Book Review · 27, July 2022 0

Exploring Pathological Demand Avoidance with Sally Cat’s PDA by PDAers

Damnit. I forgot my tea. I turned to go back into my building just as a man pushed an enormous rolling toolbox through the door. He stopped on the threshold as I reached for the handle and asked me if I had my fob. I nodded, and he asked if he could see it.

I was instantly surging with rage. “EXCUSE me, but who are YOU?

He responded with such confusion that his intent was clear. Isn’t there an unwritten rule that he, a non-resident, mustn’t let people walk into the building without swiping first? Regardless, I was the sort of incensed that is beyond acknowledging reason. So, I held my position, and the rest of the interaction went . . . accordingly.

This isn’t the first adrenaline-fueled blur I’ve incited. And before I read PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns edited by Sally Cat, I would have silently shamed myself for my bitchiness for days after. But since my deep dive into PDA (short for Pathological Demand Avoidance not public display of affection), I’m reconsidering my reproach. Instead of seeing extreme resistance to being told what to do (or Roddenberry help me, telling my own damn self what to do) as a childish temper tantrum, I wonder whether it is a valid response to my circumstances?

What is Pathological Demand Avoidance

PDA [. . .] is an Autistic Spectrum Condition that is very real, but sorely ignored by a majority of health professionals and services. It comprises a pathological (hardwired) drive to avoid everyday demands (commands, expectations, pressures, etc.) coupled with extreme anxiety and a host of other goodies such as being interested in people and enjoying wordplay.

from the introduction (p 9)

If I hadn’t shared one of these episodes with my counsellor, I doubt I would have ever looked at this definition and thought of myself. If anything, as a child, I was hyper compliant. I prided myself in not only meeting but anticipating the expectations of the authority figures in my life. But after reading this book (and a bunch of other resources), I think my real skill was knowing exactly how much I could get away with.

Not in a manipulative way. PDAers are often portrayed as manipulative. More like, if avoiding demands is out of the question, what must I finish to get back to what I was doing.

Before I filled in all of the gaps though, I might have closed the book if Sally Cat hadn’t tempered her introduction with this caveat:

it should be noted that the contributors are PDAers who have heard of PDA; considered it; joined the Facebook group; felt motivated to interact there and joined the book post discussions. The majority of these are women. There may very well be a wide population of adult PDAers whose profile is markedly different.

from the introduction (p 10)

So, I persevered.

After the introduction, the rest of the book is organized into chapters about each of the PDA traits that read like a tidied-up transcript of a forum discussion. You can find the chapter headings and the prompts Sally Cat gave to situate the participants at the end of this post.

PDA is more than just demand avoidance

If people are familiar with any PDA traits, it’s usually demand avoidance, meltdowns, overwhelm, anxiety, impulsiveness, interpersonal issues, challenges with authority, and how all of these culminate at school, at work, and in relationships. But there are other commonalities between PDAers that don’t make the headlines: a well-developed mask, a fascination with wordplay, a strong inner fantasy world, and a special interest in people.

The first time I worked my way through the text, I worried I was cobbling together a PDA profile for myself cherrypicked from my very normal autistic life and not based in fundamental demand avoidant criteria. Beyond this rash of outbursts, I wasn’t sure I related. All the contributors seemed to have clear indications from when they were very young, and even as babies. I felt as unsettled by PDA as when I discovered autism, with new information pushing me back and forth between recognition and uncertainty.

Until I read the chapter on coping mechanisms. It struck me that I had developed nearly every one of these strategies on my own as a child. It struck me that if the coping mechanisms work for me, maybe I am PDA, so I took a closer look at some of the chapters.

Internalized vs Externalized PDA

I noticed that Sally Cat refers to her own “internalized PDA” to preface her more invisible reactions to demands, but doesn’t really expand on it. So, I looked it up. In a post she published on her blog in April of 2022, she describes two broad presentations of PDA, internalized and externalized.

