Dyspraxia deserves to be better known; it’s so often overlooked as something that seriously affects people in so many different ways. Anyone who reads my blog regularly, or follows my great pal Barbara and I via the Two Dyspraxics’ website or on Facebook, will know that I’m dyspraxic, and will hopefully know at least a little about the condition.
It affects different people in different ways, and it’s hard to quantify it in a single measurement. It affects more men than women, but no-one yet understands why that is – it could just be due to under-reporting in women, or there might actually be a genetic component. Frankly, no-one knows, and I’m not going to dwell on that; it’s not the purpose of this blog – I’m rather keen to talk about something else.
Dyspraxia is a spectrum; a range of related conditions that differ in intensity between one dyspraxic and the next. Barbara and I are two perfect examples of that; we both have the same condition (thank heavens, otherwise calling ourselves The Two Dyspraxics would be rather awkward), but experience it in very different ways. Barbara can speak for herself in respect of her own experiences, but I know that I have issues where she doesn’t, and perhaps vice versa.
For me, my dyspraxia falls into a few main areas;
Speech. I have verbal dyspraxia as part of the overall package – a gift that keeps on giving, which is incredibly generous. I had two batches of speech therapy when I was younger; the first time was to deal with my inability to pronounce certain letters, and the second time was to deal with the fact I had a problem dealing with particular sounds. Even now, twenty years on, I still have a residual lisp, and am sometimes conscious of how I pronounce words with “th” thrown in. Incidentally, have you ever considered the cruelty of having to attend a speech therapist when you have difficulties pronouncing “s” and “th” sounds? I hadn’t until I had to pronounce “speech therapist” for the first time. Very cruel and unusual.
So language was always an issue for me, as was – is – my presentation style. Whenever I get passionate and enthusiastic about a topic, I have a tendency to speed up, talking rather more rapidly than I should do. I accept that’s a failing of mine, and I have got better; that was another thing my speech therapist did for me was to help me recognise when I was talking fast and how to tackle it, but that’s proved rather more difficult than I imagined to get entirely under control.
I remember giving a talk at a primary school a couple of years ago, and one of the students asking me if I was tongue-tied; not because I stuttered over any of my words, but because my tongue is indeed not able to extend very far, and if you listen closely to anyone with a similar length, it will help define their speaking style, in the same way that someone with a longer tongue will be able to speak in a different manner. It’s a fascinating topic, and I genuinely wish – looking back – I’d gone and studied linguistics in a lot more detail, as I consider myself a fan of the topic on a very amateur level. I admire the pupil for asking me a direct question; he didn’t have the same issue as me, so I wondered why he asked – whether he was just interested, or whether he was actually just interested at the differences between us. Whichever it was, I appreciated him asking, and I so often wish that more people have the courage to ask whatever was on their minds, as it would liberate them from pointless, endless speculation and debate.
I digress again.
So there is the verbal language side of my dyspraxia – one of the most obvious symptoms of it with me. The other most visible sign, and the one most commonly associated with dyspraxia, is motor skills. With dyspraxics, we are less likely to have exacting muscle tone, either at the gross or fine level; big movements, such as catching a ball, or smaller and more precise movements, such as using a pen. I use both of those examples because they’re absolutely representative of what I can and can’t do. I can’t catch a ball – my hand-eye coordination is completely off – and I struggle to hand-write more than a couple of words without cramp and the words deteriorating into a messy pulp of ink and paper. It certainly doesn’t help that I write with my left hand either, but that’s another story; all left-handers have experienced that annoyance to a lesser or greater degree, especially if they have ever used a fountain pen, but for dyspraxics, it’s another level up from that. The pain from having to hold a pen in any kind of pressured way – ie exerting any sort of pressure on it – can be difficult to manage for any length of time; for short periods, it’s manageable, but not for long, and the handwriting … well, I certainly wouldn’t have been a writer before the invention of laptop computers, but I might have made a very good career out of being a doctor writing prescriptions.
That physical coordination factor is something very noticeable about dyspraxia should actually be a benefit; most dypraxics have a form of physical non-coordination, so it’s useful to be able to have a tell-tale “sign” that we can use when trying to figure out what a person is going through. However, there are people with very limited physical side-effects of the condition, and there are those who can learn to overcome some of the symptoms. We know of people who have spent hours and hours teaching themselves how to effectively catch a ball or play tennis to a half-decent level or even just have decent handwriting. But there’s the thing; they’ve had to put in a mammoth amount of extra effort in order to achieve that goal, and it also requires regular upkeep in terms of practice, far more so than a non-dyspraxic wanting to achieve the same thing. That bit isn’t so visible, however, and so that’s where I get frustrated – it’s like the adage of the duck. He looks serene and calm above the surface, but underneath, his legs are paddling a hundred to the dozen in order to keep up with everyone else.
And that leads me to the third section; the invisible side of dyspraxia that people take more time to see and understand – if they ever do. There’s a degree of misunderstanding about this, and some mis-labelling – I’m not talking about laziness or just awkwardness. This is something else, more … profound, if I can be excused one profundity during this article.
The invisible side is the most difficult to explain because it’s also the most obvious as well; there’s a lot of talk about dyspraxia being caused by mis-firing chemicals in the brain, and the mis-firing happens in different quantities in different people, and so the invisible side of things can be the hardest to pick up. I’m talking here about memory, organisation, planning, and visualising thought to deed.
