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Wired to Avoid

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Of recent times, my mind has been playing with the idea of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). It is thought that this plays a part in the autism profile of characteristics. In simpler terms, as explained by one of our educators, an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (incl Asperger’s Syndrome) “experiences a demand as a crisis”, to be avoided.

Stop and think about that for a moment … in the context of families and relationships. Relationships rely on an exchange of requests or polite demands in order to stay functional – we ask for help, we respond to requests for help, we ask for favours, we do favours, we ask for tasks to be done and we do tasks for others in order to achieve something important for each other or the family, etc. This is how humans get things done. A collective, working towards collective benefit.

Without a reciprocal exchange between two people in a relationship, or between multiple family members, what do we have? Two or more individuals all living under the same roof as isolated, disconnected, unsupported, independent individuals. This is not a relationship, nor is it a family. This is aloneness. This is ships passing in the night. This is depression. This is loneliness. This is vulnerability.

So, if a partner in a relationship, or a member of a family is on the autism spectrum and has this PDA as part of their profile of characteristics, what are we looking at? One person who is disconnected from the other and who experiences the panic that accompanies a crisis whenever a request or demand is made of them. Many of us who’ve lived with an adult partner on the spectrum know very well what happens when a crisis is encountered by the ASD adult – we’re either confronted by complete shut-down and avoidance behaviours, or a melt-down and rage with torrents of sharp and hurtful word-spears designed to shut us down and send us back to our corners, where we try to figure out what just happened. It was just a request. And nothing out of the ordinary.

So how does a couple or family continue to function when this could potentially occur multiple times every day? I know for a fact, because it happened to me, that eventually partners avoid asking for help or participation. The reaction and aftermath is just not worth the emotional distress and trauma it creates for us. It does help to finally understand the traumatic effect a request or demand can have on the ASD adult, but once again the NT finds herself/himself relinquishing needs and adapting again to the vacuum of non-participation and non-support that pervades these “relationship” situations.

This may offer more sense to the ASD adult’s apparent tendency to assign and implement roles, tasks and routines to couple and family life – this would, in their minds, eliminate the need for daily negotiation, spontaneity and discussion of course – those wretched demands and requests that create a crisis. It’s been declared by them, or manoeuvred (if the passive type), and the right of reply is denied. Were we to open our mouth we risk creating another crisis, that of unpredictability, preventing time for preparation of an answer. Silent, I stand.

As I contemplate the crisis of a request or demand, I wonder if it even extends to the presence of expectations – one cannot avoid having expectations in relationship – social and cultural norms establish reasonable expectations to have in relationship, which we naturally have of our partners. But does the avoidance extend even to these? If it exists, if it is “out there”, expressed or not – a request, a demand or an expectation – then it is to be avoided. One puzzles as to why.

Perhaps the terms are not their own and the initiation is not from them? Perhaps they don’t know what actions are required, they feel exposed or at risk of making a mistake. So we wait, and hope for a move on their part – of care, of tasks attended to, arrangement of affairs or events to benefit not just themselves, a favour, a benevolent gesture, a gift, a celebration or symbol of love, protection, shared experiences, a warm and genuine smile, affection, of reciprocation of all the nurture we’ve invested into the institution we believed we were creating with them.

And then it’s a decade or two later. It’s no longer ok.

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