In a nutshell, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is an anxiety-driven need to remain in control at all times. PDAers resist and avoid the necessary demands of everyday life in an attempt to remain in control and retain their autonomy.
A helpful way of thinking of PDA is a pervasive demand for autonomy. In order to function, PDAers require as much autonomy as possible and need adapted parenting and educational techniques in order for them to live less anxious lives. We call this a ‘low demand environment’. Unlike other autistic individuals, PDAers often dislike structure and routine. This is because they may perceive scheduled activities (such as school and self-care for example) as demands.
Many PDAers also resist the demands of activities which they enjoy, if they perceive it to be a demand placed upon themselves. The need to avoid demands is ‘pathological’, in other words: extreme and pervasive. It’s not something they have any control over. It’s CAN’T, not won’t.
When a PDAer perceives a demand it often feels like a threat, and their brain switches in to fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode. This can look like:
- Becoming angry and oppositional, hitting out.
- Appearing manipulative and/or bargaining.
- Running away.
- Creating situations which make it impossible for them to comply with a demand, for example appearing to feel physical pain so they cannot move, or slipping in to a different character who is unable to complete the task.
- Appearing not to hear the demand, becoming silent and withdrawn.
- Complying with the demand in an ‘overly compliant’ way. This is known as fawning or masking, and can be very damaging to the student in the long-term.
- Appear comfortable in role play/fantasy, sometimes to an extreme extent.
- Experience intense emotions and mood swings, have difficulties with emotional regulation, impulsivity and appear unpredictable.
- Have intensive focus, often on one particular person.
- Demonstrate repetitive or restrictive interests which are often social in nature, relating to real or fictional people.