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At home with Dyspraxia: the gift of being "clumsy"

At home with Dyspraxia: the gift of being "clumsy"

Written by: Elizabeth Marglin

When my son was two, he taught himself how to read and was fascinated my numbers. When he was three, he struggled with potty training. When he was four, he rarely could get dressed without putting his clothes on backwards. When he was five, he held a pencil awkwardly, had messy handwriting, and was reading incessantly. When he was seven, riding a bike was a least preferred activity. Up until he was 15, we got him elastic shoelaces for his sneakers that he did not need to tie. I didn’t realize it then, but all of these are hallmarks of dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects one’s ability to plan and process motor tasks. 

What exactly is dyspraxia?

When you have dyspraxia, the neurons in your brain that control motor skills and sensations don't connect, sync and fire accurately. It often overlaps with autism or ADHD, but shares more in common with sensory processing disorder, or developmental coordination disorder. Whether it is part of a more a more complex condition or the sole diagnosis, it’s important to note that it can look very different from person to person. If you have not heard of dyspraxia, you are not alone. In the past, it was sometimes called “clumsy child syndrome,” going further back, the first time it was noted in the early 1900s it was known as Congenital Maladroitness. Surprisingly, it affects approximately six to ten percent of the population. The condition is well known in neurology but much less known in the public realm. These earlier labels were negative and limiting, when the goal of a diagnosis is to treat the condition, labels such as these can subtlety reinforce it. As Cherly Viirand, founder of Cajal Academy, a school dedicated to leveraging current neuroscientific research in the classroom, says “it’s important to give kids an understanding of the problem, but to also give them space around it, so the condition doesn’t become their entire identity. This will create a healthier sense of self.”

How does it manifest?

Children and adults with dyspraxia may require extra time, attention, and explanation for everyday tasks. It is often referred to as a hidden condition, as children don’t look different. People with dyspraxia tend to feel isolated in their challenges because parents, teachers and peers don’t understand the root of the problem. In the U.S. there are very few organizations, books, articles, research or resources that shed light on the condition.

People with dyspraxia could have any, or all, of the following symptoms.

  • delays in early development such as sitting, crawling, walking and potty-training
  • difficulties with skills such as using cutlery or tying shoelaces
  • struggles with fine motor skills, like handwriting (often illegible) and using silverware
  • struggles with gross motor skills, like running, jumping, hopping, catching, sports and swimming
  • processing delays, such as remembering a list of verbal instructions
  • little or no executive functioning skills, which can include the inability to organize belongings (possessions are often lost or misplaced) and poor time management
  • inability to accurately judge people or situations and properly respond to social cues
  • visual difficulties with depth and spatial understanding
  • poor memory
  • sensory aversions or sensory seeking (looking for sensory stimulation, such as touch or sound)
  • speech delays or inability to know when/how to use words appropriately

The strengths born from struggle

While dyspraxia comes with challenges, it also comes with gifts. Because necessity often leads to inventiveness, many children with dyspraxia are creative, strategic, and original thinkers. Children with dyspraxia must expend extra effort on activities that are more intuitive for others; this leads to determination, motivation, and persistence. And to cope with losing things all the time, tripping over flat surfaces, and fumbling with fine motor skills requires a certain degree of humor.

Moving the dial

Although there is no “cure” for dyspraxia, there are strategies that can help. Especially when children are young, says Viirand, “it’s important to not only identify the problem, but to discover what is the missing skill that generates the dyspraxia. It’s never one size fits all and the particulars are key. It’s possible to build up motor precision through habit and repetition.” If you or your child have dyspraxia, here’s what can help:

  • Try to be patient and understanding with the process of gaining competency. Recognize how hard your child is working to compensate and let them know you believe in their ability, however long it takes to learn.
  • Break down large tasks into smaller components to make them more manageable.
  • Discover enjoyable forms of exercise that will improve your muscle strength, coordination and dexterity.
  • Use calendars, reminders, and stickie notes to help you remember important agenda items. Prioritize things you have to do first. Finish one task before you start another. 
  • If you are learning a new sequence of actions, see that you get clear, precise instructions. Videos can often help.
  • Celebrate every success.
  • Allow more time to grasp and process new ideas.
  • Offer choices
  • Plan ahead for possible problems
  • Keep instructions simple/repeat often
  • Don’t layer on the idea that your child is just being uncooperative or oppositional

As with any divergence, knowledge is power. “Giving kids a lens through which they can predict what might be hard for them gives them a roadmap to build up their skills,” says Viirand. When you can self-advocate with precision, it’s much easier to find solutions. And sometimes, what we project may be hard for them may turn out to be effortless. I remember at my son’s fifth-grade music concert, he got a solo. I was worried he would mess up the timing, freeze, fumble the mike, all kinds of catastrophic thinking whirling in my head. I had never heard him practice, had no idea if he was prepared or not. He stepped up to microphone and let out the most exquisite eight lines of music I have ever heard. Pitch perfect, delicate phrasing, voice as clear as a bell. It was one of my proudest moments as a mother, made all the more sweet because I could see he was capable so so much more than I could imagine. 

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