Amanda Diekman ’05, M.Div.’10 spent most of her life on the outskirts of belonging – a traveler pressing in against the sides but never quite breaking through.
Then, at 38, an unexpected shift: The former Presbyterian pastor discovered she was autistic. Suddenly, everything made sense, she says.
“All the times, all the places, all the ways I believed that it was me that was wrong, and the world that was right,” she says. “[But] I was always exactly who I was supposed to be.”
Diekman’s autism discovery illuminated a new direction in her story. She began retracing her steps. She questioned whether she had made choices for herself – or just to try to fit in.
“The story of neurodivergence writ large is really a story of trauma and pain,” she says. “The sense of feeling different was so key to me that I became a social chameleon. My top priority [as a child] was looking around the room and figuring out what everyone else was doing.”
Raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1980s, Diekman says she didn’t start noticing her difference until adolescence. In middle and high school she excelled in academics but noticed she had a difficult time keeping up with her peers’ social skills.
On the outside, Diekman was unstoppable: Admitted to Duke as an undergrad, she went on to earn a three-year master’s degree at Duke Divinity School, graduating with honors each time. Next came the rigors of ordination to become a Presbyterian pastor and then on to co-pastoring Durham Presbyterian Church.
But almost in parallel to her own autism diagnosis, one of Diekman’s three young children was diagnosed with a lesser-known profile of autism called pathological demand avoidance, or PDA, in which the brain essentially goes into fight-or-flight overdrive. Later, she discovered her other two children were neurodivergent as well.
Life felt beyond difficult, she says, as she held together both how to understand her own new identity and how to best help her children. She pored over research, interviewed psychologists, wrote her way through her personal history, questioned whether a clergy path was her true calling and came up for air with a new decision: She would give up being a preacher.
“That choice really became the springboard for everything that came after,” Diekman says. “I think ‘pastor’ was probably my ultimate mask.”
It wasn’t that Diekman wasn’t deeply invested in her faith. She was. Or that she hadn’t felt called to be a spiritual leader. (She has been called “brilliant” by her clergy peers.)
But the question kept coming back to her: “What is it that I really want to do with my life?”
As Diekman continued to explore her own journey, she saw a new story developing – what she calls a “love story” between her and her children.
She calls that story “low-demand parenting.”
Low-demand parenting is about dropping a parent’s expectations, examining their motivations for control or compliance, and meeting their kids where they are, Diekman says. She took to Instagram to ask parents to just try it: When something is too hard for your child – like changing out of pajamas to go to the grocery store or wearing matching socks – just drop the requirement and see what happens.
“When we match our expectations to another’s true capacity, we communicate understanding, acceptance and validation. We say: ‘You are enough, just as you are,’” Diekman recently wrote to her online community, which has swelled to nearly 13,000 Instagram followers.
Earlier this year, Diekman turned her experience into a book, “Low-Demand Parenting,” published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, the leading publisher of books on autism, and launched online community groups and coaching for parents.
Kendahl Damashek, a mom of four neurodivergent kids in Clinton, New York, found Diekman while scrolling Instagram. She immediately signed up for one of Diekman’s courses, an experience Damashek describes as “transformative.”
There wasn’t any preaching or dogma, Damashek says. There wasn’t any homework or have-tos.
“It was just like an offering,” Damashek says. “See this concept. See how it applies to your life. Try it. Journal about it. It was a method of thinking, not a solution … She’s radically altered the path I’ve taken with my kids.”
And for Diekman, perhaps even something like a new calling has been born.