Written in May 2023
One of my current deep-dives is PDA. It's part of the broader passion I have for neurodiversity and neurodivergency, and the passion I have for understanding how my brain and I work. I'm finding Sally Cat's PDA Page to be an excellent resource with infographics that make PDA more understandable. I'm sure at some point I'll go digging for studies, but a cursory search reveals that PDA is an acronym for more than one thing... And it may be the case that PDA isn't mentioned in clinical literature yet. Autistic burnout is a thing that the community knows about, but there's only one (to my knowledge) paper on it.
RSD is another acronym you'll see in the neurodivergent world. It stands for Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, and it is an extreme experience of the fear of rejection that many people can identify with regardless of neurology. It is this apparent commonality of experience that makes wider society dismiss RSD as a problem, because to most people, it's something they can “get over”. For people with RSD in their neuroflavour (I'm using that word instead of profile as it's a bit less clinical) it isn't a case of “suck it up, deal with it”, it's an aspect that can trigger trauma responses to certain situations and be disabling when it affects someone's ability to participate in daily activities and passions.
Both PDA and RSD come with a huge capacity for overthinking, a capacity for negative, often catastrophising self-talk. They play off each other, the RSD feeding the PDA with thoughts of messing up, of being made fun of, and of having to deal with potentially being the subject of attention (being the subject of attention, even positive, can be a huge trigger for autistic people).
We don't have to experience the demands or the rejection in “real life”, because perceived demands and rejection are just as damaging and difficult to cope with. This makes it really hard to do tasks or participate even in things we want to do, because we have to feel strong enough to deal with the potential for rejection or ridicule. We have to feel able to cope with any attention on us, and when we've had negative experiences in the past these give the PDA and/or the RSD hard evidence that they're right. When they're armed with evidence, the struggle becomes even harder.
Looking for work, interviewing and getting/retaining employment can be an insurmountable struggle with one or both of these neuroflavours. The application process alone involves a constant stream of PDA triggers. While I can usually cope with forms and letter writing, this isn't a skill that comes easily to many neurodivergent people for a range of reasons, but “the application process for jobs is not ND friendly” is hardly a ground-breaking insight to make. What does trigger me is having to fill in a form, only to be asked to attach a CV at the end of the process. A CV which contains all the information I have just spent time filling in.
Once the application is in, the negative self-talk starts up, and the demands start to show themselves. Suddenly the job that you thought you might be able to do seems a lot more demanding than when you applied, and you worry that they'll laugh at something on your application. You dread getting an interview and being rejected in the same thought, and start to spiral.
If you get the interview then the RSD will tell you there's no point going, because you won't get the job and you'll probably make a fool of yourself somehow. You might even decide they've only asked you in to see how useless you really are, and for their entertainment. The PDA will stop you preparing for it, will make choosing what to wear the most unbearable, anger-inducing process, and will make you feel like your time is being wasted if you go. Then the RSD and the PDA team up on you, and the end result is that employment becomes a triggering subject which you'd likely get a PTSD diagnosis for if you were to pursue it.
Being told “you're overthinking” or “that probably won't happen” might be well intentioned, and perhaps objectively true, but the subjective experience of RSD and/or PDA is very real for us, and those feelings are valid. What we need when these things flare up is validation, understanding and support. Dismissing our difficult feelings is invalidating, it's rejecting, and that further triggers the RSD. This can, in turn, lead to us shutting people out and not seeking or getting support because we end up feeling worse when we do, because we're told our feelings are wrong or not important.
This is certainly an experience I have had, and it has led to me pretty much only talking to my counsellor about a lot of things because she validates me and gives me space to explore how I feel, and talk through those issues, putting me back in control against the twin-terror of RSD and PDA. I'm being very careful not to let this become part of my Self as I work out what that looks like, because I don't want to end up in a situation where I am unable to speak openly about some of my challenges and seek help, or give the impression that I am fine and dandy when I'm really not. That has certainly been a challenge for me in the past, and it's still a bit of a sticking point now, the solution being to only talk to certain people.
The validation and encouragement I get from select people is the most useful tool in the fight against RSD and PDA. It enables me to see the truth, to see how people who know me well view the situation, and they show me this without pressure. Rather than telling me I'm wrong, or overthinking or that “everyone feels this way” (which reads as “your feelings aren't important because other people have the same experience”), they show me the positives so I can process them myself. Even though the combination of PDA and RSD still leaves me with a lot of stressful internal states to navigate, when I can see the good experiences, the positive aspects and outcomes of similar situations so I can internalise this for balance, I can show the PDA and RSD parts of me that they don't get the last word.