There are many different reasons why a person will avoid something. Whilst most PDA demand avoidance stems from anxiety, the reason for the anxiety may be different each time. Knowing why something causes demand avoidance might help reduce anxiety by accommodating needs to ensure the reasons for demand avoidance are reduced.
Experience – having had a negative experience of something in the past will create more anxiety around the same thing in the future. A bad experience with using the toilet can mean the person will avoid having to go to the toilet even if that means making a mess elsewhere. The anxiety caused by having to do something that has negative connotations creates a need to avoid. At it’s mildest this is seen in simple avoidance, at it’s worst it can cause PTSD.
Intolerance of uncertainty – like many Autistics, the unknown can cause anxiety, this is why so many Autistics prefer a set routine and tend not to deviate from it, because they are not sure what will happen when things change. If you go home from school a set way, any change from that will cause anxiety, the child may avoid getting into the car if they know a change may occur. If you’re told there’s a new boss at work you’ve never met before you may become anxious and feel the need to avoid going in that day because you are unsure what will happen or how to talk to the new boss.
Can’t be bothered – not to be mistaken for laziness. Often the idea of attempting a demand, no matter how small, creates an overall feeling of exhaustion. When you spend all day, every day fighting to get things done all the while your body is trying to stop you, you get a bit fed up of fighting. Sometimes it’s easier to not try than to exhaust yourself doing yet one more thing. Laziness is when you have the energy to do but don’t want to anyway, ‘can’t be bothered’ is where you have some energy, but know you’ll use up what’s left attempting to do something, it’s a survival mechanism. Basically, you’re trying to conserve the few spoons you have left by avoiding spoon depleting activities.
Perfectionism – PDA tends to come with a big dollop of perfectionism, we like things to be perfect, preferably the first time around too. If we know we aren’t going to get it right the first time around, or we do try and it fails to be perfect, we may avoid trying in the future as that discord between what we want/need and what it is makes us feel unpleasant, which in turn can cause anxiety about getting it right in order to avoid feeling unpleasant. Some feel that if it isn’t done right the first time then it is a wasted effort and there is no point wasting time on imperfection.
Dwelling – dwelling on something that is about to happen or could happen can cause anxiety, often the wait for an event is worse than the actual event. One PDA strategy for kids is to leave informing the child about an event until just before it is about to happen, this reduces the chance of them avoiding the event because they have had time to dwell on it and become bigger in their mind that it is.
Emotions – for some, even positive emotions can be difficult to feel, so they may avoid situations which will trigger certain emotions. Scary movies, praise worthy events, being tickled, relationships, exciting events etc. For some PDAers, emotions can be hard to endure, especially if they experience heightened emotions, are unable to control their emotional reactions or don’t understand their own emotions. They may avoid anything that causes emotion.
Control – most PDAers are seen as controlling, although this is rarely the person’s intent. Having control over their environment means they can ensure there are no triggers for anxiety. While this works some of the time, having too much control can also increase anxiety, because no one can control everything in life and having total control makes one fear losing that control for being swamped with anxiety. Similarly, having little to no control over one’s environment means they are always on edge waiting for the next unpredictable thing to happen. Some may avoid situations that they know they cannot control or fear they may lose control over. Playing games with peers is a good example, many PDAers try to control the game as they feel they need to ensure everyone plays correctly, they fear losing control because then they will be in a social territory where they are most vulnerable. PDAers struggle in social situations, having control over what’s happening can make it easier for them to be included, there are rules and set patterns, it’s not a no-man’s land of foreign language and social conventions like most social situations. If the person knows they won’t have control over the situation they may avoid the situation altogether.
Fear/phobias – fear is a powerful force, it can stop a person eating, it can lift weights you wouldn’t think were possible, it can tear a person apart, it can give them great strength and it can make someone avoid. Fear keeps us safe but it can also hurt us. If you’re standing on the edge of a cliff and fear overtakes you making you leap back from the edge, that’s avoidance. If you’re standing in front of a bowl of cereal and seeing germs that aren’t really there running around inside it and you run crying from the room because even though you’re starving you can’t eat something that you think will kill you, that’s avoidance. If you see a spider and scream and run away, that’s avoidance. Safety response, OCD or phobia, it all creates a need to avoid.
Processing time – Autistics tend to have a slower processing time, especially when it comes to verbal instructions/requests. Dropping demands on someone at the last second and expecting them to react/respond/comply immediately is likely to be met with avoidance. Often what is needed is a little time for the information to sink in and the person to work out how they need to proceed. Avoiding in this situation can sometimes be the person’s way of getting time to process things themselves but to others can be seen as refusal to act, it’s usually best to allow people time to comply, that way avoidance can be avoided.
Executive functioning – some people struggle with executive functioning, the ability to self manage, organise and act accordingly. This means that when faced with a demand they might not know where to start or how to start or what to do first. They may not be able to work out the things they need (toothbrush and toothpaste and water for brushing teeth) and so may become stuck. This can lead to avoidance, particularly if in the past they have gotten into trouble for not complying either straight away or correctly. Some may not be avoiding at all but are simply stuck, unable to start for lack of ability to organise, this can be seen as avoiding the task when really they are trying. Others may avoid trying if they know they won’t be able to do it anyway.
Oppositional reaction – I’ve written about this before, PDA oppositional behaviour, where a PDAers first reaction is to do the opposite of what’s asked/demanded. This can take the form of avoidance, especially if the demand is to act and the oppositional reaction is to not act. Since not all demand avoidance from PDAers is due to anxiety but some inbuilt need to avoid or do the opposite, oppositional reaction seems the best fit I can think of for the natural avoidance of demands which don’t fit under any other category.