Autistic Demand Avoidance vs Pathological Demand Avoidance (ADA vs PDA).
Many people experience Demand Avoidance (DA), usually in regards to things like filling in tax forms or buying new furniture. People may leave these things to the last minute then panic and sort it in a rush. Every person on the planet will avoid at least one thing in their lifetime. For some neurotypes though, DA is more prevalent. Neurology, environment, experience can all contribute to the amount of DA a person experiences.
Autistic people are more likely to experience DA than neurotypical people due to heightened sensitivities, misunderstanding general societal rules and possible mismanagement. For autistics, the world can go against them and so they are left feeling anxious and scared about many things. Even when treated in the best way possible the autistic may still experience DA from various sensitivities, such as avoiding wearing socks due to them feeling sore and itchy. For some autistics, DA is so severe it impacts every moment of their life.
We know PDA DA is the highest of any other neurotype, this is shown by the trait ‘resists demands obsessively’, with 100% of PDAers meeting this trait.
So how do we tell whether a person has Autistic Demand Avoidance or PDA?
Some people have such high avoidance levels that it appears the same as PDA, especially since both have autistic traits and avoidance ranges in how it appears, it can be difficult to tell whether a person is autistic and experiencing DA or is a PDAer. Similarly, some PDAers are able to mask their difficulties so well and their avoidance shows as ‘quiet avoidance’ such as walking away or ignoring demands, that the PDAer will be seen as an autistic person struggling in certain situations. This isn’t always an issue if the people around such individuals are able to cater to their individual needs. For some though, not having a full understanding of where the issues are stemming from can cause problems with mismanagement. Autistic parenting can be quite different from PDA parenting so using the ‘wrong’ strategies could have a negative impact on the individual. So for some it is vital they have an accurate understanding of where an issue originates.
Nature/nurture – PDA is there from birth, PDAers are born with a natural need to avoid things. For some the avoidance is obvious from a young age whereas for others it is only noticed once the demands become too many for them to handle, usually after starting school. With ADA, while the autism is there from birth as they are born autistic, the DA won’t be. Some may be born more susceptible to DA but it won’t show until the anxiety becomes too much for them to manage. Sometimes just looking back to childhood can give people an idea of whether it’s ADA or PDA. Was DA always there? Did it show from a young age? Did something major trigger it?
Genetics – PDA and autism are both genetic (I feel), though there is an obvious line of PDA in PDA families, autism can in some families seem to come out of nowhere. It’s a bit like hair colour, brown being PDA and very obvious that there’s a genetic line, red being autism and can be seen in every family member or just one for centuries. Generally, if you can see a long line of demand avoidant people with autistic traits then it’s more likely to be PDA.
More than everyday demands – in some of the criteria for PDA it states that they ‘avoid everyday demands’. Whilst this is accurate it doesn’t quite convey just how deep DA runs. It’s a need to avoid anything and everything. This is why therapies such as exposure therapy would never work, because it’s impossible to make a person ‘okay’ with everything in life. With ADA, it’s more likely to be specific things which are avoided, not everything on the planet. It’s hard to see sometimes how much a PDAer avoids from the outside, so understanding whether it’s ADA or PDA might involve the individual ascertaining just what the problems are. If it’s just one or two things that are being avoided then it’s more likely to be autistic DA. Some autistics will avoid a great number of things, so many that it appears to be PDA. One way of figuring it out might be to tell the person they have do something they have no problem doing (like eating a sweet) and seeing what their reaction is. Most PDAers will still avoid when ordered, whereas most autistics wont’. Though it’s not a fallible test, it can be a good indicator.
Avoidance out of nowhere – with autistic DA, there’s usually a cause for avoidance, though it may take some searching to figure out what it is. With PDA there may not be any obvious reason other than ‘it’s a demand’. One of the things about PDA is that something can become a demand at any time. Someone who has been putting their shoes on fine all their life may suddenly out of nowhere become avoidant at doing so. Nothing has changed except that it suddenly becomes ‘a demand’. This is unlikely to happen with autistics, there is usually a reason for it.
Up and down – one of the confusing things about PDA is the up and down of DA and moods. In regards to DA, one day the PDAer may avoid eating breakfast like the plague and the next day they eat it fine. This is typical of PDA, but not typical of ADA. It still might happen, but not to the same extreme and is more unlikely to occur with every demand. Autistics are more likely to experience the same level of avoidance to a demand and in the same way.
Various avoidance tactics – PDAers tend to adopt varies tactics to avoid demands. From ignoring and walking away, to excuses and distraction, to lashing out. PDAers are also quite good at using the most effective avoidance tactic for each person. They are able to work out (unconsciously) which tactic will work for their teacher and which will work for their mother. This gives the impression of being socially able and manipulative. Autistics are less able to do this, they tend to rely on the same avoidance tactics for each demand and each person. If a wide variety of tactics are used and they differ depending on the people around then it’s more likely to be PDA as opposed to ADA.
Novelty – for some PDAers, the introducing of new things can help them cope with a demand. I have always found it easier to brush my teeth when I have a brand new, different toothbrush to use. For autistics novelty is less likely to work as the change may cause more anxiety. If a person is avoidant of something but is more able to manage when it’s changed in some way on a regular basis then it’s more likely to be PDA.
The other traits – it is worth considering the other traits that affect the person as they may be an indicator. While both PDA and ADA groups will have autistic traits, some traits are better indicators of one specific group. PDAers prefer novelty, change and only routine that the PDAer has created, whereas autistics tend to prefer things to stay the same and prefer strict routine. Although these vary from person to person, they can point to one group over the other. PDAers are more likely to ‘fit in’ socially although both groups can do this to a degree and both groups can mask. PDAers are more likely to switch emotionally from one extreme to the other, giving the appearance of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviour. PDAers are more likely to use imaginative play in an obvious way, using role play sometimes to avoid demands or to cope with demands. Autistic people can have brilliant imaginations but are less likely to role play to cope with demands.
It’s not always easy to tell whether it’s PDA or ADA, and for some it might not matter as long as the techniques they are using help the individual. But for some it’s vital they know what the cause of DA is as it impacts the techniques used. For PDA, it’s more about constant management of demands and stress levels whereas for ADA more specific techniques can be used to override the anxiety felt about certain demands. It is possible for some autistics to reduce and/or overcome their avoidance of some demands, but for PDAers, even if they reduce/remove one demand another one will take it’s place. That’s not to say that DA is any easier for autistics than it is for PDAers, every person is unique and different and should be taken as such. If a person is struggling then comparing their struggles to others is only helpful in understanding where the struggles come from, not how much they impact on the person. Some PDAers may be able to cope okay whereas some autistics may be in constant distress over their DA, and vice versa.