Autism and PDA: What can people bring to the workplace?
By Jonathan Andrews, Graduate King’s College London
The autism spectrum is wide and varied – and along it lie several diagnoses few people would have heard of. One of these is PDA, or Pathological Demand Avoidance. Recently recognised as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), people with this condition tend to instinctively respond negatively to any demands, which can be expressed in aggression or anxiety. But it would be a mistake to focus only on the negatives of this condition. People diagnosed with it have often built up coping strategies to mitigate against its negative effects, and the condition itself also brings workplace advantages.
Aside from the general skills autistic people tend to bring to the workplace – high internal motivation and attention to detail, taking fewer sick days off, greater punctuality, viewing the world differently which adds diversity to decision-making and, if they’ve chosen to identify and overcome their weaknesses following a diagnosis, self-awareness, and resilience – people with PDA differ from others with autism in several ways.
This means they can bring more skills to the workplace.
1. People Skills
This might not be the first thing people think of when they consider autism, given the spectrum’s reputation for social difficulty, but many autistic people can and do develop these skills as they gain more life experience and recognise the importance of keeping on good terms with people.
People with PDA though tend to naturally have better social interaction skills, charisma, and expressive verbal ability than others.
They also tend to develop these younger than others with autism, because they want and need to use them to avoid demands by influencing people or situations.
These skills can be turned towards positive outcomes and utilised effectively in the workplace. An ability to learn how to speak to people to get them to do what you want is a vital part of collaboration, and many are very good at instinctively knowing what a person wants and how to deal with them. Moreover, given their childhood desire to avoid demands, many will have learnt more social niceties than others with autism earlier, and know the best way to politely decline requests or to keep options open without immediately committing – skills of great benefit when you need to manage a heavy workload while not closing off future avenues of work. They also tend to be better at superficial interaction and networking.
Again, hardly associated with autism, especially given the popular view of rigidity and obsessive behaviour.
People with PDA are more comfortable with fantasy and role-play than others.
This is often developed during childhood to mentally escape the demands of everyday life – and so find things like adopting a persona to maximise chances in a negotiation, or over the phone to ensure someone gets a task done, easy and enjoyable. They also tend to be more adaptable with people from different backgrounds, and the autistic trait of preferring friendships outside their own peer group is particularly strong here – a valuable skill given the diversity of age and background in most workforces.
3. Team-Leading Ability
As opposed to those with autism who may be less confident managing people, the majority of those with PDA are at ease with taking charge of teams and directing them towards an end goal. This usually stems from a childhood desire to be in control and can go too far, but life experience will often lessen the negatives of this as people learn that managing a team to avoid surprises often involves communication and collaboration.
Even if issues like this (e.g. trying to dictate too forcefully to their team, or ignoring the directions of those senior to them) are observable, they are not too dissimilar to the common millennial/Generation Y attitude of wanting to always be in control and can be dealt with similarly.
But the positives of this character trait – a natural confidence and reliability when seeing projects through to completion while identifying and neutralising all possible risks – are guaranteed to bring great success, both for the individual and the company.
So, while it’s only natural for employers to feel hesitation when they see someone disclosing as having autism or PDA on an application form, it would be disadvantageous to only view these applicants by what they can’t do – or more accurately, what they might find it more difficult to do. People with PDA can also bring these skills, whether innate or developed as coping strategies, to organisations, helping them thrive and grow.
They need to be supported and valued by employers to do so, whether by adjustments or just openness and understanding, but it may well prove to be a very beneficial bargain for both sides.