top of page

PDA: Persistent (&or Pervasive) Drive for Autonomy

By Dr. Patty Williams on March 15, 2024

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Gently (Formerly Williams) is a trauma therapist and coach who specializes in EMDR, ND-Affirmative DBT, and IFS modalities. Through Bright Insight she works to counsel, coach, and advocate for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent persons, along with other marginalized populations.

PDA: Persistent (&or Pervasive) Drive for Autonomy

The topic of PDA is becoming ever more prevalent in neurodivergent spaces. As is common with much neurodivergence-giftedness crossover, this warrants a discussion of it purposefully and specifically in relation to giftedness.

Traditionally, PDA stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance. As one might imagine, this label carries with it the weight of stigma. We can certainly break it down though, to understand the reasoning behind the label.

What is Demand Avoidance? What Makes it Pathological?

Demand avoidance, as it sounds, is when a person seeks or feels a need to avoid a demand on them. We may see this sort of behavior when we ask our children to clean their rooms or if we have to scrub the toilets. This is a normal human experience- right? Then what makes it pathological?

Behaviorists and psychiatrists labeled more intense demand avoidance as pathological as it carries with it an understanding of pervasiveness and the idea that it is extreme, not normal, or associated with an illness or mental problem.

Oof. This IS stigmatizing and NOT neurodiversity-affirmative.

PDA IS more extreme demand avoidance than is typical though, so is this label correct? Well, in an effort to destigmatize and depathologize mental health, I would argue that correct or not, it can be harmful. This is particularly true since PDA is a neuro-difference and not a deficit. Labeling it as pathology, therefore, is unkind at a minimum.

To add to the stigmatization associated with PDA, it is important to also know its history as a psychological profile seen as a subtype of autism. By adding a pathologizing label to autism, we further pathologize autism, which is problematic and can seem unkind. Autism is a neuro-difference, not a disease. PDA is a neurological difference also, one that many autistic people experience. And yes, there are difficulties associated with Autism and PDA- however, I encourage us all to consider how these difficulties may rather relate to social expectations and structures.

**A side note here: After first writing this post, I was reminded of and considered my parents, friends, and clients who have PDAers at home. I do not want to take away from the reality of the experience of parenting a PDAer especially. It can be difficult and even heart-wrenching at times. PDA children are beautiful souls who also struggle in more typical environments, even when parents are seeking wholeheartedly to appropriately parent the child they have right in front of them. It can be HARD. And if you are a PDAer who WAS parented, you are not being blamed for this difficulty. We are all working through this, hopefully together, to understand our PDA families and this stigmatized experience.**

Depathologizing and Understanding PDA

To depathologize PDA therefore, it makes sense first to consider it and more broadly apply it as a neurodivergent experience in general- one that many gifted folks can relate to. This is why the neurodiversity-affirmative community tends to refer to PDA as a Persistent and/or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy. (Hey, wait, is that me?) When we have a persistent, pervasive drive to be self-governing, we seek it out fervently, with our whole selves even bio-neurologically.

Ohhhhh! Many gifted folks tend to like (and fervently seek) autonomy... don't they?

Yes. Yes they do. Hmmmmmm...

Beyond typical demand avoidance though, PDA is a tendency for some individuals to perceive a demand placed on them as a neurological threat that launches a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. We might notice this with children when they adamantly refuse to go to school, do their homework, clean their rooms, or even eat. This refusal as a reaction to a threat, can look angry, violent, or like a melt-down or shut-down experience. The threat may also be avoided by employing dishonesty or manipulation (“of course I did my homework, Mom"). And as you can imagine, such behavior can result in harsh discipline and judgment, rather than understanding and calm, particularly if it is framed as disobedience.

For adults, PDA may manifest as profound difficulty with task completion, particularly when the perceived demand is great. For example, many adults with demand avoidance have difficulty completing and submitting tax documentation, even if they are receiving returns. Not completing such tasks and being judged or punished for this as children or adults, can have a lasting and difficult impact on people’s sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and identity. It is not a stretch to imagine how the shame associated with PDA might impact complex trauma, also.

What To Do About PDA and More General Demand Avoidance

According to autism and neurodiversity support specialist podcaster Kristy Forbes (2021), PDA is a neurobiological response to demand interpreted as a threat that they handle by making peace with and being radically accepting of. Per Forbes, traditional approaches to managing PDA, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and reward/punishment methods, do not work. However, radical acceptance and creativity often do, at least to some extent. For example, Forbes shares that they communicate safety to their brain by sometimes staying in their pajamas, even for presentations. In other words, by being in their pajamas, their brain receives the signal that it is time to relax and there is no demand on them that may be interpreted as a threat.

Concepts of removing demand and threat can be extended to ourselves and our children. And though we may not be able to do everything in our pajamas, we can think of how to remove the threat of demands in creative and accepting ways. A simple example of this I use with parents is to cut up an apple and place it in front of their child who is likely to eat it. If we instead ask them if they want the apple, they may see the demand for a response as, believe it or not, a threat. Another strategy is to offer options to ourselves or our children or view tasks as experiments.

However we creatively decide to deal with demand avoidance, acceptance and the concept of allowing is important. As considered above, acceptance is about holding our realities for what they are without judgment. Allowing then, is about moving through awareness openly and permitting ourselves (or our children or important others) to be themselves without pathologizing or limiting them. This does not mean allowing harmful behavior. We are talking about allowing the experiment, allowing the acceptance, allowing the difference, and holding it all with curiosity and compassion.

Oh. Hm. I think I can do that.

101 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


The Bright Insight Support Network logo, a rainbow with pie shapes.
bottom of page