I know what you’re thinking: “Dyspraxia? Doesn’t that have something to do with dyslexia? Or autism?”
This is a common misconception. While dyspraxia does have links to both of those conditions, it’s best described as a syndrome that prevents messages from being properly transmitted to and from the brain. Many of these chemical messages allow a person to perform commonplace tasks. When such signals are blocked, a person can experience clumsiness, slightly slurred speech, awkwardness in walking, short-term memory loss, and a tendency toward shyness.
Dyspraxia is classified as an “invisible” disability, because it does not manifest itself in a dramatically noticeable way to the casual observer. Nevertheless, someone with dyspraxia may experience a multitude of symptoms, or just a few. Some lesser-known symptoms of dyspraxia include noise sensitivity, poor concentration and difficulty with social situations.
As someone who lives with dyspraxia, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the condition, including theories about its causes, and management of its effects. Until recently, however, I struggled to find many studies that explored how people with the condition actually deal with dyspraxia. It was simply not a condition that was understood in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was growing up.
So how do people deal with dyspraxia on a daily basis? My hope is that this article begins to answer that question by sharing some of my own experiences. I am nearly 30 years old, and live in England, but dyspraxia is universal and knows no age. Anyone, anywhere, can have this condition.
I was first diagnosed as dyspraxic at age 15, and when doctors finally put a name to what I had been feeling, it was as if a light had been switched on inside of me. Suddenly I wasn’t just “clumsy” or “awkward.” Suddenly I understood why I felt a bit “different” from my classmates. I had always been geeky and socially awkward, but had always believed that was just, well, me. Now I understood the bigger picture of dyspraxia.
But how could I have understood my condition if no one had told me about it? Remember, this was back in the day before Broadband Internet, or even Google. Dial-up Internet didn’t tolerate complex search inquiries, so there wasn’t exactly a plethora of material to call upon, even if I had been able to log online.
It wasn’t until I’d laid my hands on a book imaginatively titled Dyspraxia, by Dr. Amanda Kirby, that many of my questions began to be answered. While reading Dyspraxia, I felt as if Kirby had written about me. It was as if she had watched me grow up and had written her book based on my experiences. Something began to coalesce in my mind as I read her words: this is a disability, isn’t it?
Bizarrely, it had never before occurred to me that I was a person with a disability—or a person with any other kind of label. I only wanted to understand my condition so I could deal with it, not be defined by it. As a child, I was terrified at the thought of being labeled as someone with a disability. I often kept my feelings to myself, like guilty secrets. So it was amazing to reach the age of 16 and finally understand there was a name for all of the things I was going through. I became determined to live my life without being hampered by my condition, and that dedication made me even more frustrated by the lack of information that was available.
After reading Dr Kirby’s book, however, I understood for the first time that my severe clumsiness and atrocious handwriting were due to something more than just “lack of effort”. My inability to concentrate when in noisy environments wasn’t just due to me being easily distracted. My social awkwardness was not simply due to me being shy or lazy.
Every so often, I would look at other people my age and wonder, “Why aren’t they as clumsy as I? Why am I tripping over my feet, and my words, every other minute? Why aren’t they?” I used to dread speaking in front of a classroom, because I could never go more than a few sentences without stumbling over a difficult word. Although those circumstances do still happen today, years of working with the public have helped me to curb their worst excesses. I can sometimes go a whole conversation with only a couple of brief stumbles. Trust me, that feeling is bliss!
I was never much interested in sports as a student and, while I enjoy a decent game of football or rugby on TVI’m still not much taken by the prospect of running around a pitch. Even I would be on the floor, hysterical with laughter, at the sight of me trying to maintain a halfdecent run. Thankfully, there were always ways to get out of participating in sports at school, because I had a very understanding sports teacher named Mr Grimes. He made his lessons bearable, and that’s saying a lot.
Today, if you watch me walk down the street, you might well suspect that I’m a bit on the merry side. The truth is, I’m annoyingly unable to coordinate my legs. Unless I really concentrate, I often struggle to walk in a straight line, and often trip over my own feet. The difference between me at age 29 and me at age 16 is that I’ve learned not to care about appearances. I’m never going to be an Olympic runner and the jobs I want to do mostly involve sitting behind a desk. I just wish I had known all of that at 16.
Back then, I was faintly moody, mono-syllabic and rude to my parents—in many ways, a typical teenager. But I was also struggling with something else: trying to understand what was “wrong” with me. I sometimes felt like a stranger, looking at all these unwritten rules and social conventions that I often didn’t quite “get.” To me, people seemed so casual and cool, with their abilities to navigate through the minefield of life, and I often felt left behind. I sometimes felt as if I were on the outside, looking in.
This sense of separation from others was difficult to overcome. I shut myself away for a long time, hating situations in which I knew the presence of lots of people would make me feel awkward and tongue-tied. However, over time, with the help of an extremely patient family—and some exceptional friends—I began to feel confident in myself and able to contribute to conversations. I began to feel at least semi-confident in groups and not entirely afraid to meet new people. Even now, I have moments that make me want to hide away, but they are mercifully few and far between—and people who know me are miraculously patient!
