Is unschooling a choice for PDAers

One of the difficulties of parenting a neurodivergent child is the idea that everything we do is by choice and could be done differently. Of course, we all make choices but sometimes the difference between two choices is stark.

Many parents send their children to school and there may be bumps in the road but overall it works. This isn’t the case for many PDA kiddos. It isn’t as simple as them ‘getting used’ to the environment. Nor is it a chance for them to socialise. They are often so disregulated and distressed that they cannot socialise.

Choosing to force our child (as our children would not go willingly) would be to force them to be in an environment that they find as threatening as the average person would find being in front of an adult lion.

Unfortunately those who are not educated in the source of anxiety, and the stress response in the brain, cannot comprehend how exposure causes more stress.

For someone who isn’t neurodivergent, exposure therapy may work, but it also may not.

Since beginning our parenting journey we have faced many difficult decisions, and a serious lack of understanding about why we are making these choices. It can be so very isolating.

Even among other home educating families, we stand apart, and that can be a very difficult place to be. When literally no one in your circle understands why you cannot get to a meeting, cannot send your child to school for a break, or are so persistently tired from the level of stress in your home… it’s almost a form of torture.

All I wish for in this world, and especially with the Australian election coming up this week, is that each person would stop to think about how difficult it can be in another person’s shoes, and how if we think of ourselves as connected, we may find that striving for equity and community are more important that wealth, individualism and our own personal achievements.

And therefore, it is this perspective which becomes ever more clear when you are unschooling a neurodivergent, or particularly a PDA child. It isn’t a choice, it is the only path that will likely result in the lowest level of stress. It’s not for everyone, it isn’t the hard and fast rule, but it is commonly the best fit.

Game schooling

What is game schooling and how does it work? I personally think game schooling is one of the best ways to mix up your unschooling/homeschooling days. Turning anything into a game works well with toddlers but it also makes learning more interesting.

You can make up your own game, things like skipping rope, hopscotch and playing outdoor games can work well and meet lots of different curriculum areas.

But for us, board games are an addictive and enjoyable element of our homeschooling routine.

Some of the games we have enjoyed on high rotation with our six and three-year-old autistic boys.

But we also love other types of exploration activities. You can make your own sensory trays and kits or buy ready-made.

All of these kits can be replicated by buying bits and pieces and using things at home. Perhaps you can share the purchase of a few things with some other families who are also home educating?

I only recommend items I use myself, I may earn a commission if you purchase one of these items using my links.

Is it ethical?

Is it ethical to spend billions on space missions to the Moon and Mars?
Is it ethical to spend millions on movies?
Is it ethical to spend hundreds of thousands on homes?

Is it ethical? Personally, I don’t think so.

Why are we continuing to ignore the impending catastrophe of climate change?

Scientists are almost unanimous… NASA has a whole section of their website dedicated to climate change science.

Leonardo Di Caprio just made a movie called ‘Don’t Look Up’ which is a horrifying parody of our current situation.

The pandemic has been linked to climate change. The continuously mutating variants feel like a reminder of all that has gone wrong with our world.

So many people recognise the need to stop the madness, stop rampant consumerism, stop global travel on the massive scale its become, stop the waste, stop the mindless entertainment.

But it’s not enough. Sometimes it feels like the needle in the haystack. How can we encourage more people, the majority of people to shift their lifestyles to a more eco-friendly and non-planet killing approach.

But is it going to be enough? It’s 2022. We have 8 years left to stop the worst outcomes. What is it going to take?

Unschooling PDAers

PDA is a profile of autism called Pathological Demand Avoidance… officially. But recently a term of Persistent Drive for Autonomy has been circulating which seems a better and less medical fit.

Unschooling is child-led, natural learning at home and in the community. For some, there is still an emphasis on education but for others, who use the term radical unschooling, there are no school-type resources, and unschooling philosophies merge into all areas of life. Radical unschoolers don’t set limits on food choices, bedtimes and behaviour. That doesn’t mean it is permissive, it just means that radical unschoolers acknowledge the fullness and completeness of a child’s life and being and that they are capable of making decisions.

