Many people go through life being ridiculed for their clumsiness. However, an often undiagnosed physical condition known as dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), may be to blame. Dyspraxia is common, incurable, and frequently a source of unhappiness for people who do not know what is wrong with them. A positive diagnosis can lead to self-acceptance and greater understanding from others.
While the causes of dyspraxia are unknown, the condition seems to be associated with premature birth or low birth weight. It is often first noticed when a child’s performance can be compared with that of others their age. For example, when a child goes to nursery school, they may be observed having difficulty catching a ball, tying shoelaces, or telling time on a clock with hands. The child may have trouble with spatial relations, often confusing left and right, or being unable to find direction. They also seem to be “accident prone,” often tripping up or banging into things Activities such as dancing, kicking a football, or anything requiring balance or quick, coordinated foot or hand movements, are likely to present a challenge. Some children with dyspraxia also struggle with writing and with verbal expression. They may speak in a rush, garble their sentences, or mispronounce words.
Dyspraxia runs a spectrum, from mild to extreme, and it affects individuals differently. There may be difficulty in focusing on objects or estimating speeds and distances, or there could be problems with concentration or with short-term memory. Some people are more impaired in fine motor skills, particularly in relation to using their hands for small movements, as in cooking, playing a musical instrument, or tying knots. Others may find their gross motor skills are affected, as when trying to run or ride a bike. Poor posture is common in many dyspraxic people, along with poor muscle tone, making it difficult for them to stand for long periods.
An estimated 10 percent of the population may be dyspraxic, although they are not always diagnosed as such. Many have lived with the condition all their lives, and endured being called incompetent, clumsy, or slow. They may look with wonder and envy at others who can win at tennis, play a complicated piece on the piano, dance the Highland reel, read a map upside down, or change a duvet cover. Some dyspraxics, having tried driving a car, will decide (for everyone’s sake) to let other people do it for them. Poor hand-eye coordination and slow reactions could lead to hitting the accelerator instead of the brake- possibly with tragic consequences.
In most cases, it’s quite possible to be dyspraxic and live a full, varied life. There are many tasks someone with dyspraxia can perform as well as anyone else, such as typing, preparing food, sewing, or folding a letter and putting it an envelope; they just can’t do them as quickly. Many have compensating skills. Knowing that someone is a respected scientist or academic, a caring homemaker, a wise and patient listener, a generous host, or a dedicated campaign worker, should be more important to those around them than the fact that they button their shirt slowly.
The taunts, criticisms, and judgmental attitudes of peers and teachers can leave lasting scars on dyspraxic people. Children who become frustrated at their difficulties may develop behavioral problems; unable to comply with adults’ demands, the child may be perceived, or even come to perceive themselves, as disobedient or “naughty.” As a result, both children and adults living with dyspraxia can end up with severe depression or anxiety.
However, such humiliation and heartbreak can be avoided. Friends, family, and workmates can help rebuild a dyspraxic person’s confidence by demonstrating faith in them for what they do well, and supporting them in coping with situations they know will present a challenge.
Professional help is at hand too. An occupational therapist or physiotherapist may offer exercises for improving hand-eye coordination or toning up slack muscles. A speech therapist may be able to help with verbal expression. Counseling might help someone who has become anxious or depressed, either as a result of dyspraxia or the stigma associated with it; both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and person-centered therapy could be beneficial in such cases. Therapy is likely to be most effective when the condition is identified early in life. Parents and teachers need to be informed about the signs of dyspraxia, and about resources available in their area.
Parents can help their children at home, perhaps by catching and throwing a bean bag, typing, swimming, doing jigsaws, drawing, and engaging in gentle, non-threatening exercises to limber up muscles. Nothing should exceed a child’s limits; everything should be kept playful and fun. The goal is to encourage the child to feel good about themselves. Public awareness of DCD is constantly growing.