Clumsy, forgetful, useless… or Dyspraxic?
As a kid, it was sometimes joked that I should have an A&E Loyalty card. By the age of 11, I had totalled up around 4 broken bones, and had semi-permanent scraped knees. I only managed to learn left and right semi-properly, around the age of 10, because I had a scab on my right hand for about 2 months. I was, for all intents and purposes, ‘clumsy’ – as well as ‘shy’ and ‘fussy’.
As a quiet, and somewhat geeky, child, I did not have many of the key diagnostic features that may indicate a learning difficulty. I was never disruptive in class, I was in top sets, and I could read and write well. That said, while my sister could pore over books for hours, I found it far easier to read Harry Potter when listening to the tapes simultaneously, and was far more interested in Barbies than more practical tasks such as reading, writing or sport. Although I had a high vocabulary and reading age, my ability to actually read books or chapters on my own was limited, and I increasingly noticed how hard I found it to read properly, and how long it took me.
There were more signs: my constantly-remarked-upon poor handwriting, inability to colour inside the lines and my frustration at maths which often resorted me to tears. The inability for permission slips to ever find their way home, let alone back to school; The host of forgotten homework and lost worksheets, and my inevitable lateness to pretty much everything. Most significant and distressing was my inability to read other people’s behaviour, and my tendency to repeat myself and to stumble my words. The general difficulty of social situations made me feel different and alone.
It wasn’t all bad. I was creative, and loved to make up weird and wacky stories. My clumsiness and disorganisation slowly became a part of my persona, my parents would jokily tell us not to ‘Ellie’ (hit on another car) the car door, and to do something clumsy or awkward was known affectionately in my group of friends in Sixth form as ‘doing a Williams’. That said, as a high achieving adult, the simultaneous inability to complete simple tasks such as turning up to meetings and remembering a name 5 seconds after it was said was disheartening and frustrating. I know that I am so lucky that my dyspraxia isn’t really severe, and that I’ve been supported and not held back by disability – but it has still caused me a lot of distress, most notably because for 20 years I thought I was just a bit useless.
My Dyspraxia only really became an issue in University, when life began to get busy and challenging. Amidst a backdrop of poor mental health and struggles making friends, my constant losing things, getting lost, missing appointments, and generally living a very chaotic life all fed into my internal monologue that insisted that I was clumsy, careless and useless. I am lucky that it was only at this point, in a highly pressurised university setting, that my difficulties reached breaking point, and I began to look for answers.
It sounds cheesy, but my diagnosis was really life changing. Not only was it a massive comfort that I was not, in fact, a crap human being, but also it gave me the kick up the arse I needed to start making changes in my life. Whenever I lost things or missed something, I didn’t resort back to old patterns of self-pity and hatred, but instead acknowledged that this is a legitimate difficulty that I face and that I can put strategies in place to overcome it. It is one of the worst things about Dyspraxia that it so often comes across as simple incompetence, yet once I learned why I struggled in the ways I did, I was not afraid to tell this to people giving me a hard time, and to demand the reasonable adjustments that would put me on a level playing field with other students.
This came with a constant sense of self doubt, and internalised shame. I sometimes felt that I really was a ‘special snowflake’, who had found this diagnosis to absolve me of responsibility, and that I didn’t struggle ‘enough’ to be ‘really’ dyspraxic. When speaking to an old friend about it, he told me that ‘you are without a doubt one of the most dyspraxic people I’ve ever met’ – it is amazing how much comfort that this gave me.
Characteristically, I have slightly lost the plot of where this post was headed. I suppose what I really want to stress is the importance of diagnosis, and the urgency of raised awareness. Dyspraxia is far less well-known than its close cousin dyslexia, despite the fact that around 1 in 10 people are said to experience it. The fact that it took me 20 years of feeling useless to be diagnosed, and that I was only able to get that diagnosis because my University paid for the test, is shocking – and I still experience discrimination in workplace and academic settings because of it, such as when my supervisors are ‘too busy’ to send me chapter recommendations. I can’t help but wonder whether they would take requests from students with other learning difficulties more seriously.
I hope this blog will be a useful compilation of coping mechanisms, validation and thoughts for all people who struggle with specific learning difficulties, or just want to find out a bit more about them. I love to write and I love helping people, and I want to create a space for Dyspraxic adults to find out how they can help themselves, and get help from others.