Imagine you’re a healthy adult with a good university degree but struggle to pour a drink without spilling it, direct people across a building, or remember what you’ve just been told clearly. This is a typical picture of someone with dyspraxia. Dyspraxia, or developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), affects co-ordination, spatial awareness and sensory perception. It’s part of an umbrella of conditions known as specific learning differences (SpLD), which are defined as exceptional variations in a person’s ability, as well as problems with concentration and short-term memory.
Dyspraxia affects between 2% and 6% of the population, meaning there’s likely to be at least one person with the condition in every school class or workplace. Around 70% of those affected are male and many, like myself, had a premature or difficult birth. It can also run in families. Someone with mild dyspraxia may be able to pass it off as a quirky foible, or a situational problem. In severe cases though, it may mean being unable to walk up stairs without holding on, or forgetting to take off your clothes before having a shower.
Dealing with dyspraxia has been a practical and emotional challenge for me in different ways throughout my life. Unlike celebrities Daniel Radcliffe and Florence Welch I wasn’t diagnosed as a child and went through years of sporadic speculation that something was wrong without knowing what. As well as being clumsy and spatially awkward I was useless at Stem subjects, where I worked flat-out just to scrape GCSE C grades (I’ll never forget my friend’s baffled, concerned reaction when, at nearly 13, I didn’t realise that 1200 and 1,200 meant the same thing).
Typically for a female, I was labelled odd rather than disruptive, and tried to hide my weaknesses and play to my strengths. By my late teens I’d set my sights on a journalism career and started freelancing. I often admired people who worked in fields I felt excluded from and used my own career ambitions to tap into their lives. Hero-worshipping other people was a way of taking the spotlight off my own weaknesses and winning approval.
The more I compared myself to others the more inadequate I felt, and the more worrying my peaks and troughs of ability seemed. At 17, I could interview a TV actor for a website profile but not learn the tills for a part-time job at a supermarket. I could write A-grade A-level politics essays but not use a corkscrew. At 19 I was suffering from depression and anxiety and on the brink of giving up a university place. Eventually, during my second undergraduate year, after a run-in with my chief nemesis, numbers and statistics, I sought help from my university’s welfare centre, and was formally diagnosed with dyspraxia.
The assessment revealed, as is common to dyspraxics, my verbal IQ was university level, while parts of my non-verbal IQ were subnormal. As with many late-diagnosed adults, I went through the painful process of reframing years of unexplained events. After graduating, I ran into trouble again when my first job, advertised as a journalism role, turned out to involve mainly admin and data handling.
Regrettably, dyspraxia is poorly understood compared to its better-known SpLD cousins dyslexia, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome. Dyspraxia coverage tends to relate to young children, such as the recent CBeebies interactive movement series Tree Fu Tom, which was developed alongside the Dyspraxia Foundation. Support for dyspraxic adults is severely limited, despite evidence they experience difficulties in employment and relationships, and are over-represented in the criminal justice and mental health systems. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, an undiagnosed dyspraxic child is five times more likely than an average child to suffer from mental health problems by the age of 16. For those who don’t go to university, there is no adult diagnostic pathway and private assessments cost hundreds of pounds.
An increasingly multiskill economy, where jobs are amalgamated to cut costs and where one job requires strengths across several unrelated areas, does not favour those with SpLDs. As my experiences show, dyspraxic difficulties can rule highly qualified people out of even the most basic job. Then there’s the smattering of tiresome comments that dyspraxia isn’t real. It’s indisputable that premature birth affects brain development. Knock yourself out by objecting to the label if you like but it won’t change how someone’s brain works. The terminology just makes it quicker to explain.
My attitude towards dyspraxia is best summed up in the words of a recently diagnosed woman who took part in an employment workshop: “I don’t want to be a poster girl for anything. I just want to be me, and for it to be acceptable to be me.”