Pathological Demand Avoidance: Christmas Edition

I mostly enjoy being autistic. I appreciate the quirks in how I perceive the world, even though I often feel out of step with the people around me, and moreso during the Christmas season.

There is one aspect of my autistic experience that I could do without and that’s Pathological Demand Avoidance. Also known as Persistent Desire for Autonomy, PDA isn’t something that every autistic or neurodiverse person has. Like everything else, it exists on a spectrum and some autistic people may have more or fewer symptoms of PDA depending on the day or situation.

PDA is described as a set of personality traits that lead someone to generally refuse to cooperate with other people’s requests. This description is a gross simplification, because for many people with PDA, it’s not that there’s pleasure in simply refusing to comply. There can be overwhelming feelings of panic, anxiety and frustration at feeling like we’re not in control of our choices or what’s happening to us.

I am capable of following rules, sometimes without any internal strife. If I understand why a rule is in place and agree with its reasoning, then I will follow it for as long as I need to. As soon as I start to see that a rule isn’t in line with its stated purpose however, I’ll become defiant and obstinate because why should I do something that doesn’t make sense to me?

My PDA isn’t just triggered by rules; expectations in general, such as schedules or socal conventions are also minefields.

Of these, Christmas is among the worst. The five week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas represents so many demands, it can be truly miserable.

First and foremost is the demand to be happy. It’s the hap-happiest season of all, right? Everyone should be merry, jolly and bright. But what if I don’t want to be happy? The pressure to perform happiness and cheer is high, and frankly, I’d like to decide my mood for myself.

Next are the demands for communication. There are Christmas cards to write, phone calls to make, lists to share and receive, and parties to attend. It’s exhausting, and I feel a constant level of anxiety about whether I’m doing any of it right.

There are also material demands. I have to go shopping (one of my least favorite things) and make choices about what to get for people. Is this item something that my brother or mother-in-law or whoever will like? Do they need it? Is it an appropriate amount of money to spend? Have I gotten too many gifts, or not enough? What do I want for Christmas? Is it appropriate to ask for?

Each of these choices presents its own set of demands, and it’s genuinely distressing to feel like I don’t get to deal with these demands on my own timeline. Decisions have to be made, whether I like it or not.

It’s exhausting, and I cry frequently during the holidays out of sheer frustration.

The worst part though, is I hate feeling this way. There’s a part of me that really wants to soften into the cheer of the holidays. I want to feel the excitement and joy that everyone around me is feeling. But then, I have the internal conflict over whether or not I actually want to be happy or if I’m feeling peer pressure to be happy. Does it make a difference? Unfortunately, yes it does.

At best, I’m able to hold all these feelings together: anxiety and frustration at all the demands and expectations, along with happiness at seeing family and being part of the celebration, and a large dose of compassion for myself for the struggle it all is.

To my fellow demand-averse neurodivergents, I hope you have the best possible holiday. May your demands be manageable and your happiness be of your own choosing.

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