Why I identify with PDA as part of my autism

Now, I’ve talked a lot about how my masking made me become a people pleaser to extremes and how I was the shy, quiet student who always followed the rules at school. The type of child an old school behaviour focused teacher would describe as a ‘Model student.’  

So if you’ve been following me on social media or my blog, you may be surprised to hear that I identify with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), although I’m not a fan of it being described as pathological! 

First of all, what the heck is PDA? 

PDA is a profile of autism; it’s currently not recognised as its own diagnosis or a sub diagnosis of autism (that’s a whole debate that I won’t get into here, try google). 

The main features research has identified 

  • Avoid and resist ordinary demands.
  • Surface sociability, but lack of sense of identity, pride, or shame.
  • Lability of mood, impulsive, led by a need to control. 
  • Comfortable in role play and pretending.
  • Language delay seems to result from passivity. 
  • Obsessional behaviour.
  • Neurological involvement

(Newson et al., 2003)

PDA, autism and me

Now I don’t identify will all of the features that researchers have suggested. Still, from hearing and listening to people’s experiences, I have realised that PDA seems to explain my behaviour that my neurotypical family members struggle to understand. Bless their poor normal souls /s. 

When I initially came across PDA, there were some aspects I related to, but I didn’t pay much attention to PDA as a concept as my reaction was ‘I’m not like that around others’. I assumed that my autism explained the one or two aspects I related to PDA passively. 

However, the more I’ve read about PDA, the more I started to see descriptions of myself. When I am at home in a safe environment where I don’t have to mask, my behaviour can reflect a stereotypical view of PDA. When I’m overwhelmed, and people put too many demands on me that I can’t manage at the time. 

I also recently came across the concept of fawning as part of PDA. Harry Thompson explains fawning as 

In an unsafe environment, the need for control could drive the PDAer to comply. This is what I describe as “inverted control” – lending someone the upper hand in order to stay in control of them. The approval and validation of others outside of the family may feel like nutrition to a person who feels invisible much of the time.

Even though the PDAer in this case assumes a more meek and subservient stance, they are still exerting control on their environment. If they behave at school or at work the same way they do at home, the person (or people) they Fawn towards may either flee or attack them.”

When in public and particularly at school growing up, fawning felt very much like a fear response. I didn’t feel safe to be my authentic autistic self in public due to fear of harassment or worse. It was a survival mechanism I utilised. I wanted to feel accepted, and the only way I felt I could achieve that is by becoming an extreme people pleaser (even though it didn’t exactly help me to feel accepted). 

Unless I am in a good mode or experiencing low stress, I struggle to cope with demands from others. On a surface level, I can appear ‘social’ if you meet me for short periods of time, but I’ve had an extremely low sense of identity and pride most of my life. I’m impulsive, particularly when it comes to online shopping, tweeting and starting tasks I enjoy. I loved role play and drama as a child and also had “delayed speech” (I personally view it as different from neurotypical standards of speech development).

So looking back, my experiences are well described by what is currently deemed the PDA profile. Also, by taking into consideration fawning and other people’s lived experiences, PDA explains a lot for me on a personal level. 

If you enjoyed this post and would like to support my writing, I would be forever grateful if you could buy me a coffee (or tea in my case).

References 

Harry Thompson PDA Extraordinaire (2021) Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/HarryThompsonPDAExtraordinaire/posts/480779306599843 

Newson E, Le Maréchal K, David C (2003) Pathological demand avoidance syndrome: a necessary distinction within the pervasive developmental disorders. Archives of Disease in Childhood; 88, 595-600.

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