We are radical unschoolers and I personally find the term and the philosophy very empowering. My children do need help to get to sleep, but we don’t coerce them to go to bed, they go through a rhythm of food, bath, TV, play and then book but there isn’t a set time limit for each activity and they can choose the order, or skip certain parts. This can be really challenging as our eldest can sometimes not fall asleep until 12am, but ultimately what we believe, is that being empathetic and reciprocal is more important than force and coercion.

Our children don’t have to eat at set times, and they are allowed to eat when they are hungry. In fact, this is a very foundational aspect of intuitive eating, and it is important to develop healthy habits about food. Yes, sometimes they will want to eat lollies all day, but generally, they choose healthier options. Restricting the treats only makes them want them more.

There is a common belief that we have to stamp out bad behaviour in children so that when they grow up they will conform and be proper, law-abiding adults. The problem with this premise is that it doesn’t always work, authoritarian parenting has been shown to create relationship problems, society lacks empathy for others, individualistic communities tend to focus only on personal success with no consideration of the impact on others… all of these problems can be somewhat abated by the idea that we treat children as full humans. Of course, they are not adults and they need guidance to know what is dangerous, but they know who they are and they have their own interests. Unschooling is about listening to them and helping them when they need it.

We choose to do it differently and we know it isn’t popular. But we know it’s right for us and our kids, and that is simply all that matters.

Radical acceptance

What is learning?

In the past seven days, my children have played many games of Bear Grylls survival outside, gone ‘camping’ in the backyard, made endless obstacle courses and ridden their bikes. My oldest has practiced some letter recognition and sounds but this is driven by a desire to read. My youngest has played with sensory materials for hours, played endless games of good car and bad car outside and there have been hours of Bluey episodes and breakdancing videos.

To me and many others, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable way to live as a child. But for others, it seems like the child has all the control and is learning they can do whatever they want. But the difference is very important. Our children are not disrespectful but they do understand boundaries. They are not rude but they can speak for themselves. They may not fit into a cookie-cutter life when they are grown, but childhood is more than an empty space before life begins. Childhood is important and it is life. It is special but it is their life. I believe children have the ability, intelligence, maturity and capacity to make decisions for themselves.

Obviously, guidance is important. They would cake all day after all! But there is something special about giving children autonomy and seeing what happens. Instead of saying no to everything and having strict rules, we say yes a lot. I have found that being more relaxed about food, bedtime, clothes and activities means the children actually learn to make an appropriate choice.

At the end of the day, for us, the proof is right in front of us. Children who fall asleep when they are tired, who eat food, and won’t hopefully develop poor body image issues and restrictive eating practices despite the challenges of sensory processing issues.

Our culture determines our values and the norms we follow, but more people and families than ever are determined to live by their own rules. This way of life is a form of radical acceptance where each person is treated as a unique individual with developing capacity.

Unschooling 101

When I first heard of unschooling, I was not part of some radical, anti-vaccination group of hippies. I was studying a Master of Teaching at University. Yes, in a teaching degree, I heard about unschooling. Not only did the course mention it, it was discussed in detail as a philosophy which could improve the current education model which continued to advocate for a cookie-cutter mentality to produce workers for jobs which are disappearing, and have been for a long time. The pandemic has only accelerated some of the decline for specific industries and has greatly improved accessibility to work from home, study from home and use technology for more of our daily lives.

But what is unschooling? It is not neglectful, it is not just uncaring about your children’s education and future. It’s a philosophy that connects to freedom. It is about overthrowing systemic marginalisation and oppression. It’s about intersectionality; the idea that those in minority groups are discriminated against and oppressed on multiple fronts. For us, this is disability specific but for others it is gender, skin colour, nationality etc.

What is unschooling? It’s about giving your children a childhood. It’s freedom and choice. Autonomy. It’s about acknowledging that children know a lot about what they want to do. It’s about recognising that coercing children to value education models from more than 100 years ago is probably not very progressive. It’s about stopping, pausing, reflecting on what you actually think is important for your children’s future.

For us, the wellbeing of our children comes before anything else. Going to school for a lot of autistic, PDA, etc etc neurodivergent children is incredibly difficult and often leads to severe mental health issues. Not always, but often. So, for us, that is more important than getting good grades or conforming.

