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There's Nothing Wrong - It's Dyspraxia

It's often misunderstood and hard to get diagnosed - here are the signs to look out for

 

“Joe, this is the third time I’ve called you for dinner,” I shout, banging on the bannisters impatiently. There is a 30-second delay.

“I’m coming,” my older son says, sounding aggrieved.

On the way downstairs he passes the living room where the TV is still on; he stops to watch, completely forgetting to come to the table. I sigh inwardly, attract his attention by waving my hand in front of his face and remind him to sit down. Daniel, my younger son, is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to serve, chatting away about what he’s been constructing in Minecraft and who’s been naughty in school that day; a typical eight year old.

We start eating but having a conversation that includes Joe is difficult because, if he isn’t talking, he loses concentration and retreats into himself, lost in his own thoughts and totally unaware of anything else. To refocus him, I look him directly in the eye and speak to him and if he still doesn’t respond, I wave my hand in front of his face as well. However, if he wants to talk about something, he dominates the conversation, talks over people and repeats information, like he’s stuck in a loop. I gently move the conversation on, not wanting him to get upset.

As I haven’t made anything, the boys choose something from the fridge for pudding. Daniel grabs a chocolate mousse, gets a spoon and sits back down. Joe reaches for some yoghurt.

“Can you get me one as well please?” I ask, “Oh and get a couple of spoons, too.” He returns with yoghurt and a spoon for himself. “Joe, I asked you to get me one as well.”

“Oh, I forgot, sorry Mum.” He returns to the fridge but doesn’t get one. Glancing over, I see that he has picked up the chilli sauce bottle and is reading the back. He tells me how many Scobel units it contains and then repeats his favourite fact about ghost chillies - one we’ve heard many times before. At this point, Daniel gets up and comes back with my pudding. Joe looks affronted. “I was getting that!” he complains.

“Well don’t worry, Daniel brought me one,” I reply soothingly. This kind of scenario has been played out countless times in our house over the last few years.

If you’re wondering what’s wrong with my son, the answer is nothing. It turns out that he’s dyspraxic and his brain is wired differently from most of us.

The dictionary definition of dyspraxia is: “a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring co-ordination and movement”. This is a rather incomplete definition though as the condition often involves so much more. For Joe, his main problems are actually with his short term memory and the related difficulty recalling instructions, along with his poor concentration. They are what have a potentially negative impact on his life more than anything. His lack of co-ordination is less important. The Dyspraxia Foundation has a much more detailed description of the symptoms on their website.

Dyspraxia is much less well known than dyslexia, is often misunderstood and is hard to get diagnosed. If your child is also bright, like mine, then even if it is recognised, the implications for your child in terms of self-esteem, frustration, friendships and poor personal organisation are often dismissed as unimportant - academic achievement being prized above all else these days.

The rest of the evening and the next day continue in the same manner: After dinner, I check Joe’s PE kit. Hmm, no trainers and no shorts but the rest of it is there. Checking his bag, I see that he hasn’t given in his science homework for the third day running and that he has a reminder from the school library about a book that is late. Feeling stressed, I tell myself these problems will get resolved eventually and it is pointless getting angry; Joe really can’t help it.

The next day Joe has some homework. These days, I don’t let him work in his room but insist he sits with me so I can supervise him; there are just too many distractions upstairs. If it is an analytical piece of work, like maths or science I know that he should be able to complete it with minimal supervision. If it is creative then the challenge will be much greater. Being given the choice as to how to complete something is just too overwhelming for him and he will be unable to start it on his own. I’ll have to break it down into smaller, manageable pieces before he’ll begin, and help him decide the format of his work, say whether it’s a poster rather than a leaflet.

While he’s working, his attention frequently slides so, for example, he’ll open another tab on the computer and look at something on YouTube. He only finishes the task with constant refocussing from me. His progress is much slower than his peers, a 30-minute task easily taking an hour. If it’s a big piece of work, he does it in small time slots with breaks in between. Getting him to produce something often tries my patience to the limit.

After eleven years, Joe is finally at a school where they understand why his attention wanders in class, why he forgets to bring home his work and give it in, why he sometimes doesn’t answer in class, why he’s a target for bullying - and they employ simple but effective tactics to help him with all of this. If I need to discuss him with the school’s Senco (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) she’s available and will listen to me. Unless you’ve been in a similar situation you’ll have no idea how massive a difference this makes not just to your child’s life but the life of everyone who spends time with them.

Until he started school, I thought Joe was the same as other children. He had many friends, was very chatty and engaging: a normal toddler. He achieved all his developmental milestones on time and I had no concerns at all. His messy eating and poor drawing skills didn’t bother me, nor his dislike of constructional toys such as jigsaws and Lego, or his lack of interest in creative play; I just thought he preferred other activities. Now I know that these are signs that something isn’t quite right.

He’d been at infant school for a year when he was assessed by an Educational Psychologist. His very experienced Foundation Teacher had quickly realised that Joe’s fine and gross motor skills were poor for his age, and noticed how he struggled to concentrate, missed instructions, worked at a much slower rate than his peers and struggled to finish tasks. We had many discussions about him and worked out some coping strategies together. After his assessment, we were referred to an Occupational Therapist who suggested lots of things we could do to improve his fine co-ordination, such as building Lego. Nobody was able to make a definite diagnosis, however, although dyspraxia had been mentioned by now. As he enjoyed school and was doing well no further assessments were made.

At seven, Joe moved to a junior school and we had to start again, with the teachers complaining that he couldn’t concentrate and didn’t follow instructions but not realising why. As he was performing well academically, this hid the other problems he was having and the attitude was “oh, it’s just Joe.” It was me who noticed his self-esteem falling when he realised that his handwriting and artistic skills were poor and that he found creative work, such as story writing, hard. He was also beginning to find friendships with other children difficult which meant he was bullied and lonely as a result.

When Joe was 9 I went to see the Senco and learnt that they had never received his file from Infant School and were totally unaware of his past history. They did their own Educational Psychologist assessment (which involved a Wechsler Intelligence Scale Test) the results of which were very enlightening. He scored very highly on verbal reasoning but poorly on processing speed, which confirms that his short term memory and concentration skills are really lacking. Recently, Joe has been able to describe his delay in processing instructions for the first time. He said it’s like I’m talking in slow motion and the words are all mixed up. This is why he doesn’t act on instructions he has been given immediately and why he will only remember one at a time, two if he tries really hard.

Although the Educational Psychologist suggested lots of strategies for helping Joe, it seems most of them were not implemented by the school and if I brought this up I felt I was effectively being dismissed as an overly worried parent.

Understanding why Joe behaves the way he does has transformed my relationship with him. Whereas before, I would get cross when he didn’t reply to me, lost stuff at school, forgot to bring stuff home and couldn’t follow instructions, now I know some strategies that help him deal with this. Of course, I don’t succeed all the time and still lose my temper but it happens far less often. His younger brother also understands Joe’s issues and knows that this doesn’t make him a lesser person; he is just different. Often he is quite protective towards him.

It turns out too, that if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, having dyspraxia or dyslexia is actually an advantage. The fact that your brain is not wired the same as most peoples means you are able to view problems in a different way and come up with a solution. Another person in my family has both of the above conditions and is extremely good at solving problems in his job. When presented with a system that isn’t working, he is able to work out the issue in a logical, methodical manner until he finds the solution, even if it takes him all day.

My advice if you’re in a similar situation:

  • Be tenacious in getting your child’s problem recognised and then dealt with. Many parents and children get disillusioned with schools as they feel nobody understands them.

  • Explain to your friends why your child behaves the way they do, especially if their child is friends with yours. It will help them to deal with any issues that arise between them.

  • Be positive. Never let your child use their special needs as an excuse for not doing something. Help them to find coping strategies so they can be independent and successful.

  • If your child is dyspraxic or dyslexic tell them that, while they are different, they can achieve whatever they want to in life, the same as everyone else.

Becky Killoran

About the Writer

Becky was a TEFL teacher for many years, including two spent in Japan. A keen reader, she is also passionate about music and is an enthusiastic member of her local choir, Rock Chorus. She lives with her family in Milton Keynes.

 

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