Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about weird ideas and people I keep insisting that I’m going to change the name of.
The pace of things has been unusually high in my life juggling clients, my new job preparing taxes, and researching and writing this newsletter.
So I’ve dropped the ball with the newsletter more than I’d like.
So let’s get somewhat back on track today.
Since 2018, I’ve been poking around communities of people diagnosed (or not) with various mental health conditions that have recently been contextualized as neurodivergent.
As more adults recognize these conditions, there’s been an excellent upswing in advocacy and recognizing that these aren’t illnesses, just different ways to the brain and mind process and experience the world.
Not bad, just different.
If you want to come up to speed on this, Steve Silberman’s 2015 book Neurotribes is a great introduction. Though, if memory serves, it paints a much more positive picture of Hans Asperger than one might want once one discovers that he helped kill disabled people for the Nazis.
I bring this up because of an idea that repeatedly has come up in my exploration of these ideas: That magic and other fringe systems of thought are often created & used to help neurodivergent people function.
If this notion is true, then a lot of the ideas we’ve discussed need to be examined from another context.
But I want to focus on one autistic profile that always gives me some chills when I read about it ‘cause it’s spot on for me.
Pathological Demand Avoidance
Now, I can’t really even say the name without pointing out that the term is contested by a lot of “PDAers”. Many neurodivergent people are keenly aware of how words have been used to stigmatize and marginalize them.
Remember how Brittney Spears was put in a conservatorship that let her dad run her life and forced her to perform for years when she didn’t want to?
That kind of thing affects a lot more than just famous people and it took a huge amount of public attention to change.
That’s an extreme case, but there are a lot of those. See also institutionalization. Like, there are some real crimes being done to neurodivergent people and a ton of them have trouble defending themselves.
So it’s understandable that people want to be aware of that issue.
Initially defined in the 1980s by Professor Elizabeth Newson, PDA was initially classified as a pervasive developmental disorder before being folded into the autism spectrum in 2012.
And while it’s currently seen as a variation of autism, there’s reason to connect it to ADHD and CPTSD.
So its core trait is a combination of avoiding demands to a harmful degree, High anxiety, control-need, use of social strategies, sociability, mood swings, comfort in fantasy & role-play and obsessive, often people-focused behavior.
And according to Newson may also include, “Disregard for social hierarchy, masking, love of novelty, dislike of routine, intolerance of uncertainty, creativity, quirky sense of humour, and (not always) a drive to rename people, animals and things.”
Well, that’s awfully close to home.
A reoccurring frustration for the neurodivergent community is having their conditions defined by the inconvenience they cause rather than their actual experience. This is why some have suggested the term, “Pervasive Drive for Autonomy”
Now, if you’re not familiar with my writing and perspective this may not immediately ring some bells, but that’s extremely true for me. I will metaphorically chew my own arm off to avoid something that I think is wasting my time. And 128 hours is one of my favorite movies, so I’m not convinced I wouldn’t literally do it in a pinch.
I’ll waste my time as much as I please, but when someone else does it I get big mad.
A common experience for me is wanting to do something and then just… not. I’ve described it as trying to drive with a transmission that sometimes just doesn’t work.
A big chunk of this, I think, is that like most people I know, I’ll throw urgency into my thinking to try and push myself to do stuff and that often doesn’t work.
Urgency just increases my resistance to actually acting. If I can get started, I can usually finish. And if I’m working for or with other people, I rarely feel the issue.
There’s a concept in autistic research called Masking, where a person has to present themselves as “normal” to avoid being punished for their natural deviations. For most of my adult life, I’ve been aware of the intense emotional and energy costs of doing this sort of thing.
I’m not necessarily a fun or pleasant person when I’m just doing whatever comes to mind.
I think some of this is just being human, but the costs involved seem much higher to neurodivergent people than to neurotypical people.
We all wear social masks, but the amount of effort it takes to maintain one varies with the situation.
All of which fits into my experience.
On the assumption that neurodivergent people tend to cluster together, I suspect you may relate to some of what I’m saying here.
Now, internet speculation isn’t a substitute for a professional diagnosis. But especially with relatively new conditions like PDA, reliable diagnosis can be tricky.
There’s a ton of messiness in mental health, especially in the USA.
So, the resources
This Facebook Post and the research its based on bring up interesting wrinkles PDA has for using behavior modification on PDAers. Spoilers: If you’re trying to condition someone to do what you want, and they recognize your attempting to control them and disapprove… well, that might not go well.
This blog post discusses the question of naming the condition and has some of the clearest definitions I’ve found.
Here’s the UK’s PDA Society’s definition if you want something more formal, as PDA isn’t in the DSM yet.
This Facebook post by Trauma Geek is what really caught my attention to the profile and started getting me to be more mindful of how I frame and phrase my options. I’m still working on that but I go back to it a few times a week.
A big round-up of Trauma Geek’s Neurodivergence content. Highly interesting stuff.
Another solid 101-level blog post on PDA
Bringing it back
So, a lot of this comes down to rethinking motivation and how to structure schedules differently.
Right now I’ve got about 45 minutes before I need to be at work. The thought of going is bringing up a lot of resistance. But I’m going to finish this, hop in the shower, eat a bowl of chili, and get there.
Trauma Geek describes having a “menu of things you can do” instead of a to-do list and reframing “I have to” or “I should” into “I can” or “How can I?” to short-circuit a spiral of anxiety and shame.
It’s good stuff.
I was really resistant to admitting I had more mental health issues going on than just depression, but it’s been really good finding out there are people out there experiencing the same weird stuff and that there’s stuff I can do to live with it better.
So that’s something ;-)
See y’all on Sunday.
Thanks for this!
The quote "Disregard for social hierarchy, masking, love of novelty, dislike of routine, intolerance of uncertainty, creativity, quirky sense of humour, and (not always) a drive to rename people, animals and things.” hit a little to close to home. And although I am somewhat hesitant to pathologize parts of my perceived personality, having the PDA-term as a starting point to find more information on this particular issue is helpful.
Well this makes me wonder... While your short summary of PDA I feel isn't a total match for me, it's certainly close enough raise my eyebrows. Thanks for the links, something to dig into and mull over.