Why is conforming valued? Mostly because when society values the same things, it functions well, but it isn’t the whole story. Society operates through a system of discipline in which every person watches others, their choices and behaviour and mimics it to stay part of the in group, to be a part of society and not be the odd one out, the weird one.

However, there is absolutely nothing written anywhere in the entire universe which states that being part of the in group actually matters. In fact, what psychologists and academics understand is that personal autonomy, agency and being able to make your own choices and be yourself are incredibly important to a person’s sense of self.

For as long as I can remember I valued all the wrong things. But then I had my children and realised that they were not going to fit into my narrow perspective of the rest of my life. So I could rail against it, or I could change. I could adopt a different way of thinking and meet their needs. Which ultimately meant that my own wellbeing was prioritised and I finally felt free to make my own choices.

That is what unschooling is. It’s about stepping back, it’s a thought process. It’s courage to say ‘that’s not for me’ and take a different path.


Motherhood shatters my identity.

Photo by Lisa on

My face felt heavy as I stumbled out of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). My baby was connected to so many tubes and wires. Questions raged, and my heart raced, sweaty palms pulsing with anxiety. How could this be my life? How had this happened?

That morning, I had driven the car down the ramp into a dark underground space where the lights flickered above the ticket machine. While the machine beeped and printed, I’d tried to breathe slowly to steady my heart. I glanced at my husband Evan, his face gaunt and skin pallid. There was nothing to say, and the silence was deafening.

The gate finally lifted, and I followed the signs down endless ramps to find an empty car space. When we got out, I took a photo to remember the car’s location, among all the details we would rather forget. To retrieve our phone chargers, Evan sorts through presents and bags of baby clothes.

We’d ridden up the almost overflowing lift. There were mums with young children in prams, people dressed in scrubs and business attire.

I asked a man dressed in scrubs what level the NICU was on. His look of pity made my stomach turn, but he pressed the button labelled six on the wall.

“Good luck, love”, he replied.

The hospital was busy. It’s recently been renovated, and the sunlight streaked across the tiled floor. The smell of coffee brewing mixed with disinfectant was peculiar but memorable. As the lift moved slowly towards the top floor, everyone exited. The doors opened onto a long white corridor with a sign indicating the direction to the Butterfly ward. We came to a large room with animals, flowers and trees painted across the walls and stopped at heavy glass doors with an intercom.

It’s a neonatal intensive care unit for the sickest of babies. While we wait at the glass doors for the intercom to be answered, I looked around, imagining the designs are intended to make the hospital feel less sterile.

“Hello”, a voice asks.

“Umm. Hi, we’re here to see our baby. Ah, he was transferred”, I stumble.

“Are you Carla and Evan?” the voice asks.

I felt hollow then as if frozen in time. Evan glanced at me with a pale complexion. How could they know who we are?

“Yes”, I finally answered.

We were then led along the hall into the NICU, which opened up with several wings. The most critical babies surrounded the glass-walled office area, which was teeming with doctors and nurses. Suddenly, we realised the reason for the familiarity through the intercom is the small number of babies here. The nurses would know every family, and a new family would not enter too often.

The nurse showed us to a desk and asked us to fill in some paperwork. All I wanted was to see my baby. How could I not know where he was? 48 hours ago, he was still safely growing in my womb, and now he was separated by an unimaginable distance.

Finally, we were led to his room, and we walked into a clinical space looking out over the park. Our baby laid on an open cot, with his intubation tube, heart and blood oxygen monitoring cords, blue lights for jaundice, plus IV lines in each arm. His heels were pinpricked with tiny dots of blood from the four-hourly blood tests.

I felt myself fall heavily into the chair offered to me by the nurse, Sarah. I felt my stomach churning and my heart racing as I tried to make sense of the scene in front of me.

The nurses had made a printed sign with our baby’s name and placed it on the top of the machine keeping him alive. It was navy blue with polka dots and seemed so out of place.

Two days later, my eyes were stinging from the irregular sleep, my breasts in pain from the hourly pumping for expressed milk. We had family visiting each day, asking questions we couldn’t possibly answer. The doctor’s rounds at 9am made us feel invisible.

We asked ourselves, ‘who are we?’. We couldn’t answer our own simple questions.

