What is demand avoidance?

‘Demand avoidance’ involves not being able to do certain things at certain times, either for yourself or others, and also refers to the things we do in order to avoid demands.

It’s a natural human trait – avoiding demands is something we all do to different degrees and for different reasons.

When demand avoidance is more significant there can be many possible reasons for this – it could be situational; relate to physical or mental health; or relate to a developmental or personality condition – so a PDA profile isn’t always the best explanation.

This page explores autistic demand avoidance, PDA demand avoidance and the types of demand avoidance approaches seen in PDA.

Autistic demand avoidance

Autistic people may avoid demands or situations that trigger anxiety or sensory overload, disrupt routines, involve transitioning from one activity to another, and activities/events that they don’t see the point of or have any interest in.

They may refuse, withdraw, ‘shutdown’ or escape in order to avoid these things.

Helpful approaches include addressing sensory issues, helping individuals adjust to new situations (for instance by using visuals or social stories), keeping to a predictable routine, giving plenty of notice about any changes or accepting that avoiding some things is perfectly acceptable.

Demand avoidance in PDA

With PDA, these same types of demands or situations may be avoided for the same reasons.

However, pathological demand avoidance is all-encompassing and has some unique aspects:

  • many everyday demands are avoided simply because they are demands. Some people explain that it’s the expectation (from someone else or yourself) which leads to a feeling of lack of control, then anxiety increases and panic can set in
  • in addition, there can be an ‘irrational quality’ to the avoidance – for instance, a seemingly dramatic reaction to a tiny request, or the feeling of hunger inexplicably stopping someone from being able to eat
  • the avoidance can vary, depending on an individual’s capacity for demands at the time, their level of anxiety, their overall health/well-being or the environment (people, places and things).

PDA demand avoidance isn’t a choice and is lifelong – it’s seen in infants and remains part of the experience into old age.

With understanding, helpful approaches from others and finding self-coping and coping strategies, it can become more manageable.

What are demands?

It can help to understand what constitutes a ‘demand’.

Demands in PDA are many and cumulative. Thank you to PDA adult and advocate Julia Daunt for sharing this image with us:

Let’s first look at direct demands.

Direct demands are made by other people or situations … for example, think how many there might be for a child on a typical school morning:

“Wake up – get up – wash your face – put your clothes on – brush your hair – eat your breakfast – take your tablets – go to the toilet – get your bag – repack your bag – get your coat – what do you mean you don’t know where your coat is? – remember your lunchbox!”

“Put your shoes on – quick, get your coat, hurry up the bus will be here soon!”

“Come on, the bus is here now!”

Anxiety levels are raised from the moment a child wakes up, one demand compounds the next and it can quickly get to overload point. Sometimes this is described as the ‘coke can effect’ – it’s easy to predict the results if you imagine giving the can a shake every time a demand is made.

In addition to these more obvious direct demands, there’s a whole raft of indirect and internal demands, including:

  • Time – time is an additional demand on top of the demand itself
  • Plans – advance planning may lead to increased anxiety as the time/date for ‘the plan’ nears, but equally the intolerance of uncertainty that is a key factor in PDA may make ‘spur of the moment’ activities tricky …
  • Questions – the expectation of being required to respond to a direct question can be disabling
  • Decisions – sometimes knowing a decision has to be made makes it a demand, or ‘options paralysis’ may set in if there are too many possibilities
  • Internal bodily demands – such as thirst or needing the bathroom
  • Thoughts/desires – internal feelings
  • Uncertainty – intolerance of uncertainty (compared to, for instance, a very strict need for routine that other autistic people may require) has been found to be very significant in PDA
  • Praise – this carries the implied expectation that the action will be carried out again or improved on next time
  • Transitions – the demand to stop and switch what you’re doing and also the uncertainty around what may come next
  • Expectations – from others and of yourself
  • Sensory overload & sensory integration difficulties
  • Things we want to do – like hobbies, seeing friends or special occasions

Then there are demands within demands – the smaller implied demands within larger demands (for example, within the demand of going to the cinema are the demands of remaining seated, responding appropriately, sitting next to other people you don’t know, being quiet etc. etc.).

And there are the many “I ought to” demands of daily lifegetting up, washing, brushing teeth, getting dressed, eating, cooking, chores, learning, working, sleeping … the list goes on.

Demands will be perceived differently by different individuals, and response to demands may also be variable (please see helpful approaches for children and self-help & coping strategies for adult PDAers for more on balancing demands and tolerance for demands). But once you begin to look at life in terms of demands you can see how all pervasive they are and how difficult things might be for someone with a PDA profile of autism.

What demand avoidant approaches might you see with PDA?

With PDA, people may also refuse, withdraw, ‘shutdown’ or escape in order to avoid things, though more often other ‘social’ approaches are tried first – there is usually a ‘hierarchy’ of avoidance approaches (although escalation can be very rapid, especially if pushed).

Initial avoidance approaches might include distraction (changing the subject, engaging in interesting conversation, using delaying tactics), excusing yourself (giving explanations as to why you can’t comply), incapacitating yourself (saying ‘my legs don’t work) or withdrawing into role play or fantasy … our video below gives some examples. Understanding this hierarchy of avoidance approaches is key when thinking about effective ways to help.

If these approaches don’t enable the demand to be avoided – or aren’t noticed or acted on by others – panic may rise, resulting in a fight, flight or freeze anxiety response. Meltdowns are best understood as being like panic attacks.

Helpful approaches recommended for autism (addressing sensory issues, helping individuals adjust to new situations, keeping to a predictable routine, giving plenty of notice about any changes or accepting that avoiding some things is perfectly acceptable) can be beneficial with PDA, though are often not effective without a more holistic approach based on collaboration, negotiation, flexibility and careful use of language. All approaches also need to be adapted to take account of demand avoidance – for instance, giving notice is important but giving too much notice creates time for the impending demand to accumulate.

Please see helpful approaches for children and self-help & coping strategies for adult PDAers for more detailed information.

Demand avoidance of the PDA kind video

This video was created to help raise awareness of how the PDA profile of autism can present, combining experiences kindly shared by children, young people and adults: