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Sidequests: ADHD, Autism, & PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance).

I’m a huge gamer. I just love all kinds of video games. Ironically, the side quests in games often

annoy me but in real life, I’m a Sidequest extraordinaire.

A Sidequest is a smaller story/quest that pops up along the main storyline. For some gamers, it’s a nice bit of variety, a break from the frustration of being stuck on a level, or just additional content to play.

In the real world, the focus is mostly on the main storyline. You have the partner, kids, bills, work, social activity, and home. All of those things are filled with demands and expectations. The goal is to be productive and focus on the “important” things in life. You don’t often see adults splashing around in puddles, flying a kite at noon on a weekday, off catching butterflies, or sitting on a curb in the sun eating a popsicle even though it could likely be very regulating. Our focus is instead on the important stuff, not the silly curiosities of our childhood. How many adults do you see building Lego sets or jumping on a trampoline when there isn’t a child involved?

The blog I’ve been procrastinating writing since the first day of October is a good example of a main storyline. It’s a demand. I have notifications from my website reminding me to write it. I have noticed indicating how other sites like mine produce more blogs per month than I do. I have written many blogs and started a good number of others. I could easily go in and edit one I’ve written or complete one I’ve started. The avoidance isn’t related to ability, interest, or having something to say (content). The issue is my ADHD and PDA autism profile.

I like to think of my profile as an “all conditions must be right” profile. I have always been able to produce at a high rate of quality and efficiency under the right circumstances. I could write a 25 page research paper in a couple hours. I could create an entire clinical program and proposal in a day and be ready to present on it to the CEO the next day without a hint of difficulty. However, in order for me to produce at that level, all conditions must be right.

So what are the right conditions? First, I have to be regulated. Being regulated for me involves having the capacity to focus. It is common for ADHD’r’s and autistic people to be capable of hyper focusing on a singular interest or task. This can only happen if we aren’t depleted physically, exhausted emotionally, or experiencing sensory overwhelm. In my case, If I have too many demands, I cannot move into a focused task.

Our neurology is akin to a computer processor. We absorb so much more information from the world around us. We have the ability to see complex patterns and relationships, calculate probability/outcomes with increased accuracy, and absorb even the most subtle of sensory information, often unnoticed by others. Add the amount of work our brains do to be able to match or meet our neurotypical peers socially and our capacity dwindles.

This is why we are often mischaracterized as lazy, unmotivated, or inefficient. If this reminds you of your experience, I highly recommend reading, “Laziness Does Not Exist” by Devon Price, Ph.D. The book unravels the myth of laziness.

Many of us have a hard time starting or stopping tasks. We employ all kinds of skills to help us be more productive in the eyes of the outside world however, we are very productive in many other ways or when the right circumstances are present. We make checklists, set reminders, or place things strategically where we will see them and act. There are many methods people create to get things done.

When those things fail to work, what then? Well, then we have to look at things a little more closely. What is our baseline capacity and what is the environmental design of our setting? These questions matter because they force us to reflect on what else is affecting our capacity.

If I’ve had an uncomfortable or unpleasant social event, my focus is off. Processing and preparing for social situations is capacity reducing. For instance, having multiple engagements in a day is extremely taxing. I can do it if I have enough down time between but I usually do not like to do more than one social engagement in a day. If the space around me is cluttered, I have trouble starting a task. Sometimes, I ask for support by doing a task together with someone. For me, it can be an ignition of focus to just have a sense that I don’t have to do it all, even if I am very capable. Likely, after initiating a task, I’ll just kick into drive and the second person can retreat. It’s sometimes just the getting going that needs a nudge. Once I’m in the drivers seat, it’s off to the races.

On occasion, I’ll set things out with the tools needed as a step and then I might move the items to an area/space I can work in. I might then try to create the setting for work by adjusting the area to meet my sensory needs. All of these steps in an effort to help facilitate starting.

Stopping is even harder than starting, for me. It’s like a train, once it leaves the station, there is no turning back.

Capacity is a tricky thing to manage, as there are quite a large number of things that impact capacity such as mental health challenges, trauma, daily demands, and physical health. Chronic illness and autistic burnout both caused my capacity to become much lower. When capacity is low, it can be improved or strengthened by taking actions that create more balance. I can share more about that in a future post.

Let me just say, I don’t consider ADHD or Autism to be mental health challenges. They are neurological differences, not disorders. However, the challenges of living in a society that emphasizes and neurotypical brains can cause mental health challenges.

I had a post-it note with my to do’s this week. I had 4 very important to do’s, one of which was a blog. I knew all four of these tasks were going to require a lot of internal support to complete because they were high demand items. After completing the first three and crossing them off, the last item remained. I looked at the bright pink post-it for days. Each time, catching my eye, it became a high demand chant, almost threatening. By the end of the week when I still had not written the blog, I walked over to the post it and crumpled it in my hand. In defiance, I tossed it in the trash. I was thinking, “I’ll not let you make me feel like I failed!”

One of the things I do, with varying success rates, is to simply state my intention out loud but without demand. So I said, “the blog needs to be written and it probably will be this weekend but if it does not, I won’t force it. I’ll do it when the circumstances are right.” Sometimes just giving yourself permission opens the door to motivation and lowers the demand. Like, “I need to call the dentist and it would be nice if I felt like doing that this week.” I try to lessen the demand if the earth won’t fall apart as the result of my not doing x or y on a timeline that isn’t capacity friendly. There are many things we cannot lower the demand of, like parenting, making food, completing tasks demanded at work. There’s a difference between the sink faucet dripping and a burst pipe. It can lessen the stress of demand to think about how to structure them in a way that honors your well-being and self care. I’m not encouraging anyone to avoid or procrastinate but rather have compassion for yourself and attend to your needs with realistic expectations. Stress is the enemy of all humans. It can impact your physical and mental health in very consequential ways.

Since I have been working to create a low demand lifestyle, I do notice positive effects physically and mentally. I notice I am happier. I notice that I’m engaging in more of the things that bring me joy and am more productive when I need to be as a result.

I read a tweet a few months ago where a woman was telling her husband how guilty she felt for not accomplishing an important item on her "to do" on list. He replied, “yeah, but how many side quests did you complete?” This resonated so much for me and my partner, who is also ADHD.

I used to operate with tremendous pressure on myself to produce at a level that was not congruent with my regulatory system or neurology. I’d do what was expected regardless of the cost. That was a burned out body and brain in the making. I was even responsible for placing high demands on myself, following rigid rules I set to fit in neurotypical systems. In my case, it made me sick. Now, I work really hard to check in with my body, assess my needs vs what is needed externally, and approach life with a focus on wellness as the number one priority.

Neurodivergent brains need more transition time, rest, and lower demands. As the research shows, 85% of college educated autistic adults are unemployed yet employed autistic adults are 140% more productive and efficient than their peers. What does this information suggest? It suggests that neurological differences are important. Research also suggests that the need for rest increases as neurodivergent adults age. The social and workplace/school demands on ADHD and autistic people are often not congruent with our needs or wellness. This has led a great number of talented and creative people to seek non traditional jobs, alternative income sources, remain with family for support, or seek self employment. The result is a lot of displaced and underutilized talent.

The underrated side quests should not be discounted. After all, we can accomplish more than our peers can in a particular time frame, it just may not be what is expected or prioritized by others. Instead of calling the dentist for the appointment, you mowed the lawn, listened to three podcasts, cleaned the junk drawer, and sorted your closet. No, you didn’t do the one thing you had to do today but you did so many other things that require a lot of effort. Is that a failure? I don’t think so. The things that are low or no demand are so much easier to do but I’d argue that they are not unimportant.

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