Sunday 5 March 2023

Can't Not Won't (Book Review)

Can’t Not Won’t is a new book by Eliza Fricker, recently published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Already on its third reprint, it has instantly charted at number 9 in the Sunday Times paperback non-fiction list. 

me, grey haired 50-year old in a yellow top, holding up Eliza Fricker's Can't Not Won't book. It has a green cover and an illustration of a mum at the top looking down on her child sitting on a school chair

The strapline is 'A story about a child who couldn’t go to school'… I think lots of readers will understand why this book has grabbed my attention. The last time our daughter was attending school regularly (although not without issues) was May 2019. A lot has happened since then... more detail will be in my book due to be published later this year.

I know that there are many other parents who will relate to Can't Not Won't. It is a brilliant book full of true-to-life, heartfelt illustrations and writing from Missing The Mark. The following words come from her introduction to the book:

There are so many of us, who are still trying to get their children to attend every day, or who are quietly and shamefully dealing with the fallout from the impact of the school day at home. There are many more who (like us now) are finding that after years of our child struggling to attend school, and worrying we would be in trouble when they stopped, there were very few phone calls, emails or home visits when it actually happened. I learnt very quickly that when your child isn’t in school, it will go quiet on the communication front.

I also learnt, once we were home and without the daily pressures and distress, that I had been putting on a brave face at those school gates, and that doing that for many years had taken its toll on my mental health. 

I know now I was quite unwell, hiding this from most friends and other parents, because, I mean, where do you start? And frankly, who wants to hear a story that rambles on across eight years, covering bureaucratic nightmares that even you can’t keep track of? 

Because these are systems that are not only utterly baffling and maddening, they are truly boring. I still can’t read our education, health and care plan (EHCP) as it is written in language that is neither engaging nor reflective of my child.

Can't Not Won't are words I have used many times over the past thirteen years since our youngest daughter was diagnosed with autism. It is a phrase commonly associated with Pathological Demand Avoidance but also relevant for the thousands of families with children who are finding it difficult to attend school. There are now over 37,000 members of the Not Fine in School Facebook group; parents, carers and people working with so many children who are struggling with the school environment, for a variety of reasons. 

The illustrations in this book show the story of a family whose child tried hard in education, from nursery on through secondary school, including a brief consideration of special school, but for whom it all eventually became too much. The barriers to attendance were too great. Some of the pages are text only, showing phrases that parents of school-avoiding children often hear, but that often don't ring true for the individual children struggling. The two below are an example - assemblies and school swimming lessons definitely posed extra challenges for our daughter.

text stating 'all children enjoy sports day, they get an ice pop' and 'swimming is fun for the children, they get a break from lessons'

The book is not only about the experiences of the child but also shines a spotlight on the maze that parents end up having to try to fight their way through when children begin to avoid school. The unnecessary stress that is often added to families by practitioners along the way is highlighted and it confirms that many parents and carers struggle with their own mental health because of the challenges of the system. 

illustration showing whiteboard and services that parents have to deal with

The book ends with guidance and reflections for schools and professionals, from two respected practitioners in the field. I nodded along to all of their positive and pertinent words - I would have loved to repeat them all here but will have to stick to two short extracts (and hope you purchase the book to read the rest). Sue Moon is an independent Speech and Language Therapist who talks through some strategies for school and also says the following:

It’s so important that our autistic pupils are allowed to develop quality relationships in school with adults who really listen and respond to what they are told. Our children and their families are the best source of information we have and only when we are alert to what they are telling us can we truly ensure those children feel seen and heard. Schools that really value the autistic experience always stay curious about the ways in which school is contributing to what parents are experiencing at home, and work in a truly collaborative way with the whole family.

Tom Vodden specialises in working with schools and organisations with a focus on behaviour, personal and social development, inclusion and SEND. In his section he asks whether being in school is enough (a reference to one of Eliza's illustrations), whether all children have to go to school and whether school really is the best place for all children. A small extract from his words is:

The publication of this book comes at a time when increasing numbers of children, join the already to numerous ‘ranks’ of the persistently absent. Or a step beyond, signed up members of the ‘electively home educated’. ‘Elective’ implies some kind of choice, when, in reality, for the children who share the experiences borne out in these illustrations, home education is the only remaining way to re-establish a safe space, an emotionally protective safe haven. To my knowledge, there is no data readily available to allow us to understand the reasons for ‘elective’ home educating. There needs to be, with a box that can be ticked stating: ‘left with no other choice’. Additional data like this would offer a broader starting point to better explore and understand just how inclusive education really is. There will be many among those numbers who feel excluded.

Eliza has a brilliant Facebook page called Missing the Mark and her blog can be found at More of her illustrations can be found in her first book, reviewed previously on my blog here: The Family Experience of PDA

All parents and carers of children who are not 'fine' in school will recognise the experiences and feelings portrayed in this book. Wouldn't it be amazing if Can't Not Won't could make its way into education establishments or even the Department for Education to help with understanding from the family's point of view....

Out now, available via Amazon: Can't Not Won't by Eliza Fricker.

*This post contains affiliate links and I may receive a small commission if you click and buy. It won't cost you any extra*


  1. Hello. Thank you for your website. Is there a large portion of PDAers who do attend and enjoy school? I have a feeling that my 8yo daughter masks extremely well, combined with the fact that she enjoys the activities, playing with the kids, and her bond with her teacher (she really wants to please her and most authority figures). I just want to know if this "can't not won't " with school applies to all PDAers or not. Because at home, I can see every characteristic of PDA in my daughter.

    1. I don't think there is a large proportion of PDAers who manage school (the PDA Society shared survey results that said 70% of children with a PDA profile of autism are not in school or regularly struggle to attend). But we do know that some PDAers manage to mask while at school and then 'explode' or let the feelings out after school. This can get more difficult at secondary school level when the demands are pressures are more....


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