I’m telling you my story not to get you to feel sorry for me, but to help you understand that when someone lives with dyspraxia, all she sometimes needs—and wants— is a little patience and understanding. I can imagine how frustrating it must be for people without dyspraxia to try to make sense of why we’re so clumsy or slow to pick things up (or sometimes just plain forgetful!) or poorly organized. All I ask is that you imagine what it must be like for us!
Even at my adult age, I still get angry with my body when it doesn’t listen to what my brain is trying to tell it, or when I try three times to say a simple word that yesterday I had spoken without so much as a bat of my eyelids. I can also imagine how frustrating it must be for my family and friends to see my condition manifest itself and wonder how it can vary from week-to-week (and often day-to-day) without any apparent effort.
I wish I could describe dyspraxia in a way that would allow it to be fully understood. All I know is, this is the way I am—the way any dyspraxic person is—and even I don’t know until I wake up what I’m going to be like on any given day.
I’ll give you an example. Lately, on Sunday afternoons, some friends and I have gotten into the habit of going down to our local park and kicking a football or rugby around, usually just to practice various manuevers. We’re usually there for a couple of hours, and my progress on the field over the past few weeks has been interesting, to say the least. I can go from passable to terrible and back again in the space of a single session. A kick over the rugby line can go straight as a die, or so far left you’d have to track it with satellite. There’s just no rhyme or reason to my level of ability—my brain knows perfectly well what it wants to do, my foot just refuses to listen to orders. It’s as if my brain is playing a tune, but each part of my body hears a different beat and decides to just go with the flow.
Over time, I have discovered ways to better manage my condition. Although I am not deaf, I am in the process of learning British Sign Language (BSL) to better communicate with some of my deaf friends. It hadn’t occurred to me, when I’d first started my BSL course, how well learning sign language would mediate my dyspraxic side. BSL is all about expressions and emotions. You only have to watch deaf people communicate at a good speed in any sign language to see how emotions fly across their hands, bodies and faces. As a person with dyspraxia, I’ve not always been conscious of facial emotions, and deaf people always seem “switched on” to people’s moods in a heightened way that I admire.
I’m not overly emotive, myself, but I’m not sure whether that’s just my nature or is linked to my dyspraxia. I’m always loathe to blame my condition for everything. As my BSL classes have progressed, I’ve become more aware of my lack of expressive emotion. To be honest, however, it’s not something I often worry about. I’ve become much more empathetic in the last ten years or so, but I don’t give a lot of thought to how I project my emotions. However, if I want to progress in BSL (and I do), then I know I need to become more conscious of my expressions.
It might not occur to you that emotive expression is something that I would need to learn at a conscious level, but that’s simply the truth of dyspraxia—as well as of other, more “traditional,” conditions that are on the higher end of the autistic spectrum. I get by with tone, gestures and some expressions—just to a lesser degree than is commonly considered average. I’m often told I look a bit “fed up,” but that’s only because people just haven’t gotten used to me yet!
By learning BSL, I am acquiring more than just a language. I’m learning the importance people attach to visible emotional states. I’m learning how they can offer reassurance or emphasis to their words. I always knew that different levels of emotions can be manifested physically, but this course is helping me learn how to read those levels in better ways.
My fourth BSL class was a brilliant lesson in all of those elements: the myriad levels of emotion that even someone like me, a person with moderate dyspraxia, can witness or by which we can be confused. Somehow these emotional cues don’t seem too scary or odd once they are broken down into simpler terms. I have to learn more than just the signs—I have to understand the expression behind the signs, as well.
As I said, social awkwardness is definitely a part of dyspraxia, and its severity can be affected by the level of the condition. An understanding of emotions is innate in most people, but it’s something I’ve needed to learn, usually the hard way! I know I’ve sometimes misunderstood a visual “cue,” and these moments created a sharp learning curve during my younger years. I imagine all of us have misunderstood a mood at one time or another, but that was an uncomfortably frequent occurrence for me.
Fortunately, as an adult, I’ve become more conscious of emotions—in others, as well as in myself. Being able to process what I’m feeling, and perhaps able to project that feeling to other people, is a strange concept with which I’m still not entirely comfortable. But my BSL classes are having a bizarre and unexpected impact on me as a person with dyspraxia: they’re actually helping me become more comfortable with facial expressions during conversation.
BSL is a fascinating language, and I love learning it. It’s as rich and complex as any other language. Its swear words (which I learned on YouTube, not from my class) are perhaps even more vivid than their verbal counterparts. Oh, and don’t try tell me you didn’t want to learn the swear words for whatever foreign language you learned at school!
If one message might be taken away from this article, it’s this: don’t be ashamed of who you are. Don’t feel you have to hide your condition or that, by not talking about it, it will somehow go away. Taking that path will just make you feel more isolated and more alone: just how I felt as a child.
Since I’ve begun talking about my dyspraxia and have opened up about how it affects my life, I’ve found so many new ways of dealing with my condition—through my brilliant friends and wonderful family—and I’ve also found confidence within myself.
I am dyspraxic. If you are reading this and you think, “So am I”, please seek out the advice and help that is ready and waiting for you. Treasure your differences and know there are other people who understand what you’re going through. People around you want to help. We’re all individuals, and dyspraxic people bring their own interpretation of the world to the table. Let’s celebrate that!
by Matthew Munson
Dyspraxia USA Foundation