PDA research and writing has focused on externalized, freely-expressed presentations of PDA. However, internalized PDA is often completely missed because our meltdown are concealed and demands tend to be avoided subtly, and we slip below the radar. We internalizers are not “less” PDA. Just like an iceberg isn’t smaller than a same-sized lump of ice on dry land: the iceberg merely looks smaller because the majority of its body is hidden from view under the water.

from Internalized PDA — The quieter, but equally impactful presentation of PDA that’s hard for people to spot by Sally Cat

She goes on to describe the PDA mask in more detail, and how internalized PDAers will often have different kind adrenaline responses to anxiety: rather than the typical fight/flight/freeze reaction, we might fawn. Fawning is where, to keep yourself safe, you prioritize others needs at the expense of your own self-care.

Um. Yes.

In fact, since my autism diagnosis, I have noticed a behaviour that autism doesn’t quite explain. I have been feeling a lot of resentment toward people in my life. It is as if I am very self-effacing at the beginning of the relationship, then at a certain point a switch flips in me. Suddenly, I am annoyed by doing the things I was very willing to do before. But because it would be conspicuous to just stop, I feel trapped and resentful. And it’s all my own doing!

Internalized Demand Avoidance and the PDA Mask

So how does a hyper-compliant child grow into a demand-avoidant adult? My theory is that, just like I masked my autism traits, I masked my drive toward autonomy, until I couldn’t anymore. Rereading the book from this perspective helped me see how over time I have been less and less able to force myself to listen to unsolicited advice, or to meet a demand, even one I’ve set for myself (like reading books and publishing my thoughts for this blog). Then there is the increasingly complex dance I have to do to accomplish any task on a formal to do list, The following are some examples from the book that stood out for me:

Routine

One thing that has always bothered me about my autism diagnosis that I don’t remember having strong autistic traits as a child. For example, I was never the kid who needed strict routines to prevent meltdowns. But it turns out that routines are an interesting paradox for PDAers. Little Black Duck says:

For me, [routine] feels very much like a tug of war between typical ASD (and a helping of OCD) and PDA. What this means is that I have no global routine. But I have lots and lots of mini routines, within my day. Things like the way I make coffee. The way I shower myself. The way I do the dishes. Where I park my car at the mall.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 243

As an adult, post diagnosis, I tried to implement a global daily routine to see if it would help with anxiety. And no matter how hard I tried; I couldn’t stick to it. I would plan to eat at noon, and I would be starving, but instead of eating, I would lay on my bed and avoid making food. Having any demands on my day seems to make my motivation evaporate. But interrupting my morning routine can defeat me for the rest of the day.

Fantasy and Roleplay

Similarly, one of the missing links for me in the PDA profile was the strong inner fantasy world. I would never describe myself as imaginative. I always struggled to create new ideas out of nowhere (which is why I think I chose editing fiction over writing it), so I couldn’t imagine how this one applied. Tracy felt the same way:

You know, I never used to think I daydreamed at all, until I realized I daydreamed literally all the time. It’s one of those things where I just didn’t identify as such. I read fantasy novels to escape reality and I vividly imagine myself within them. I am often surprised (and disappointed) to look up and realize it was just a story.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 212

I have come back to this quote over and over. I also lived through a fiction world growing up, and even now, I have a hard time separating the way fictional characters interact from reality. I spend most of my time, even with people I am very close with, puzzling over the outcomes of conversations. Since reading PDA by PDAers, I have noticed that I almost always breathe a sigh of relief, or smile when I settle back into the easy rules of my fictional world.

In the coping strategies chapter, fantasy comes up again, and Riko says:

I myself have found chores easier when pretending I am being filmed for TV. I adopt a character (say, a cleaner) and pretend I am doing a job for TV. I’ll imagine cameras following me everywhere, watching what I’m doing and that people are asking me questions or commenting on my actions. I’ll run an entire conversation in my head, and get the dishes done at the same time.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 301

I used to create a similar role for myself: As I was doing a chore, I would imagine people coming into my mother’s house and marveling at my flawless vacuuming. I still do this, though the way it plays out isn’t nearly so vivid, but the feeling still gets me through.

