”Don’t forget, I know how to embarrass you,” she says.
I mean, that’s not typical for an eight year old child to think about or verbalise to their parent, even less imaginable if you were to consider that the child in question is autistic.
In a house with a child who has Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), it is certainly not unfamiliar.
I’d go so far to say it is social strategy that is essential to their survival – particularly when you consider that they have an anxiety-led need to stay in control.
My daughter was a ‘born negotiator’ and like so many parents also describe, if she spent as much effort in the ‘doing’ as she does the ‘avoiding,’ then the fruits of her labours would be outstanding. She has the ability to be a lawyer or a politician without doubt.
It is also this heightened level of skill that confuses and confounds anyone who comes into contact with her and throws many off the scent to investigate whether she has any special educational needs.
My daughter says those words when there is a perceived sense of threat that could possibly upset her world. But also, people can often feel like the playthings which she finds most curious; how will they react if she presses their buttons?
However, there is a big incongruity between using social strategies to avoid and lacking those deeper skills for social communication, social interaction or the ability to have flexibility of thought needed for social imagination skills.
She still has difficulties with the triage of impairments and that is why her behaviour profile of PDA still is part of the autism spectrum.
To continue, she has cleverly realised that her mum gets embarrassed and she likes to see how far she can push it; what will be the ramifications of playing the next trick?
“You know you want to marry him,” she says out loud as the postman walks past. I trip through the front door as I drop my keys, she watches on smiling, as her ultimate reaction has been achieved.
I will fall for that trap every time no matter how much I try to ignore her tactics. And my word, does she use this one time and time again, particularly when we are with a professional if they are male!
“Mummy, you only like white skin, don’t you?!” she sweetly murmurs as we walk past a mixture of parents of different ethnicities to our own, whilst they wait inoffensively with their children on the school playground. I try to get my words out but I can’t find them; I’m far too consumed about what they will be thinking about me, or her, for that matter and how deeply they will be offended.
This time my embarrassment soon turns to anger and frustration because she has picked something she KNOWS would be the opposite to my nature or to the ideologies I try to parent her with. It’s a game and again I fail and give in to the reaction.
And occasions when I’m at the shops or at a public place and I bump into someone I know; “don’t talk to them!” she shouts as she yanks me by the arm. “Adults are boring, all they say is blah, blah, blah!”
I try to diffuse the situation which means she usually decides to go for the kill; “… and THAT adult is ugly so don’t talk to them!!”
It’s always at times like these that silence suddenly resonates everywhere, as anyone in the vicinity suddenly pauses, to have a good listen to the strange social interaction that is taking place. I want the ground to swallow me up and I desperately search around working on a quick exit plan. The shock from onlookers that she is not being reprimanded for what others will view as rude behaviour permeates the air.
I don’t have to look in the mirror to tell you that I am the shade of crimson red when she uses the art of embarrassment to manoeuvre, negotiate or avoid, every single time that she uses it, I can feel my body swamped in it.
It’s at times like this that I’m rendered useless and unable to use the PDA parenting strategies that are required of me. I wish I could ignore and not react but it just doesn’t seem to be part of my makeup and that is something she knows very well and now uses to her full advantage. She even tries to pre-warn me that she will use her embarrassment card if she has to.
Anyone watching her will think she is in control but her behaviour can often really be showing a very different story.
Coping with the immense feeling of embarrassment makes me very unpredictable and far more entertaining to my inquisitive protégée.
I liken it to the kind of embarrassment I’ve experienced in the past, like when I sat in chewing gum at school and the whole class pointed and laughed as I stood up to speak to the teacher!
You know, that kind of embarrassment where you just keep replaying the mini scene in your head, like some dodgy broken record, where the outcome keeps repeating no matter how much you muster the strength to try to change it. The type that’s engrained where every few minutes you get a flashback and you cringe using every muscle available in your body.
Reflecting now, I think I’ve always suffered with being embarrassed in social situations, but then who doesn’t?!
I can recall the time I smiled ‘hi’ to a boy in Sainsbury’s and my mum asked me did I have a crush on him because the act of saying ‘hi’ (whilst being next to my parent) had rendered me into sweats. The more I said I didn’t fancy the boy, the redder I became, as I screeched through gritted teeth Kevin and Perry style: “oh god mum … you ARE SO EMBARRASSING!!”
And my ultimate tour de force had to be losing my underwear on the school bus, one day, when I had packed them in my bag for after the swimming lesson. I still shudder as I remember my knickers being pinged around the coach as the teachers called out sternly, “now who do these belong to?!?” I was too scared to claim them (after my social faux-pas) so I had no other choice but to travel home in my summer school dress – commando style.
I think you get the picture.
My Achilles heel is that I get awkward and self-conscious very, very quickly. It’s not the most useful of features when you have a demand avoidant child who uses the art of employing social strategies as a coping mechanism to get by.
Using embarrassment is a foolproof PDA ‘social strategy’ for avoiding that never ceases to fail – unless I can find a way of growing a thicker skin!?
Any advice would be readily welcomed and if anyone has any gadgets that can prevent your face from turning red then please do let me know!