Written By: Jonathan Andrews
Although statistics show 99% of the population have heard of autism, very few will have heard of the newest autism spectrum disorder – Pathological Demand Avoidance, or PDA. It shares traits with the rest of the spectrum, but as the National Autistic Society report on PDA shows, it also brings its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties. PDA can affect anyone, but (according to the limited research currently available) it is more common among girls and women, and it manifests as an intensely strong desire to avoid complying with anything the person perceives as a demand. Here, I look at the specific issues PDA might cause in the workplace, and how employers can work to mitigate against these.
- People-focused special interests.As is common across the autism spectrum, people with PDA often have ‘special interests’ which they fixate on for extended periods of time and prioritise above other work. Unlike other ASDs, though, PDA interests tend to be directed towards other people. They can take the form of someone trying to be friendly, but coming across as overly-involved and leading to them repeatedly distracting the person by attempting to talk to them during work hours. On the flip side, someone could become increasingly jealous or scared of a co-worker, due to their anxiety about others and need for control, jeopardising their working relationship as they distrust working with them and deal with intense internal emotions directed at them.
There is no one strategy to deal with this; an eclectic approach is best, with mentoring and counselling (either in-house or from organisations like the NAS and AS Mentoring) being offered to the employee so they can talk through these worries and deal with them when they arise rather than letting them grow. Mentoring and counselling are great ways to help all employees improve wellbeing, so this need not be an additional, PDA-specific cost burden.
If the individual is happy disclosing, this may also help as research shows co-workers are far more accepting of others’ traits when they know they are not conscious choices; but this is an incredibly sensitive area and each person/situation will be different, so disclosure won’t always be best. If these fixations on people do become too much to manage, the person’s skills can also be utilised by letting them work from home, or moving them to a more technical role without frequent workplace contact.
- Demand avoidance. As the name suggests, the chief unifying characteristic of people with PDA is a resistance to any type of demand, and makes no distinction between peers and recognised authority figures here; this can be ironed out through life experience and learning to “pick your battles”, but can also manifest at work through being too anxious to action the decisions of supervisors and bosses, and repeatedly putting work off or trying to over-delegate.
It should be noted that those affected severely will likely not be in these roles in the first place, so employers will be mostly working with those mildly affected; and there are solutions available. For example, disguising a demand as a request will work for some; it may also work to provide adjustments to help the person through at least the first handful of demands to be actioned, after which they may well become used to the routine. Ironically, having a busy schedule with lots of demands needing to be actioned may actually lessen the anxiety and demand avoidance, given the need to respond to each quickly which means procrastination is not possible.
- Mood swings and impulsivity. Far moreso than those with other autism diagnoses, people with PDA tend to switch moods very quickly, especially in response to events they view as demands. Naturally, this can lead to unpredictability of behaviour, impacting on workplace relationships and employer confidence that they will fulfil the job given to the deadline. But while this behaviour might seem random, it is primarily driven by a fear of ‘losing control’ – and by making the employee feel more secure in their role, it can be alleviated.
Furthermore, mentoring and counselling can also help here (as above), to explain how one job not going perfectly isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and the importance of resilience rather than obsessing over imperfections. It can also be helpful to invest in teaching to let the person channel these mood changes, as once people with PDA become comfortable with them they tend to enjoy taking on different persons and can use them positively – for example, by adopting different personas during negotiations to maximise gain.
This is unlikely to be a comprehensive list, but given the vanishingly small amount of research on the condition so far, and the lack of any research tailored to the workplace, it’s as comprehensive as one can be right now.It should be remembered that people with PDA will bring other skills and difficulties to the workplace associated with autism more widely – these are just the PDA-specific issues.
And despite the negative tone of the article – I am discussing weaknesses here, after all, so it was unavoidable – it should never be forgotten that people with PDA can bring skills to the workplace too, often those not immediately associated with autism such as people skills and team-leading. In my next article, I will discuss these in more depth – they shouldn’t be glossed over, as these skills can benefit business greatly.