Demand avoidance can be difficult to deal with when trying to impart knowledge and help students. This may appear in the classroom, homeschool, online school, or even unschool.
Demand Avoidance can be found in all neurotypes. The reasons behind the demand-avoidant behavior are what distinguishes PDA from others. Addressing the reasons behind the behavior is the only way to move past it, no matter the neurotype.
Of all the neurotypes discussed in this article, the only one that does not exist in my home is the neurotypical (NT). I have found my own ways of addressing the behaviors and finding solutions that everyone can live with.
What is “Demand Avoidance”?
Simply put, it means to resist doing an activity.
The reason why there is resistance to the activity will vary by situation and neurotype. Understanding demand avoidance in students is important before you attempt to address the avoidant behavior.
Everyday demands may be doing the dishes, getting dressed, going to school or work, doing homework, or any requests from others (external demands) or yourself (internal demands).
External Demands might be society’s expectations like what you wear and how you behave. It may be a spouse’s or parents’ demands like chores.
Internal Demands are things that you impose upon yourself. This might be a goal you have in your personal or professional life or things you want to accomplish, which may be as simple as getting up early or drinking enough water.
Types of Demand Avoidance (and Strategies to Teach)
Everyone is demand-avoidant at some point, but why do you want to avoid daily demands?
The reasons behind demand-avoidant behavior in the classroom are the key to understanding what the students need and what should be addressed. No matter the reasons behind it, it is important to understand that avoidant behavior is a human experience shared by all.
Demand avoidance is a completely normal experience, and neurotypicals also experience it.
Some things that might contribute to demand-avoidant behavior in neurotypical people might include being too tired to complete a task, not having time to do it or other concrete need that hasn’t been met.
Resistance to tasks as a teen testing boundaries and coming into their own can also be completely normal. We aren’t saying that if you see demand avoidance, they must be neurodivergent.
Teaching Neurotypical Demand-Avoidant Students
Encouragement, engagement, and other teaching strategies taught are usually effective. As with all neurotypes, connection, and empathy with the student will usually help as well.
Demand avoidance for someone with ADHD is usually connected to the inability to focus on a task. However, it could also include RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria), where someone is resistant to demand because they are concerned about how it comes off to others.
This may be a little more subtle as well. They may forget to do the task, or the task may feel like it would take too much mental energy they can’t convince themselves to start.
Teaching ADHD Demand-Avoidant Students
People with ADHD, especially inattentive-type ADHD (formerly called ADD), can experience something called “hyperfocus.”
Hyperfocus is when they are interested in something and get excited about learning or doing something. They will usually focus on it and discuss it to the exclusion of other things, even basic needs. It is common for someone experiencing hyperfocus to forget to eat or drink.
You can use this in teaching strategies to engage students by connecting with them and finding what they are interested in, and use that to teach the subject or concept. This may not be the easy way to teach, but it is the most rewarding for the students.
Looking to get an ADHD student on a 504 Plan or IEP? Check out this resource to dig into this topic.
Autistic demand avoidance (minus PDA profile) is usually about sensory input.
Demand avoidance can manifest as behaviors teachers or caregivers (parents) describe as “coming out of nowhere.” But in reality, what has happened is that all the hard things they have been doing all day have added up.
For example, an autistic student may deal with sensory input that people around them overlook. This includes lights, sounds, and tasks that are difficult for them that may not be difficult for others. They have gone through the day keeping themselves calm and avoiding outbursts.
Then when they see another student with an item they would like but are told, “No.” They may lose their ability to keep it all in. The student may scream, hit, kick, or refuse to do anything that is asked of them.
What happened: Sensory input added up and made it impossible for them to handle anything other than what they already did.
Teaching autistic students can present unique challenges; this article has some information that may be helpful.
Teaching Autistic Demand-Avoidant Students
Since you understand that sensory input is the cause of demand-avoidant behavior, you can work with the student to find what is hard for them and work with them to problem-solve some solutions that will work for both teacher and student.
This might be headphones or sunglasses for noise or light sensitivity.
The most important thing to remember is that once the autistic student is escalated, do not try to discuss or reason with them. They are in a place where they only need support. Their system is flooded, and any additional demands will escalate the situation further.
Autistic demand avoidance gets more complicated when PDA is added in.
PDA, or “Pathological Demand Avoidance,” is an autistic profile that is observed to have high levels of demand avoidance, as evidenced by the name. Some people with PDA prefer to call it a “Persistent Drive for Autonomy.” This speaks to how it feels to live with PDA – striving for autonomy and feeling a lack of control over their lives.
Demand Avoidance associated with PDA appears to come out of nowhere, but to the PDAer, it can feel like a “fight or flight” response. Especially a child with PDA may feel like they have no control over their life, and if they are treated like others on the autism spectrum, it will only worsen.
Teaching Demand Avoidant PDA Students
Treating a PDA student like an autistic student will often result in frustration for everyone involved.
Strategies for autistic students include visual schedules, clear expectations, and explicit instruction. While PDA is a profile of autistic expression, if you approach PDA in the same way you approach all autistic students, you will trigger demand-avoidant behavior.
Visual schedules and clear expectations are external demands. Every time they are repeated or looked at makes, it is more likely that the demand-avoidance will rear up.
PDA students are often gifted and/or have ADHD.
The best way to help PDA students is to give them options and allow as much freedom and choice as possible. This can be very difficult within the classroom. However, reassessing how you can provide choice within everything you do and working to address their interests will provide the best results.
I highly recommend checking out the PDA Society for more information about PDA. This is a unique neurotype, and understanding what is going on under the surface is vitally important.
Gifted demand-avoidance usually manifests from repetition after they have mastered a concept, making them prove mastery, or boredom from being taught something they already know.
Gifted students learn concepts faster, and some gifted kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD.
On the other side, many gifted students with another disability (otherwise referred to as twice-exceptional or 2E) may fly below the radar. The gifted side means they can compensate for the other disabilities that make academics difficult. They may present as a typical student on paper, but their potential is not met without help with their disability and giftedness.
Gifted students are usually bored, daydreaming, fidgety, and may ask off-the-wall questions because their brains work quickly.
Teaching Demand Avoidant Gifted Students
The best way to teach gifted students, especially those showing demand avoidance, is to provide additional material.
Identifying gifted students can be difficult, especially the 2E student because the testing in most states is tied to being above the 97th percentile in a specific academic area. However, they are usually loathed to “prove” themselves and struggle to perform on standardized testing meant for typical children.
You may consider using these methods with students that aren’t identified but showing signs of giftedness to help address the demand avoidance in class.
Let these students prove they know the material by providing a pretest or shorter assignment. Then, let them learn about the concept further by reading a book, using an online resource, or other fun and engaging activity.
By allowing gifted students to do something extra and fun, you are keeping them engaged and continuing to learn. If the activity is independent, they are not interrupting the class with demand-avoidant behavior.
Here is some more information on gifted students in public schools.