I’ve always been clumsy. As a child, I had poor muscle control and was much slower than the other children. During games, I did my best to avoid the ball instead of catching or kicking it, to the annoyance of my friends. As an adult, I’m still clumsy and have trouble making my way in the world. I keep on getting lost. My mom sometimes says, “think carefully where you want to go. Then, go in the other direction.” Sound advice, but whichever way I ended up going, it would still probably be the wrong one.
All of these are symptoms of a condition called dyspraxia.
The internationally recognized name is actually Developmental Coordination Disorder, or (DCD) but it’s often used interchangeably with the term dyspraxia. Coordination problems lie at the heart of the condition, “but because coordination is required in all areas of life, it affects daily living tasks, for example brushing hair; cleaning teeth; buttoning; fine motor tasks and gross motor tasks, like kicking a ball, running, jumping and balancing,” explains Amanda Kirby, professor of developmental disorders at the University of South Wales.
Even if sufferers don’t have problems with these skills, they can still find other every day tasks challenging. We need to concentrate fully on every single thing we’re doing, or else something bad will happen: we’ll cut a finger while preparing vegetables for dinner. We’ll burn ourselves while trying to take the lasagna out of the oven. Or walk out of the house with a few buttons open.
I always tend to spill or drop stuff. Even if I’m paying attention, I’ll still break a considerable number of plates. I notice mysterious cuts or scratches on my skin and have no idea how they happened. But don’t many disorders have the same characteristics?
“It often overlaps with other learning difficulties like dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, language and communication difficulties, or dyscalculia,” says Kirby. Dyspraxia is a part of the neurodiversity movement, which includes people with autism, ADHD and other learning difficulties. According to this view, neurological differences in humans are not diseases to be eradicated but rather beautiful examples of human diversity.
It is said that dyspraxia affects around 5 to 6 percent of the population in childhood but the majority of these children continue to have considerable challenges in adulthood as well. But many disorders don’t manifest in children the way they manifest in adults.
“The difference between being a child and an adult is that you can avoid some things. So you don’t have to play team games. You don’t have to write; you can use a computer. You can choose the environment you’re in to minimize your challenges.”
It’s true. I only write by hand if I really have to. I’m happy to use any technology available to help me get around, and I avoid places that are too crowded or overly stimulating.
Still, my challenges haven’t dissipated. In fact, many of them have become even more pronounced. Let’s take driving, for example. It combines skills I lack or have problems with, such as spatial orientation, quick reaction time, and the ability to process information from multiple sources. It’s not that I’m unable to learn new skills. It would just take more time and effort than it would for someone without the condition, so I make do without a car. And then I deal with anxiety and exhaustion, “because when you’re trying to juggle, you can find that you’re getting more tired than others because you’re trying to consciously do things,” Kirby tells me.
Another problem people with dyspraxia have is keeping organized. I’m terribly chaotic. I can’t plan more than a few days ahead. Agendas, spreadsheets or calendars don’t work for me because they don’t seem to follow the way my brain ticks. I do my best, but still end up occasionally missing appointments and forgetting or misplacing things.
“It’s even more difficult to live with dyspraxia for a parent; you often have to juggle lots of different things all at once and manage not only your time but others’ time as well,” Kirby points out. “That can be difficult and cause extra stress.”
The worst part of my condition is not just the time management, clumsiness or my inability to get around in the world, though. It’s the silly comments I get sometimes, like, “you should pay more attention.” “Outsiders believe that a task is easy for everyone, so if you just focused more you’d be fine,” Kirby says. Such comments are far from helpful. It’s not just a simple case of clumsiness; my struggles are real. “It’s an internationally recognized condition, not something that you made up. It’s not something rare and unusual. We know that it impacts education and employment,” Kirby adds.
There is no cure for dyspraxia, but there is a lot that can be done about it. First of all, getting help is of crucial importance. Raising awareness is too, because dyspraxia is not a readily recognized condition the way autism or ADHD are.
While having dyspraxia may be frustrating, there is a silver lining to it. “One of the things we find is that some of the people with dyspraxia are very empathic and caring and so these are really positive traits for being a parent,” says Kirby. I find this very heartening given that I often feel guilty for not being able to do the things that normal parents do with their children.
When asked whether people with dyspraxia have special talents, Kirby replied, “I think it’s no good saying people with X are talented. After all, doesn’t everybody have skills that are beneficial in a way? It’s no different from other people.”
You hear that? In our differences, we’re no different from other people.
Olga Mecking lives in the Netherlands and writes about different topics, including parenting, travel, food and health.