PDA Symptoms in Adults and How to Help

PDA Symptoms in Adults

Ever heard of PDA? No, not Public Displays of Affection. I’m talking about Pathological Demand Avoidance. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t, as it’s a relatively new diagnosis that isn’t actually recognized by the DSM-5, but it’s considered by experts to affect a subset of people on the autism spectrum. People of the autistic community have preferred to call it Persistent Drive for Autonomy, but no matter the name, the facts remain the same. Those with PDA, children and adults, have their ability to respond to demands and expectations fairly handicapped.

So what is it, exactly? What should you do if you know someone who has the condition?

Well you’re on the right track, as learning more is always the first right step. I’ll tell you everything you need to know about PDA in adults, the symptoms, and how best to properly help them with any issues. If you are looking for a guide about PDA in children or how to discipline a child with PDA, please use the search feature on our homepage.


What is Pathological Demand Avoidance/Persistent Drive for Autonomy?

Pathological Demand Avoidance Brain Concept

The reason it’s often called Persistent Drive for Autonomy by the autistic community is because it’s considered a more handy description. What does that mean, though?

Autonomy, or the right to be able to govern yourself, is what keeps many people running. It’s a great motivation, a feeling of freedom, and an essential part of who we are as people. However, there is a problem with a drive for too much autonomy. That causes a difficulty in one’s basic ability to function and socialize. That means refusing to do tasks, meet expectations, or not cooperating with basic requests on an extreme level. School, work, friends, family; it doesn’t matter.

It’s often seen as someone being lazy, a procrastinator, or just lacking work ethic in general. That’s not the case, though. There is, in fact, an internal struggle. Even if the request is going to help them in some way, there’s a certain anxiety that blossoms due to being met with expectations. It’s an anxiety so extreme that even the most basic of requests can seem daunting.


Symptoms of PDA in Adults

Symptoms of PDA

There are certain symptoms that one might have PDA, though there’s nothing concrete. Because the DSM-5 does not recognize it as a condition (or it at least doesn’t separate its specific symptoms from ASD in general) experts still debate on what truly defines it. Even still, we can make educated conclusions that lead us down the right path based on prior cases, so we have a few telltale signs.

As stated before, those with PDA will constantly refuse to meet expectations, no matter how basic. Even if they greatly want what’s on the other end, there’s a great chance that it won’t happen. The anxiety of meeting such demands just becomes too much and things just fall apart. If they do accept the task at hand, however, there’s a good chance it will never be met.

You’ll also notice certain behaviors in people with PDA. For example, they may blatantly avoid being met with demands. This will include short conversations, avoiding social situations altogether, keeping away from activities, making excuses, and lying.

One of the biggest signs is that they lack the ability and drive to achieve their own goals and do what they enjoy. It’s all because said goal is perceived as a demand.


What is a Demand?

Avoiding a task list

So what exactly defines a “demand”? It almost seems like any expectation in general will be perceived as a demand, and in the most extreme cases, that’s exactly how it is. There are so many examples that you wouldn’t normally think of as a “demand” that make those who have PDA extremely anxious.

Here are some examples that you may not consider “demands”, but still seem so in the eyes of those with PDA.

  • Self care. Bathing, getting dressed, brushing your teeth. These are things you should do every day, and just the simple fact that you should be doing something that can make people anxious.
  • Following instructions, meeting deadlines, doing basic tasks. Anything work or academia related can probably be put onto this list.
  • Simple requests or questions. We’re talking about very basic things, like “hey, can you pass me that glass?” or “Do you think you’ll get to bed early tonight?” Even questions aren’t safe, as simply the idea of an expectation being there can be far beyond daunting.
  • Routines. To be expected to do something in a similar fashion every day, even if it’s just as simple as getting up early and going to the store, it can be a challenge to those with PDA. The one thing worse than that is if said person is asked to change their routine. If they’re asked to wake up a bit earlier or stop by somewhere to grab something, it can be seen as quite the demand.
  • Basic social expectations. This one is the definition of introversion. The inability to engage in social situations is one of the biggest problems for adults with PDA. For example, making small talk with others at a party, or keeping in touch with friends and family.

One of the things that some people tend to overlook is the fact that PDA is a subset of autism, where navigating social situations can already be a challenge. Add on top of this an extreme form of anxiety for all expectations, requests, and demands, and you have a condition that causes functioning to be near impossible.


Supporting Someone with PDA

Helping someone with PDA

There are very few times where a support system can’t help someone with their problems, and this is not one of those times. Support systems are important for those with anxiety in general, but for those with PDA, it can be absolutely vital. The very fact that someone might want to help them get better can be a relief, but also add to that anxiety, so it’s a delicate balance to strike.

Part of the responsibility of being a part of that support system is understanding what they’re going through. It’s understanding that the person living with PDA is not lazy, they are not procrastinating because they don’t feel like working, and they’re not choosing to live like this. These behaviors have, unfortunately, biological and physiological reasons behind them.

It’s understandable that you might be frustrated by someone who has PDA, because cooperation is something that is very hard for them. However, if you truly want to help and support them, you have to know what they’re going through and what to do.

If you feel as though you’re ready to help this person, here are some ways you can support someone with PDA.


Grow Trust

Trust - concept art

Before you can do any helping, they need to be able to trust you. You need to develop a relationship with this person. No matter how close you are, you can always grow closer. What really matters in this situation is the fact that they know there is someone out there they can look to, rely on, and that understands them.

Those with PDA likely already have trouble with social situations, and so the better a relationship you two have, the more open they will be to being helped. It can be frustrating, having someone you can’t rely on to rely on you, but you are doing more for them than you could know.


Get Permission to Help

Green lights - Getting Permission

When it comes to helping someone, consent is key. Unless the situation is extremely dire, as in someone might actually be harmed, then you should always get someone’s consent to help them.

Approach them about the matter delicately, and if they accept your help, then you can move on to helping them make plans to get them through difficult situations to achieve their goals. Don’t try to come in, sit them down, and force them to listen to you and follow your advice. That’s a great way to be kicked out.

Remember that if they say “no”, you need to respect this. Even if you think you may know better, you’ll only be making things worse if you forcefully insert yourself.

If at any point while you’re helping, they decide to drop your assistance, you have to accept that, even if it’s hard.


Use Declarative Language

Using Declarative Language for Adults with PDA

Declarative language is very helpful when it comes to those with PDA. It helps them feel more competent and understood, rather than having an expectation thrust upon them. The key to declarative language is that it does not require a response and instead prompts action.

Here are some examples of declarative language:

  • “I notice you forgot something.”
  • “I wonder if there’s something you need for work today.”
  • “Your dog looks hungry.”


Let Them Take the Wheel

Leading someone by the hand

Remember that you’re helping them to better function in a world that can be fairly demanding. Don’t try to run their life, as you may not always be there for them.

Think of yourself as the driving instructor, helping them navigate the roads. Eventually they’ll learn the roads on their own, though don’t be surprised if they ask for your help every now and then. The goal is to have them stand on their own two feet and be able to face challenges. Even if you aren’t controlling every aspect of their life, you’re helping them in more ways than you could ever know.