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6 Areas I Practice Low Demand Living

What is Low Demand?

I came to the concept of Low Demand Living

through Low Demand Parenting.


Low Demand Parenting is the idea that we can lower the demands we make on our children, such that whenever possible we are not asking more of them than their nervous systems can handle. This approach can be helpful for all children, but especially for kids with extra sensitive perceptions of threat like PDAers. (Follow my friend, the brilliant Amanda Diekman for lots more on Low Demand.)


Low Demand is a deep practice, influenced by many streams of thought, including Nonviolent Communication and Polyvagal Theory. As Amanda teaches, in a low demand parenting approach we slow down and identify the need underneath the demand we are making on our children. If the demand is too hard for them, we drop the demand and get creative about how we can meet our actual need without asking anything of our children that puts them into distress.


For instance, the first demand I dropped was forcing my child to wash his hands after school. The demand put him into a fight response and got our afternoon off to a terrible start. The need I was trying to meet was health, but the expectation that my child wash his hands was too hard for him. So I dropped the demand and got creative about how to meet my need. I kept sanitizer in the car and found that most days he could tolerate a sanitizer spray after school. I washed my hands a little extra. None of us got sick any more often than we were, and our afternoons were no longer starting with a battle.


Low Demand Parenting was transformational for our whole family. Inspired by the Autistic community and Low Demand Parenting, I now practice Low Demand Living. Whenever possible I meet my and my family’s needs without asking more than my nervous system can handle. Low Demand Living is radical. It’s another way I frame accommodating my own disability. In essence, I am prioritizing my Autistic sense of safety and wellbeing, even when my choices fly in the face of societal expectations of what “good” and “right” look like.


Here are six areas where I practice Low Demand Living:


EATING:

For years I’ve wished I could take a pill every day that would fill by belly. Occasionally I do enjoy eating, but in general it is a demand that has triggered my threat response for as long as I can remember. I struggle with my threat response firing off at the demand to eat, the sensory assault of social eating, the discomfort of unfamiliar textures and tastes, and my sensitive digestive system. Here’s how I practice low demand around food:


  • I dropped the demand on myself to socially eat, ever. Yes, we dropped family dinners. We do family time in other ways. It’s been great for all three of us - me, my husband, and my PDA Autistic child.

  • I eat in front of Netflix or a book, so I can feel my hunger, eat enough, not choke, and not get a bellyache.

  • If I go to a social event, I usually eat before or after.

  • I eat my safe foods. No pressure to be adventurous. I keep my safe foods in the house and travel with them. When stressed, I ask myself “What CAN I eat?” and remove pressure to eat healthily.

  • My husband does all the grocery shopping.

  • I joyfully serve my child his safe foods, which is great for him and makes food prep easier for me.

  • I dropped regular meal times, and eat when is natural to my body which is often: 10pm, 11am, 4pm, and 10pm.


CLOTHES/LAUNDRY

Clothes have always been a struggle for me, but to do low demand well I had to understand why they are a struggle. Here’s what I realized: I’m sensitive to textures and anything too tight. Certain patterns and colors bother me. I hate the sensory overwhelm of clothing stores, and the overwhelming choices online. I get triggered by thinking about the labor and environmental cost that go into manufacturing clothes. I like doing laundry but the act of opening a drawer to put clothes away fills me with a dread only another PDAer could understand. Here’s what I do to lower my stress and threat response around clothing.

  • I keep clothes for a long time.

  • When I do need new clothes, I shop at companies I’m familiar with and buy lots of the same article of clothing. If I am feeling relaxed I go thrifting

  • I wear soft, stretchy, comfy clothes.

  • For home days, I wear an extra shirt instead of a bra.

  • When I needed some nice work clothes, I signed up for StitchFix deliveries to avoid the demand of choosing clothes from an overwhelming array of options.

  • I only fold laundry when it’s pleasurable. Otherwise, clothes go in piles.

  • I got rid of my and my child’s drawers. We have bins, and I toss clothes into the bins. This makes it easier for him to pick out his own clothes, too, since he can skip the step of opening a drawer.

  • I leave piles of worn clothes on my floor when I don’t have the mental energy to put them in the laundry basket or my bins. I clean the floor of my room of clothes once or twice a week. No shame, just ease.


SHOPPING:

Buying consumer goods triggers me. In addition to the sensory assault of most stores, I perceive a loss of control because I have to buy certain things in order to live, yet I know a lot about the terrible environmental/labor impact of manufacturing and agriculture. I believe some PDAers are very sensitive to injustice and the world not being aligned with our values. So, for decades I tried to equalize with the economy (get control back) by strictly controlling what things I allowed myself to buy. This was exhausting. Learning about PDA helped me identify this as an equalizing behavior, and not a strategic form of social activism. This alone lowered my threat response. To further lower it...


  • I delegate most purchasing to my husband, both in stores and online. When he travels for work, I ask for help from friends and neighbors, and set up more automatic deliveries.

  • If I do need to shop in person, I try to go to a familiar store where I don’t need to hunt for things. I ask for help from store clerks often. I put brown noise in my ears and wear sunglasses.

  • I try to connect the act of shopping to a something I value. For instance, I hate that I have to buy disposable consumer goods like batteries or paper or toiletries because of the environmental impact, but I value that other human beings have access to what they need to live. Remembering this can lower the threat response in my body.

