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Navigating PDA and Autism: Understanding Demand Avoidance

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What is Pathological Demand Avoidance? 

The definition of pathological demand avoidance (PDA) is still debated within the medical community. Some see it as a profile of autism – a certain type of ASD that some people have – while others see it as a symptom that some autistic people experience. We’re neither doctors nor researchers, so we won’t claim to have the answers to that discussion. We do know, that demand avoidance is a shared experience among some autistic people, so that’s how we’ll describe it here: as a shared experience. 

In this article we’ll delve into what PDA looks like from the outside and how it feels for those who experience it. Whether you have autism or you are caring for someone else on the spectrum, we aim to provide valuable insights and tips to navigate demand avoidance with understanding and empathy.

Experiencing PDA: Finding Balance and Accomplishing Daily Tasks

In the simplest terms, Pathological Demand Avoidance is what happens when someone knows there is something that needs to be done, knows there is a deadline approaching, and instead of doing it they freeze and can’t get themselves to do it, or otherwise avoid what needs to be done by becoming very busy with other tasks that feel less overwhelming. Experiencing PDA can be overwhelming and is often fraught with anxiety and shame. If a teenager can’t seem to “just make themselves” do their homework, their parents and teachers might tell them that it’s their fault, they aren’t trying hard enough, or even tell them that they aren’t smart. None of these things are true! PDA is a very real experience, and it has nothing to do with ambition, intelligence, or ability. 

It often leads to a strong aversion to tasks that have obligations and expectations associated with them. In a moment when an autistic person is feeling trapped or overwhelmed by these demands, self-care can help them to regulate. They shouldn’t try to force themselves to “do the thing” when they are in a panicked state, but instead focus on calming strategies. Some people might find solace in sensory activities, like laying under a weighted blanket, while others might prefer physical activity or visual stimulation. They can return to the task later, when they are feeling emotionally regulated. 

Communication and Self-Advocacy

If someone on the spectrum is in the middle of a conversation and walks out of the room to calm themselves down, the other person might (understandably) be pretty confused. Expressing their needs and boundaries can help an autistic person to get their needs met while avoiding misunderstandings. That said, if the person is overwhelmed, they might have a hard time expressing their needs verbally. A signaling system can help. This can involve using visual cues, like a colored card or a reversible stuffy with a smile on one side and a frown on the other, to indicate when they need to regroup and recharge. Remember, it’s always okay to ask for support and take breaks when necessary.

In social situations, practicing self-advocacy can be empowering for people with autism. Communicating their preferences, such as the need for quiet spaces or clear instructions, can help friends, family, and even teachers, bosses, and coworkers support them. Educating others about PDA can foster empathy and understanding, creating a more supportive environment.

Navigating PDA in Children and Teenagers: Supporting Parents in Handling Demand Avoidance

Parents of children and teenagers with autism often face the unique challenge of navigating demand avoidance while trying to maintain a supportive, accountable environment. It’s essential to strike a balance between understanding and accountability. Here are some tips for parents to consider:

Foster open communication 

Create a safe space for your child to express their feelings and concerns without judgment. Remember that your reactions to their words hold immense weight in these moments! Actively listen to their experiences, frustrations, and ideas for what might be helpful. Approach these conversations with a curiosity mindset, and know your job is to understand and empathize with them here. 

Collaborate on strategies 

Work together with your child to develop coping strategies that suit their individual needs. Ask them what they think would help, and what they need from you that they aren’t getting right now. That can be a very scary conversation as a parent, but if you have the courage to ask with an open mind, your relationship with your child will grow much stronger over time. The strategies that you both come up with at first might not be the ones that work best, but trying things and re-evaluating on a regular basis shows your child that you’re both on the same team. 

Establish routines and predictability

While you’re having that open conversation about what might help your child, we suggest asking them if they would like their home life to be more predictable. If so, adding structure can help to reduce their anxiety, since they know what to expect. Visual schedules or timers might help your child anticipate and prepare for transitions and upcoming tasks.

Break tasks into smaller steps 

Sometimes a big task, like “clean your room,” might feel overwhelming. Your child might not know where to start. Breaking down tasks into manageable steps can make them more manageable. That might look like, “put all your dirty clothes into the hamper, then come back and I’ll tell you what’s next.” Celebrate small achievements along the way to motivate your child and build their confidence, if they indicate that they appreciate the positive attention. 

Practice flexibility

Understand that demand avoidance can fluctuate. If you and your child can come up with a few ideas for them to choose from, you’ll have options that you can try based on their mood or what kind of day they’ve had so far. Be flexible and adapt strategies as needed, recognizing that what works one day may not work the next.

Seek professional support 

Reach out to professionals specializing in autism and demand avoidance for guidance. There may be therapies that your child can benefit from, or you might find that parent coaching for you is most helpful. Professionals can provide personalized strategies and support tailored to your child’s needs.

Be aware of your own emotions

Everyone gets frustrated sometimes! But, if your frustration leads to an explosive reaction toward the child, you’ll also need to do some work to repair that relationship. If you keep an eye on your own feelings and take space before exploding, everyone will be better off in the end. 

Remember, supporting your child through demand avoidance requires patience, understanding, and empathy. Celebrate their strengths and accomplishments while providing the necessary support and accommodations. By creating a nurturing and accepting environment, you can help your child thrive while managing demand avoidance challenges.

Compassion, Understanding, and PDA

Navigating demand avoidance in autism requires an understanding, collaborative approach. Remember, every individual with autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s crucial to listen, learn, and adapt our approaches to meet the specific needs of those we support. Together, we can build a more inclusive and empathetic society that celebrates the strengths and accomplishments of individuals with autism.

A final note about us

We’re not doctors, and we absolutely believe in science. Our resources here are informative only, and should not be taken as medical advice. We’ll update our content as new research emerges, so if you see something that’s gotten out-of-date, please send us a message!

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