Tag Archives: Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) Awareness Day: My Life with Possible PDA Traits

Today, May 15, is pathological demand avoidance syndrome (PDA) awarness day. Pathological demand avoidance is a subtype of autism characterized by extreme anxiety, a need to resist everyday demands and a need to be in control. Core features include:


  • Passive early history in the first year, avoiding ordinary demands and missing milestones.

  • Continuing to avoid demands, panic attacks if demands are escalated.

  • Surface sociability, but apparent lack of sense of social identity.

  • Lability of mood and impulsivity.

  • Comfortable in role play and pretending

  • Language delay, seemingly the result of passivity.

  • Obsessive behavior.

  • Neurological signs similar to those seen in autism.

When I first wrote about PDA, I wasn’t so sure I believed in its existence. I recognized and still recognize many features, but the condition isn’t recognized in the Netherlands, so I can never be sure whether I have it. Also, I doubted whether my behavior may be a normal reaction to being in an institutional environment for too long. However, when I read stories from adults with PDA or parents of children with PDA, I recognize a lot. I am going to write about this now.

Pathological demand avoidnance is an autism spectrum disorder that shares traits with oppositional defiant disorder and reactive attachment disorder. However, children with PDA are not willfully naughty. The only rule I routinely broke was the one about not stealing candy. Then again, doesn’t every child do that?

I was a quiet child. However, i could show aggression seemingly out of nowhere. I acted out particularly when my parents or sister wouldn’t do as I said. For example, even as a teen I had no clue when it was not appropriate to demand my parents do something for me and I’d get upset if they refused.

I was an early talker and quite sociable as a young child. For example, I’d shout “Hi!” at everyone we met in the streets. This is expected in the tiny village my husband and I live in now, but it is definitely abnormal in Rotterdam, where I lived as a child. I was comfortable – perhaps too comfortable – in social interactions with strangers. As I grew older, this got worse. This is what got me thinking I might have attachment issues.

I was very comfortalbe in pretend play, but on my own terms. Autistic children don’t tend to engage in pretend play with other children, but I did. I however dominated the play situation. I was always the one who thought out the scernarios we were going to play. I also made the rules of what was “proper” pretend play. For instance, my sister could not say “My doll said ___”, because after all she was acting out her doll.

Most of my life, I’ve been able to hold down a conversation, again as long as it’d go on my own terms. I tend to dominate conversations and make them about topics I want to discuss. When this happened at my diagnostic assessment, my parents said I wanted to make conversation about me all the time. This isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, yesterday a Christian nurse and a patient with his own set of religious beliefs were discussing religion. It wasn’t about me at all and I didn’t make it about me, but as soon as i jumped in, I tried to control the conversation.

The core feature that got me thinking about PDA as applying to me, is however my resistance to ordinary demands. This may be an oppositional behavior too, but in PDA, the need to resist demands is not out of defiance. It seems to be more a core need stemming sometiems from anxiety and sometimes from sensory issues. For example, children and adults with PDA might refuse to brush their teeth when asked, but this is commonly out of sensory defensiveness. They may refuse to do household chores out of anxiety. Interestingly, they may do certain tasks that create anxiety in them when they’re asked to do them by others, when they are on their own. I can do household chores much more easily when I am the one in control or when I’m on my own than when it’s someone else demanding I do them.

Children and adults with PDA are often described as Jekyll and Hyde. They can act perfectly normal as long as they’re in control and their anxiety isn’t provoked. However, when people make demands of them or situations or people don’t follow their rules, they have rapid mood swings. I definitely relate to this and often wonder whether it’s my autism or a borderline personality disorder trait.

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Mood Disorders in Children

Mood disorders in children, especially bipolar disorder and explosive mood disorders (also known as severe mood dysregulation and called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder in DSM-5), are controversial. Many children after all have temper tantrums, hyperactivity, sleep problems, etc., yet do not need a diagnosis. I found a list of fifteen symptoms of childhood bipolar disorder, of which I easily met the required four as a child. However, I never had the classic symptoms of bipolar disorder and do not have bipolar disorder now that I’m an adult. I did have mood disturbances as a child, but these could also be due to my autism and emotion regulation disorder.

Dsiruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) has much stricter criteria than those proposed in the above article for childhood bipolar disorder. In order to be diagnosed with DMDD, a child needs to meet many criteria, including temper outbursts on average at least three times a week over a twelve-month period, persistent irritability most of the day, nearly every day, symptoms occurring in at least two contexts and being severe in at least one (home, school, or with peers), etc. The diagnosis cannot be made in a child under six and should not be made for the first time in adulthood.

The diagnosis of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder cannot co-occur with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), intermittent explosive disorder or bipolar disorder. If a child meets both criteria for DMDD and ODD, only the mood disorder needs to be diagnosed. If a child has ever had a manic or hypomanic episode, only the diagnosis of bipolar disorder must be made. For childhood bipolar disorder, the same criteria for a manic or hypomanic episode apply as for adults, except that the duration may be shorter. According to the accompanying text in DSM-5, rates of conversioon from DMDD to adult bipolar disorder are low. Adults with a history of DMDD are more likley to suffer frm depression or anxiety.

Mood disorders, including DMDD, can however co-occur with other disorders, such as ADHD or autism. ADHD and autism can also mimic a mood disorder. For example, if a child with autism or ADHD won’t stop talking, this shouldn’t be confused with the talkativeness seen in a (hypo)manic episode. However, mood symptoms can also be missed if a child has ADHD or autism, because irritability, temper outbursts, etc. are seen as a normal part of the ADHD or autism.

If a child’s mood disturbances are interfering with their daily functioning, take them to their doctor or psychologist for assessment. It isn’t always necessary to give them additional labels or prescribe them medication. Sometimes, just a change in handling strategy may help. You could’ve noticed this already, but, with a problem child, it’s often helpful to have a professional be your second pair of eyes.