What is demand avoidance?
Everyone experiences ‘demand avoidance’ (resistance to doing something that is requested or expected of you) sometimes. However, here we use demand avoidance to mean the characteristic of a persistent and marked resistance to ‘the demands of everyday life’, which may include essential demands such as eating and sleeping as well as expected demands such as going to school or work.
Although demand avoidance is widely acknowledged as a characteristic experienced by and observed in some autistic people and potentially other neurodivergent, but not autistic, people, there is very little research into it and the research that does exist is generally of a low quality.
Because of this, many aspects of demand avoidance – including how it is best defined and identified; how common it is; why it happens; and support strategies for someone experiencing it – are under-researched and often contested.
Types of demand
Below are some examples of the ‘demands of everyday life’ that a person experiencing demand avoidance may resist (note that the demand does not need to be something unpleasant to trigger distress):
- a direct demand (an instruction, such as ‘brush your teeth’, ‘put your coat on’ or ‘complete your tax return’)
- an internal demand (for example willing yourself to do something, or bodily needs such as hunger or needing the toilet)
- an indirect or implied demand (including any expectation, such as a question that requires an answer, food in front of you that you are expected to eat, or a bill arriving that needs to be paid).
Forms of resistance
Noted forms of resistance include:
- giving excuses (which may be fanciful – for example, ‘I can’t because I am a tractor and tractors don’t have hands’ or ‘I can’t because my legs are broken’ (though they aren’t))
- Distraction or diversion (such as giving affection or compliments; changing the subject; making noise that makes further discussion difficult; or creating a situation that needs more immediate attention, for example, by knocking something over)
- point blank refusal (saying “No” and not entering into negotiation; physically resisting)
- passivity/withdrawal (becoming floppy; curling up into a ball; not responding; walking/running away; withdrawing into fantasy)
- aggression (usually as a last resort, when other forms of resistance have failed. For example, pushing someone or throwing something away; hitting or kicking; biting. Aggression may be a form of resistance, but it may also be a panic response to overwhelming anxiety.)
The overwhelming anxiety of realising that a demand cannot be avoided, or that these forms of resistance have been exhausted, may result in meltdown or panic, potentially including aggression. These states are usually out of the person’s control.
Evidence suggests that demand avoidance can impact those experiencing it in a variety of ways, including:
- difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep and getting up
- short and long-term effects from anxiety and associated symptoms
- difficulty with self-care tasks such as personal hygiene, eating and household chores
- experiencing panic attacks, intense emotional distress and/or difficulty regulating emotion
- difficulties in friendships or other social relationships
- inability to attend education or employment due to distress and/or burnout, which may result in exclusion or termination.
Impact on parents and carers
The parents/carers of people experiencing demand avoidance may experience impacts including:
- distress from witnessing their child / the person they are caring for in extreme distress
- challenges and exhaustion from trying to find effective ways to reduce, disguise or remove demands and support the person
- stress and frustration from trying to access or implement appropriate support in areas such as diagnosis, education, mental health and social care.
It is important that people experiencing persistent and marked demand avoidance are recognised and supported using strategies and approaches personalised to their specific strengths and needs. Research suggests that the understanding and acceptance of demand avoidant behaviour is fundamental to accessing the right support.
There is limited research on support strategies; however, general advice from personal accounts and professional resources includes:
- reducing and/or removing demands, where at all possible
- a collaborative approach that flattens hierarchies (for example, between parent and child or manager and employee) to work with them rather than ordering them around
- indirect communication styles (not making demands directly)
- avoid potential stressors such as eye contact, touch and confrontational postures/physical stances
- remove any spectators to a distressing situation (by asking people to give the distressed person space or by moving the person to a quiet space if possible)
- a coordinated approach to support, with the person, family and professionals (i.e., from education, social care, healthcare, etc) involved.
- Sources suggests people experiencing demand avoidance may benefit from:
- identifying and understanding their demand avoidance (and its triggers)
- managing, reducing and disguising demands
- sensory regulation and creating a sensory environment that works for them
- therapy, counselling, mindfulness and meditation.