Interest in People

I wasn’t sure how to separate the PDAers obsession with people from the way that some of us cling to the few friends we have. But after reading Tracy’s experience, I think that maybe I fit right in:

I am drawn to some people, I have STRONG crushes (not romantic usually). It doesn’t happen very often, though there is usually at least one person in my life who I am crushing on, and usually I don’t really even know them, though I want to.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 170

I only really had one friend at a time until I reached my teens, and they were my everything. In grade 4, my friend wanted to play with more friends than just me. I tried to join in, but I couldn’t seem to make it work with both of them. I felt possessive and rejected. When I was older my obsession turned to boys. In fact, just before I discovered autism, I shredded all of my journals because I was embarrassed by how I obsessed I was over one boy after another, never writing of anything else. The people obsession continues as an adult, though it is more like Tracy’s descriptions: I will meet a person and it will feel like I’ve fallen in love. Then, the feeling wanes, and they will just be a regular person to me.

Autonomy

Intimate partners usually begin as that obsessive kind of crush, and then rather than waning to nothing special, maintain a bit of immunity to my need for autonomy. Two quotes kind of play together here. Sally talks about losing autonomy over her finances:

I’ve unfortunately had to claim benefits for most of my life because I can’t be an employee and I don’t have the business brain to be self-employed. When I signed back on the dole after finishing uni, I actually started dry retching. It’s like my entire system was in mutiny against their control of me.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 115

And Tracy shares how demands can be things you really want to do:

Even though I love my husband, when he comes home I get that awful feeling inside when I am thinking I have to go say ‘hello’ to him. It feels like a demand.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 23

When I married at 27, I was determined to be the model wife (still hyper-compliant). Someone in our community had told me that the sure way to a successful marriage is to merge everything, including finances. So, my husband and I went to the bank to make it official. We created a joint account, and when I went to merge my savings with his I could not. It was the first time I remember identifying a feeling as anxiety, and it mounted to the point where I felt physically sick and had to leave the bank to be able to breathe again. The merging was such a beautiful and special thing in my mind that I wanted very badly, but I couldn’t not make myself take that step.

Anxiety

During that moment at the bank, and maybe the time I moved to Ontario for my husband, only to realize once I got there that I couldn’t make myself stay, were the only times I have felt an acute level of anxiety surrounding demands like Tracy describes here:

What it feels like: out of control. I start feeling uncomfortable (but I don’t notice it at first, I just react). I can’t do what’s expected of me, what I expect of myself, and there’s a conflict—a disconnect—which I can’t resolve. Then that feeling starts to build until it’s all I can think about. It feels like I’m being forced into a corner—no options. Fight-or-flight kicks in, and my rational brain, and my ability to communicate and empathize, shuts down. In addition, I become frustrated and disappointed in myself because at that point I will pick fights, shut down completely, become irritable or sad or angry, ANYTHING to get out of the situation. I say things I don’t mean. I get totally overwhelmed. I am no longer ME. I am no longer a person. I am just trying to escape. And then I come back and I have to deal with the aftermath.

And no one understands what has happened. It seems like they have all kinds of explanations for why I behave the way I do, but none of them is right. None matches what I feel. So they act like I don’t like them, or that I am lazy, or that I don’t care or that I am a bad person. And I feel terrible about myself because, despite my plans, despite y best intentions, I am back in this place again. And I have no explanation for them. I can’t fix it. I can’t stop it from happening.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 25-26

My experience is more like Riko’s:

I tried taking anti-anxiety meds once but while it did reduce my anxiety, especially socially, it actually made my demand avoidance worse because I cared less about not performing certain demands. For me, while anxiety works to make it harder to perform demands it also makes me want to.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 51

In light of what I’ve learned about PDA, I think I have been anxious for most of my life. That hyper-compliance? Anxiety. Interestingly, when I discovered autism, it was such a relief to know that there wasn’t something wrong with me that I relaxed. The feeling is exactly as she describes: it is as if I took some anti-anxiety meds and the anxiety driving me to meet the demands has dropped below the anxiety that comes the with the weight of a demand. And it’s getting worse.

Masking

And it scares me sometimes. PDAers describe being perceived as snobby, lazy, stubborn, rude, selfing, manipulative, uncaring, hateful, and worse. Tracy says:

I feel very bad about myself because I want to be a person who acts out my values and meets my commitments and yet I never seem to be able to do all that I say I will do, or think I SHOULD do. So I’m not the person I want to be, and that sucks.

from PDA by PDAers: From Anxiety to Avoidance and Masking to Meltdowns, p 22

Like my autism mask, I feel my PDA mask (if that’s what it is) slipping. As a hyper-compliant child, I prided myself in not only meeting expectations but anticipating them. My predictive function is still in perfect working order, but I am less and less able able to make myself do the demand. I watch myself pushing the demand closer and closer to deadline wondering when the day will come where I completely drop the ball, leaving everyone to see the real me beneath my virtuous façade.

