They're Not Just Difficult – Demand Avoidance and Autism

It is not uncommon to sometimes feel resistant to doing things that people ask us to do, or things that are expected of us. When this behavior is persistent, even for essential demands such as eating, sleeping, and taking care of oneself, it is known as ‘demand avoidance’.

In this post, we’ll explore how demand avoidance and Autism are related, what demands are and what demand avoidance looks and feels like, and strategies parents and demand-avoidant people can use to manage it.

Is demand avoidance an Autistic trait?

The actual relationship between Autism and demand avoidance is not well researched, but it is widely accepted that many Autistic and neurodivergent people exhibit demand avoidance behavior. Although some people consider persistent demand avoidance behavior as a distinct profile of Autism, it is not clinically recognized as such in the guidelines that are used to diagnose Autism.

The mechanisms and motivations behind demand avoidance behaviors are also not well-understood. Some theories include that the behavior stems from a desire for control, from anxiety, or from difficulties with uncertainty. Many of these factors are commonly experienced by Autistic and neurodivergent individuals.

What is a demand?

There are different types of demands that people with demand avoidance may react to. These include:

  • Indirect or implied demands – expectations such as answers to questions, paying bills, and going to work or school
  • Direct demands – usually instructions or requests from another person
  • Internal demands – things the individual is self-motivated to do, and bodily needs such as needing to shower or drink water

Not all demands that trigger avoidant behavior are unpleasant, they can be as simple as needing to brush your teeth, or responding when someone talks to you.

What does demand avoidance feel like?

Some people with lived experience of demand avoidance have described what it feels like:

“…uncontrollable and all encompassing.” –Jo Richardson, Different not deficient

“…even if I want to participate or do the action, every suggestion always has a knee-jerk ‘NO!’ response.” –Kyra Chambers, For the love of roleplay

“…as soon as the demand is on my 'To do' list, it's a demand and it causes anxiety.” –Purple Ella, Demand avoidance

What does demand avoidance look like?

Because everybody is different, demand avoidance doesn’t look the same for everyone. Here are a few examples of ways that someone with a pattern of demand avoidance might express resistance:

  • Refusal without negotiation – saying no and avoiding discussion about why or what would get them to agree or comply
  • Withdrawing or being passive – neglecting to respond, leaving the room, refusing to move when verbally or physically prompted
  • Creating a distraction or diversion – procrastinating, changing the subject, starting an argument, making a mess, or other behaviors that make continuing the conversation difficult
  • Giving excuses – may sometimes be unrealistic or fanciful
  • Having an uncontrollable emotional, and sometimes physical, reaction to realizing demands are unavoidable

Strategies for parents and carers

We’ve made some suggestions below for some management techniques when interacting with demand-avoidant individuals:

Daily tracking

Using a tool that can help you keep a record of when their behavior is at its best and worst, might help you get a better gauge of their triggers and what might help them. Human Health is a free mobile app that helps you track signs and symptoms daily, as well as any treatments or interventions you may be using.

You can download the app here, or by searching for ‘Human Health’ on the App Store or Google Play.

Allow the demand cup to empty: Whilst some demands are unavoidable, it may be beneficial to provide the individual with a period of ‘demand-free’ time during the day, during which they can rest and recover from the feelings that demands may bring up for them, and may make responding to demands easier later on.

Be creative

Sometimes making demands feel more pleasant by making them more imaginative and fun may help reduce avoidant behavior. For example, getting dressed up in funny or fancy clothes to go out, or making a trip to the grocery store a secret mission to collect treasure. It may also help to align your creative ideas with the demand-avoidant individual’s interests.

Introduce choice often

By providing choices, rather than direct demands, it may help the individual feel as if they have control over their life and their environment, rather than that control being exercised over them.

Use indirect language

Instead of using direct wording such as ‘need to’, ‘have to’, or ‘must’, it may be helpful to try more guided language, such as ‘could we’, ‘what if we’ or ‘how about’.

Strategies for demand-avoidant individuals

Here are some tips people with demand avoidance may like to try, which might make responding to and managing demands easier:

Sensory regulation

Creating an environment in which you feel safe and are not overwhelmed by things in your environment may help to reduce anxiety.

3-minute rule: Trying out a task or activity for just 3 minutes, with the agreement with yourself that you’ll stop after the time is up if you don’t like it or are uncomfortable. Often, people find that after getting started, it’s not as bad as they thought it would be, and can continue.

Automating payments and other possibilities

Using technology to its fullest advantage, to reduce demand burnout. For example, setting up a direct debit to automatically credit your bank account so you don’t have to perform the task of paying bills, or setting up automatic text or email replies. Automate wherever possible!

Clear and direct communication

When feeling overwhelmed or avoidant towards demands, have an open conversation with those making the demands. Being honest about how you’re feeling before it feels unavoidable may help others understand your perspective, and might help you come to a solution together.

Seek support

If you feel overwhelmed as a parent, carer, or individual with demand avoidance, it’s important to seek help. There are support groups available for both parents and guardians, as well as Autistic individuals, that can be found online. You can find a list of them here.

Resources

https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/demand-avoidance

Contributors
Olivia Holland
Medical Writer