My memory can so often be terrible; I can’t remember dates, numbers, names, faces, anything like that. I encounter people and think, “Oh, you look familiar,” and then discover that I’ve met them half a dozen times before and are offended because I’ve had a vague look every time I’ve met them. Peoples’ birthdays are often an enduring mystery to me, and I religiously use my calendar in order to plan my work and personal life – without an on-line calendar to help me organise my life, I know that I simply wouldn’t get anywhere even vaguely on time or even on the right day.
Organisationally, I can be very focused because I know what’s important; I have a continuous “to-do” list written down and updated regularly; I don’t even bother keeping it in my head, because what would be the point? I’d forget half the items within an hour, the rest by the end of the day, and by tomorrow, I wouldn’t even be conscious that I had a to-do list in the first place. So I have a very rigorous and comprehensive to do list, and also a very strict criteria for actioning things; if people don’t mention something for three months, and certain don’t chase it, then perhaps it isn’t very important after all.
That’s not to say I won’t do things until three months have gone by, but I will work cannily to prioritise the things that are coming across my desk. I’m not afraid to ask questions when I need to understand something, and I’m not that bothered if people think that it’s a silly question – I’m even more unbothered when I have to ask the same question three times because I can’t remember the previous answers, or (sometimes) that there was a question in the first place.
I know my memory is bad, and I also know that it’s not going to fundamentally improve; I can, however, find coping strategies to remind me of the important stuff; using a calendar, for example, to remind me of things. I would genuinely be lost without Google calendar telling me where I’ve got to be every day and what to expect in the week ahead. We should all have a diary to help us keep track, and it’s really nice to live in an era where things like this are available – the downside to living even fifty years ago is that I’d have to rely on a paper diary, and I would inevitably lose that in a heartbeat. I’ve lost my wallet enough times to know that a diary wouldn’t stand a chance.
Visualising thought to deed is a more complex one; this is around having a focus on what needs doing, and to get from where you are to there. There can sometimes be a disconnect between those two elements, which is rather key; your mind can say, “Right, this cabinet needs to get built”, and then there is a complicated squiggle of steps that need to be taken in order for that to happen. It’s the details that are often complicated, and I have to be extra careful in ensuring that I’m not missing anything out when I go through the stages – I’m naturally more of a “big picture” kind of person, so the finer details of any situation have often proved to be more naturally difficult for me to learn. I’ve got better at this over time, but it’s something a lot of people go through, judging by discussions I’ve had with people who have the condition.
With all of this, dyspraxia actually gives me a benefit that you might not expect, having read everything I’ve already put into this article. I have a creative brain, which seems to be a common theme for dyspraxics; even if people don’t think they are creative, when you scratch the surface, they often are.
There are two ways of looking at this; creativity in the slightly more traditional sense of the arts, music, humanities, for instance. The amount of artists, writers, and musicians I know who have dyspraxia is surprisingly high, and I sincerely hope there’s a study done on this in the future to see whether or not there’s a connection. I should say, I’m not offering to conduct the study myself, because I couldn’t think of anything more laborious or time consuming, but to someone, that will be a fascinating piece of work, and I hope I can convince someone to do it within my lifetime so I can see the results – to see if the percentage of creative people with dyspraxia is higher than the national average. Anecdotally, it would be very easy to say that it is, but I can’t verify that without some actual facts behind it.
The other side to dyspraxic creativity is problem-solving. We are more naturally confident at problem-solving, I’m sure, because of the issues that come up and need confronting as a result of our condition. The only downside is that we’re not always very good at recognising our natural ability in this area; oftentimes, a dypsraxic’s confidence levels are knocked badly because of the issues they face, and they misunderstanding and lack of empathy they can face by people who don’t take the time to learn. I find myself very angry when people – dyspraxic or not – are pushed into this position, and when others lack a basic level of empathy to think, “This person is different to me. I should adapt my style to consider their learning style. Why would that affect me?”
It doesn’t affect them, of course, but they would often find it much too much like hard work. When I first entered the big wide world of work, I didn’t have quite the big gob I have now. I find it difficult to remember being like that, to be frank, and I know others struggle to believe that it’s true, but in my first full-time job at the age of 18, I encountered someone who struggled very much to understand me. In fact, there were a number of occasions where the person concerned almost deliberately didn’t want to understand, because I was outside their comfort zone of knowing how to manage people. I made them uncomfortable, and that’s fine; I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but most people can at least be respectful. Even if you don’t like someone on a personal level, you can find an equilibrium when you work with them, even if that’s keeping a respectful distance or arranging an intermediary to manage them. There are ways of making it work, but in that situation, it didn’t work. At all. That was where I first found my confidence to speak up for injustice related to me, and I’ve not stopped yet, all these years later.
But there are people out there who have not yet gained the confidence to speak up for themselves, and my anger in these situations is fuelled only by my desire to see it stopped. Lack of empathy and understanding of dyspraxia makes people act in very stupid, very … human ways all too often, I’m afraid to say, and that means we have toendure a group of people, defined by their difference, being treated less than the rest of society. That must stop. People must be allowed to realise their full potential, and that their ability to think differently does not equate to being wrong, nor does the fact that they speak with a lisp or walk awkwardly make them wrong.
I’m proud to be one half of The Two Dyspraxics CIC Ass. (Community Interest Company Association, if you want to be boring about it – although to say that we kick ass would be entirely accurate), and Barbara and I have a grim determination to change attitudes towards, and about, dyspraxia. People with dyspraxia need to understand their strengths and abilities, and they also need to be given the opportunity to showcase them in the wider world. And they will if we have anything to say about it.