So. Am I, or not?

With my new understanding of the internalized presentation of PDA, my Jekyll and Hyde personality, and my childhood coping strategies, I am 90% sure that I fit the PDA profile of autism.

I am more concerned about minimizing demands than I am with minimizing my doubts though. I’m not entirely sure what the future will hold for my ever-slipping wardrobe of masks (RIP my building strata reputation), but PDA by PDAers gave me a good sense of what might be going on and showed me that I’m not alone. So, if you were a hyper-compliant child who’s finding it harder and harder to meet demands, well, I’d tell you to read it but . . .


In case this post isn’t long enough for you, here is the list of the chapter headings and prompts the PDAers answer:

PDA by PDAers Table of Contents

  1. Demand Avoidance
    What is the Demand Avoidance aspect of PDA? What does it feel like? Is it always obvious? Can it be controlled? What makes it pathological?
  2. What sort of things are we Driven to Avoid?
    Is your Demand Avoidance always toward things you don’t want to do? Or do you also avoid doing things you enjoy—or even silly things?
  3. Anxiety and PDA
    Do you feel a lot of anxiety in life—or perhaps very little? How about social anxiety? Do you consider anxiety to be a hardwired part of PDA? Is it possible to feel Demand Avoidant and not anxious?
  4. PDA and Masking
    Do you mask? Or do you not mask? Does this maybe tie in with social anxiety? And how do you express overload or meltdowns?
  5. Intolerance of Uncertainty
    What do you feel about intolerance of uncertainty? A recent study has shown it to be higher in PDA children than anxiety. Do you relate to this as being a major factor in your life?
  6. Control
    Do you feel the need to be in control? If so, is this because you feel the need to have power over others?
  7. Meltdowns
    Do you have meltdowns? How do you express them? What provokes them? What do they feel like?
  8. Overload
    Do you overload? If so, what causes it? What does it feel like? How do you respond to being overloaded?
  9. PDA and People
    How do you get on with relationships (family, friends, romantic, work, etc.)? Do you need time on your own? Do you need people? Has this need ever been obsessive?
  10. Hierarchy and Rules
    What is your attitude to social hierarchy? How about rules? Do you respect rules laid out by other people for you to follow? Do you expect other people to follow rules?
  11. Fantasy and Role Play
    Being comfortable (sometimes to an extreme extent) in fantasy and role play are considered to be common PDA traits. Has fantasy been a significant part of your life? How about role play?
  12. Wordplay
    Do you enjoy wordplay? Puns? Rhymes? Making up new names for things or other people?
  13. Impulsiveness
    Being impulsive is considered a PDA trait. Do you relate to this? Does this connect to being restrained, e.g. budgeting and dieting?
  14. Routine
    PDA is classed as an Autism Spectrum Condition. Loving routine is associated with autism. Do you love routine? Does it comfort? Does it chafe?
  15. School
    How did you get on in school? Did you achieve well academically? Did you get on with your fellow pupils? Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Avoid it?
  16. Work
    Has PDA impacted your ability to work? How are you with bosses and managers telling you want to do? How do you get along with colleagues? Deadlines?
  17. Coping Strategies
    Do you have any strategies for coping with PDA issues such as Demand Avoidance and anxiety? What works for you? What doesn’t work?
  18. Reasonable Accommodations
    What accommodations do you feel would be reasonable to expect for PDA, bearing in mind how our condition impacts our ability to function in society?
  19. Parenting
    Not all of us have children (PDA or otherwise), but we were all PDA children in our pasts. Most interest in PDA has been focused on the parental perspective of ‘managing’ PDA children. What do you personally feel would help PDA children to flourish? IF you are a parent with PDA, what challenges do you face?
  20. Our Achievements
    What things have you achieved? Sharing our triumphs can show others that PDS doesn’t have to be the killer of potential. Have you, for example, landed a great job? Done well academically? Organised a group? Sold artwork? Won an award? Anything really.