 

SLEEPING:

I don’t experience demand avoidance around sleep. But I do have a lot of sensory and regulation challenges that can make it difficult to fall asleep. Before knowing I was Autistic, I felt ashamed by how many aides I needed to fall asleep, so, I tried to train myself to sleep with fewer of them. This was making an unreasonable demand on myself.

  • Now that I know I’m Autistic and PDA, I dropped the demand to sleep in a way that I judged as "normal." I am grateful for access to sleep cues that help me.

  • My bedtime routine includes sleeping meds, a hot shower or time in a therapy swing, then in bed under two weighted blankets, with blackening curtains, white noise, an eye pillow, and sometimes vibrating stims in both my hands or on my chest. I do not travel much, as you can imagine. 30Ibs of weighted blanket makes for a heavy suitcase.

  • I finally dropped the demand to have a typical circadian rhythm. My husband and I arranged our work lives so that I can be in bed 11pm-9am most days. I finally don’t feel shame about how hard it is for me to wake before 9am. It just is. It likely always will be. This was brutal when our child was younger. It has gotten much easier now that he is older and out of burn out.


SOCIAL EVENTS

I used to push myself to do all kinds of socializing. As a child I went to parties, sleepovers, or movies that overwhelmed me. As an adult I went to potlucks, religious services and social halls, large family gatherings, and group outings to restaurants. What was always hard for me to understand is that I looked forward to these social events. I liked being part of community, and chatting with friends and family. But afterwards, and sometimes during, I felt jittery and breathless. As I got older and my nervous system accumulated years of stress, it could take hours or even days to recover from a social event.


Now I understand that as a PDA Autistic, I need to care for my vulnerable nervous system the way I care for my injured right hip. The limits are sometimes hard or sad for me, but they are real. Ignoring them “inflames” my nervous system and hurts me in the short and long term.


Here’s what a low demand approach to social events looks like for me:

  • I say no thank you a lot.

  • If I’m not going but want to connect with a friend who will be there, I text or call them.

  • If I do go to an event that will be a lot for my nervous system, I clear the day before and after as best I can to rest up and rest afterwards.

  • I take my beta blockers.

  • I bring sunglasses and ear plugs.

  • I bring a comforting fidget toy. I consider my presence to be enough. I don’t pressure myself to make conversation. If I do talk with someone, I ask us to talk in a quiet place.


TALKING

Understanding my relationship to spoken language has been the single most surprising discovery of this entire Autistic PDA journey.

I’ve talked a blue streak since childhood, often dominating conversations, info dumping, raising my hand in class a lot, you name it. Once, my little sister playfully taped my mouth shut before dinner in the hopes she could get a word in edgewise.


Imagine my surprise when my PDA therapist suggested that the intense jittery heart-palpitating sensation that was a near constant in my life might be... a nervous system threat response to the internal or external demand to speak.

I checked her hypothesis by experimenting with... talking less. And she was right. When I stayed quieter, the jitters didn’t happen. When I spoke too excitedly or for too long, or tried to navigate a back-and-forth conversation, the sensation came up immediately. I reflected that it had been happening for my whole life because I can remember the jittery feeling from when I was a little girl. I also knew it had gotten more intense the older I got, likely from accumulated nervous system stress. I started to track the sensation more consciously, and noticed it especially happened when I was asked a direct question... a very classic example of something PDAers experience as a threat that most people would not experience as threatening.


No one, and I mean no one, would have thought that I had trouble with spoken language as a child. I spoke eloquently and clearly from a very young age – one of the “hyperlexic” Autistic kids. No one could tell - and I would likely not have been able to articulate - that speaking so much was actually contributing to my anxiety and dysregulation. In fact, I think I used to use it (in vain) to try to regulate my nerves. I needed sensory accommodations to help me regulate more healthily, and communication accommodations to help me rely less on speaking.


Now, at age 41, I am finally learning what I need. Here is how I do low demand living when it comes to talking:

  • I budget my conversations. I usually cannot have more than ~90 minutes of conversation spread over a day without feeling terrible for days afterwards. This includes conversations by phone or Zoom. I am lucky that I can usually speak to my husband and son without counting towards this. If someone calls and I am over my conversation tolerance for the day, or if I know I need to “save up” for a conversation later, I ask to talk by text. I have some conversations over asynchronous voice memo. This removes the stress of tracking the back-and-forth element of conversation. I speak less than I used to. Turns out my sister was onto something when she taped my mouth shut:)

  • If I am talking about something stressful, I will sometimes ask to move the conversation to text so that I can concentrate on the content without needing to also regulate my speaking.

  • If it is not important to have the interpersonal connection that can happen by Zoom, I ask to conduct professional interactions over email.

  • If I am speaking with my husband or a friend in person, I often sit under a weighted blanket, and use fidgets, or cuddle.

  • Taking a beta blocker daily has really helped me. Just a month ago I was burnt out to the point where any social interaction was setting me into the jittery feeling. Now I get a grace period before it sets in.


You’ll notice that technology plays a big role in these low demand practices. I now think of my smart phone as an AAC device. “Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) describes multiple ways to communicate that can supplement or compensate (either temporarily or permanently) for the impairment and disability patterns of individuals with severe expressive communication disorders.” - asha.org.


Most people are familiar with AAC as an accommodation for people for people who can’t speak with their mouths. But AAC can be helpful for someone like me who can speak, but may go selectively mute or simply need a break from spoken language sometimes.


Do you want support thinking through what Low Demand Living could look like for you? Book a coaching session with me.

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