Who was the child in the cot? Why did it feel so irregular, so distanced, so strange?


Five weeks later…

We waved goodbye to the nurses and doctors and took our tiny baby down the lift to the car, waiting for us patiently. Putting the capsule into its tether in the car was surreal. A moment we’d dreamed of but not known when it would occur. We drove home listening to the noisy breathing of our five-week-old son. He was smaller than most newborns, but he was alive.

We began our new life as a family of three.


Two years later…

I read the words again and again. ‘Who am I?’. I couldn’t really define myself. My journey into motherhood had completely changed my perception of life, let alone my own idea of my innermost desires and dreams. I knew that the driven force of my pre-motherhood being had been replaced by a slower and more deliberate sense of existence. I valued space and time now in a way I could never have appreciated before.

The trauma of having a baby in a life or death situation shattered any notions I’d held of motherhood and life. I finally felt a sense of peace and serenity. I felt free from expectation and obligation.

I am a new type of woman, a newly crafted woman more relaxed and freer to be herself. I am decisive and nonchalant about things that don’t matter.


Home education neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD etc) kids is a lesson in acceptance. Part of the unschooling philosophy is to follow your child’s lead. If you are the parent of an autistic or other neurodivergent diagnosis, actually doing this in practice is actually really difficult.

One of the ways to accept the less than ‘educational’ interests of your child is to look at their interests with a magnifying glass and recognising even the smallest things they are learning. For example, with YouTube, children can learn a lot. Firstly, exposure to lots of different language accents and styles of speaking is educational. Secondly, in our case, watching others play and build things in Minecraft then inspires his own creativity. Thirdly, the tech / coding / web side of the platform is obviously useful for a future that becomes more and more technological.

Furthermore, the branding of toys, games, activities as educational or non-educational is really problematic. A lot of the time it is an arbitrary line and is more about marketing than developmental science.

By sharing this, I hope that anyone searching the internet about this issue will find this and feel a little less alone.

Books I recommend

Becoming intentional is about learning how to value your time and money and use it in the best way you can. As a former high income earner, who is now a low income earner, I know what it is like to have to evaluate everything in terms of how useful it is. Becoming intentional began from my journey into minimalism more than seven years ago.

There are countless books available on minimalism, but for me, the most important aspect is to ask ‘why’ and to understand what is happening in your thoughts that is pushing you to consume and spend more, and on things you don’t actually value.

This post contains affiliate links and I may earn a small commission if you purchase.

We can’t say we didn’t know

I’m listening to a library audiobook copy of Sophie McNeil’s book “We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know”. I’ve followed her for many years and the book does not disappoint. I am equally in awe of her career (I did have aspirations of being a war correspondent after I finished uni), but it’s hard to think of anything else but the vividly described situations covered in the books. I’ve read lots of articles, books and listened to podcasts about Syria in particular, but every new account brings new information that hits me to my core.

We might not all know the details Sophie knew, but we can’t say we didn’t know at all. How can we as a society accept that people in another country, who were born there by chance, and not in a safe country such as Australia, suffer such violence and hardship? I can’t accept it, I don’t. But it is hard to know what to do.

Becoming intentional is about moving past the immediate concerns of life, letting go of the noise and consumption we are encouraged to embrace, to focus on what is important to us. For me, justice is important, so is understanding others. We are all born into families in which understanding is inherited. We learn and come to understand the world through the eyes and brains, so to speak, of our families and our ancestors. Hence why racism persists in some families, and why certain ideas about life prevail. In order to change this course, we have to take a step outside of that inherited understanding and rediscover the world on our own terms.

This means, finding our own information, reading reputable sources, reading more than one source, reading sources across the political spectrum and thinking. Thinking deeply. It means being open to changing your view, it means understanding we can’t understand everything. But we can try to understand more.

The best resource on human rights issues is Human Rights Watch in my opinion. They have countless reports verifying information provided by those on the ground. I also recommend watching the following documentaries online

  • E Team
  • Born in Syria
  • Born in Gaza
  • Under The Wire

A Private War detailing the life of Marie Colvin, foreign correspondent who died in Syria in 2012, is also on Stan with Rosemary Pike as Marie.