Guest Blogs

“We’re Raising a Cat in a Dog World”

“I’ve used the cat-dog metaphor to describe what it’s like to raise my son, who is gifted, with ADHD and autistic PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). The latter is a term increasingly used to describe autistic children who exhibit extreme resistance to demands and requests, no matter how big or small, even if the demands are of obvious benefit and interest to them.”

One of the most challenging parts of raising a unique child is accurately explaining who he is and how our lives operate to family, friends, teachers, and others. Over time, I have developed this metaphor to help describe our experiences, as well as our different parenting style: Most people have dogs, but I have a cat. My cat is amazing, but most people insist that he is a dog. Which, of course, he just isn’t.

Like most cats, my cat will not follow orders to sit and stay — even when so directed by experts who have successfully trained thousands of dogs to do these things on command.

While people understand and accept that cats don’t do dog things, many continue to insist that my cat is a dog, and that my cat can do dog things. They refuse my explanations to the contrary.

People who think I have a dog may “helpfully suggest” compliance training methods, but I know from experience that most dog methods don’t work on my cat. I see and acknowledge that I have a cat (despite his often looking like a dog to others!). Treating him like a dog who can be compliant only results in significant frustration for all involved. Those who treat my cat like a cat early on end up with far more rewarding relationships.

I’ve learned to limit contact with people who insist I have a dog, and especially those who try to force dog methods on my cat while criticizing my cat methods. What has helped is finding people who have cats themselves and asking them what is effective with their cats. Even though cats have similar traits, it’s important to understand that each cat is unique, and to accept that many things that work well for other cats might not work for yours.

[Get This Free Download: 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance

I’ve used the cat-dog metaphor to describe what it’s like to raise my son, who is gifted with ADHD and autistic PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). The latter is a term increasingly used to describe autistic children who exhibit extreme resistance to demands and requests, no matter how big or small, even if the demands are of obvious benefit and interest to them.

PDA means that, for my son, compliance is impossible. Cooperation, however, is very possible, and far more likely when you relinquish the idea of compliance.

I have accepted that I will never be able to force my child to do anything. Instead, I focus on guiding him toward cooperation. It took years for him to trust that we really weren’t going to try to force him to do things. Now that the trust is established, we treat each other mostly respectfully as equal adults (he’s 12).

We creatively problem-solve for undesirable things that must be done, explaining the logic and science behind solutions. (For example, he hates getting shots, but he cooperates because we explain that they protect him from disease. We have even negotiated a complex shot protocol with several steps, each of which we carefully carry out to his specifications.)

[Related Reading: Why Is My Child So Angry and Defiant? An Overview of Oppositional Defiant Disorder]

Required tasks must be backed by science and logic, and we must give him time to understand and decide to cooperate, even with all the evidence laid out. Sudden demands will nearly always be met with refusal, so we try never to make them. But this is hard, and requires a total change in all thinking about parenting. We try to see ourselves as coaches now rather than parents.

Working with his school to develop and implement a detailed IEP that works for him is difficult, ongoing work. Many school staff remain in denial that children like mine exist, despite the clear evidence in front of them. Sometimes, staff insist on ridiculously inappropriate methods that always fail, leaving them baffled, but still unwilling to try other methods.

A rare handful of the best educators have recognized that we, as parents, know our child best and have actually implemented proven “cat” methods with positive, rewarding results. Still others identify my son as a unicorn — a mythical animal never before seen — and recognize that he does, indeed, exist and need different things for his survival.

I’m deeply grateful for the online groups of parents and adult “cats” that have helped us figure out what kind of a cat we have and how to treat him properly.

Cats simply can’t be trained as if they were dogs. Kids and adults with PDA are cats in a dog world. Still, the vast majority are instead treated “normally” — which can lead to serious consequences. Many parents of children with PDA endure years of parenting classes and professionals’ disbelief about what they’re actually facing. The handful who get an early diagnosis, proper treatment, and accurate guidance (which involves changing the environment and interactions with all people) have the chance at a successful life.

What metaphors help you explain your life to others?

Pathological Demand Avoidance: Next Steps


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