Overcoming Doubt and Doubters

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Spot the weird dyspraxic hand

As a child, a significant part of your identity is formed from what you are and aren’t good at.

“You’ve always been a brilliant reader”

“Ellie’s accident prone”

“You always did think outside of the box”

These evaluations help us to form an image of ourselves as the world sees us, and in turn helps us to understand ourselves as we are at the current minute. Positive proclamations may become some of our proudest attributes, the negatives our grounding shame. As someone with a minor specific learning difficulty, they become vital to constructing your defence against a world which refuses to recognise your existence, and your particular set of strengths and weaknesses.

When I began to consider the idea that my chaotic existence may indicate a profile of dyspraxia, my brain immediately shot back realities of my childhood that destabilised my self diagnosis: But you’ve always behaved well in class. you were one of the top readers as a child. If you’re dyspraxic, then how could you have reached university without it affecting you. You’ve got it better than so many other people your age, so why does it even matter?

Looking past these quick assumptions, it had lay there all along, between the lines which I’d learned to understand myself: I always behaved in class, but was constantly chastised for my handwriting, rarely answered questions both from shyness and from failing to process the question in time, and developed excellent bullsh*tting skills from last minute homework and excuses. I was one of the top readers, but dreaded reading out loud and skipped sentences, paragraphs and indeed pages of the books I was reading – often without noticing. I reached university, but my organisational challenges contributed to the rapid decline of my mental health. I do have it better than so many other people my age, but these things matter because I deserve help and understanding.

Self-doubt is an easy quality to build when your existence is characterised by small disappointments. A dropped ball at a key moment of a team sport (or indeed, the one time you do successfully dribble the ball, dribbling it the wrong way), forgetting the project you spent hours completing, getting lost, being late, losing your prized possessions. Self-doubt is an easy quality to build when people capitalise on your failures to make themselves look superior. When your ‘friends’ in primary school learn that the best way to humiliate you is to run away, because any attempt to catch them up will doubtless result in embarrassment or injury. It’s an easy quality to build when you are constantly being told that if you tried just that little bit harder, got your head out of the clouds and prepared yourself for the real world, everything would be fine and you would stop being such an inconvenience to people.

This all sounds quite dramatic, and it is important to mention that those telling you to get yourself sorted out are the ones fighting in your corner, the ones who want to see you succeed. Most of what people tell you comes from a place of hope and compassion, even if it is masked in frustration, and it is often the receiver who distorts their words into a reflection upon their self worth. Still, it is clear to see how one can foster a less than excellent sense of self worth, which can impact on their belief in a diagnosis, especially when their expression of a disability is atypical. Unlike other specific learning difficulties, the realities of Dyspraxia are little understood. Although conditions such as autism and dyslexia come with a whole different set of preconceptions and stereotypes – Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you – the specific issue for dyspraxic people is that so few people have even a basic awareness of what the condition entails. My computer’s spell check doesn’t even acknowledge that ‘Dyspraxic’ is even a word.

My own self-doubt was overcome mainly by my excellent disability mentor, as well as various online groups which I began to access around half a year after my official diagnosis, when I decided to look for others who shared my experiences. Confidence is the best defence. After being given specific advice about how to organise my life through mentoring, I realised the challenges I faced and learnt how to evaluate my successes and failures to overcome these challenges. Through groups, I learned that my experience was real and valid. This culminated in me having the confidence to tell people about my Dyspraxia when the difficulties it caused me became especially prominent, to ask for arrangemets in academia and work, to get the support that I need and deserve.

It should go without saying that if you are Dyspraxic, you can do amazing things. You are brilliant at thinking outside the lines, and you can make adjustments that ensure that you are not held back. The key is having the confidence to ask for what you need. Just because certain parts of your story aren’t in keeping with stereotypical diagnostic features, it doesn’t mean that the wider narrative doesn’t indicate towards your issue. Just because your wider narrative makes life difficult sometimes, that doesn’t mean you can’t be awesome. Just because people may not have heard of Dyspraxia, doesn’t mean its not an important part of you that deserves to be addressed and accounted for.

Justifiably Clumsy: Late Diagnosis and Self Esteem

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.

Clumsily yours,

Ellie x