some women feel obliged to try to keep up. Others, like me, shrink their world as a protective measure, able to limit exposure to the bare essentials. We develop sophisticated coping mechanisms as a way to protect the facade. We might seek solace in solitude, in our routines, special interests, obsessions and sensory comforts. It is often when these carefully constructed protective networks begin to unravel that we seek diagnosis.

Despite having always been a bit odd, and never fitting in on any meaningful level, I had never considered that there might be a reason for this. I just though I was a bit crap! It was as if I had missed the basic lessons in being human, like being expected to do algebra when you haven’t been taught how to count. I was expected to form and maintain social relationships and exist in a social world where I had flunked the first hurdle. Something was amiss. It was when I started researching autism and Asperger Syndrome as an explanation for my son’s difficulties that I began to find my answers.

Reaching ‘tipping point’

It took over five years following my son’s diagnosis for me to book an assessment. Throughout those years I juggled a number of stressful and often competing demands. I was working, albeit part-time, in the increasingly stretched and under-resourced public sector. I was studying for a postgraduate degree, upon which I had enrolled on an impulsive whim. I organised, supervised and carried out renovations on our home. Through it all I was parenting, supporting and advocating for a child showing increasingly problematic behaviours and who was close to school refusal. Whilst my understanding of myself was increasing, I was too busy, too focused on meeting my son’s needs, and having them met at school, to consider making time for me. I was also worried that if I started to talk about me, by removing the masks and the constructs, there was a risk I would crumble. It was too risky.

The space to think about me came after my son started secondary school. Suddenly, he was well supported. School were, and still are, pro-active, responsive and caring. They meet his needs without fuss or fanfare and he is thriving. I came to a halt on the renovations and completed my studies. I had time. I began to read more widely about autistic girls and women, I started chatting to similar women on an online forum. I started to identify strongly with other autistic women, but the thought of assessment was terrifying. When you have spent your lifetime believing you are faulty, never quite measuring up against the norm, the last thing you want is professional verification of that!

As seems to be fairly common among us late diagnosed women, I reached my personal ‘tipping point’ when I could no longer maintain the facade of normal. For me, major changes at work, which impacted on my need for familiarity, routine and stability, were that ‘tipping point’. Whilst on a personal level I could accept my differences and accommodate my difficulties, at work I was subject to organisational needs. Increased work stress heightened my anxiety and exacerbated my sensory responses. Lifelong sleeping problems worsened. For the first time I did not want to go to work and dreaded Monday mornings. I was exhausted all the time. I needed ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable me to function at work. I had to do something. I needed a diagnosis.

The pursuit of assessment

Requesting assessment as an adult is a big deal and we do not request it lightly. If anything, by the time we request assessment we have usually researched to the nth degree in our typically obsessive way. We don’t request assessment until we have satisfied ourselves that we are credible. The fear of being labelled faulty or damaged, rather than autistic, and of our needs not being taken seriously, is very real.

We then have to decide which avenue to pursue to have our conclusions validated. I knew that I was not comfortable pursuing diagnosis through the NHS. My years of masking, coupled with an apparent high level of ‘functioning’, and an inability to ask for help, meant that persuading my GP to refer me was too anxiety provoking. If I even got past that hurdle, I would then face a succession of gatekeepers in the mental health team. I was not prepared to enter a process out of my control, and where I was not certain that the clinicians were adequately experienced or knowledgeable to recognise the nuance and subtlety of the female presentation of autism. I had heard stories of women being refused referral due to eye contact with the GP, or because they had no family members who could remember early childhood development. I needed an alternative, where I could maintain control and choice, and most of all, someone who I would feel comfortable with and who I could trust and respect.

I chose to be assessed through a small charity experienced in assessing and supporting people with Asperger Syndrome, who had been recommended to me online. Even better, I had seen my assessor on television and liked what I saw! I was able to book an appointment for a time which suited me, and was seeing someone who felt familiar, I had the reins. Knowing who I was seeing, what her qualifications and experience were, booking an appointment which suited me and having time to prepare made a big difference. Many women find this part of the process highly anxiety-provoking. When you have worked so hard to hold yourself together for so long, it is not easy to submit yourself to a process. We often worry that assessors are trying to trick us, to catch us out, as if we are performing autism, rather than performing normal.

Diagnosis

In the discussions I have had online, nearly every woman who has been assessed has received a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Clinicians carrying out assessments need to consider how they can make the process itself supportive of autistic women. Us autistic women were autistic before our diagnoses, our needs as autistic women don’t start when we get a diagnosis, those needs were pre-existing. The internet means we read about and share our experiences, and often it is the bad experiences of others that we remember and which feed our anxiety. I was lucky. My assessment was held in a well designed and carefully arranged ‘sensory room’, with blackout blinds, bubble tubes and calming lighting effects, there were squishy sofas, nice tissues for my inevitable tears, and cups of tea. I think I recall being offered a crumpet!

Assessment is hard, it means opening up and being true, something many of us have resisted throughout our lives. It can also be liberating. As I spoke, and was prompted, questioned and challenged, I started to feel understood. I cannot find the words to describe my sense of relief when my assessor declared that, in her professional opinion, I met the profile of a woman with Asperger Syndrome.

Postscript: following my initial assessment I ‘upgraded’ and received a full clinical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. While the initial assessment was sufficient for self-awareness and to secure me support and adjustments at work, it never felt quite complete.