For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt stupid. It's quite difficult for me to admit this out loud, but it’s a feeling that has been there since I was about 11. I have dyspraxia. In very simple terms, this means there are lots of things I struggle with. Really basic things, that even children are capable of doing: dancing to music, buttoning clothes, riding a bike, catching a ball, walking in a straight line without falling over. That last one’s a real pet peeve. Even my best friend’s toddler, who hasn’t yet had his second birthday, is more steady on his feet than I am.
Classified as a learning disability, dyspraxia is usually picked up by educational staff who have contact with multiple children on a daily basis and who are trained to identify developmental problems. Once this issue has been raised, the pupil is tested by a specialist and then once the diagnosis is received additional support is provided.
I didn’t grow up knowing I was dyspraxic. My problems were only discovered at 21 after I had a mental break down. By this point, I’d failed at university because I couldn’t keep track of when and where my classes and exams were and, feeling ashamed, I had left the city I’d grown up in without letting anyone know where I was. In my head I was useless – worse than useless – and everyone’s life would be better if I weren’t in the way ruining things. When I left, I genuinely had no intention of returning – I wanted a new life, where no one knew how much of a failure I was.
According to the NHS website, there are a number of symptoms associated with dyspraxia that vary from person to person. Alongside problems with coordination, additional symptoms can include difficulties in concentration, difficulties following instructions, poor organization, and memory, alongside behavioral problems and self-esteem issues that arise from the symptoms. On top of that, problems with voice and sound control, as well as muscle weakness, can occur in those with dyspraxia.
A friend recently asked me to describe to her how my dyspraxia feels, which is a difficult thing to do. Emotionally, there is an overwhelming feeling of failure and frustration as you live your life trapped in a body that doesn’t work properly. Your brain understands what you need to do and the basic principles of how to do things, but when you try to implement the theory it is impossible and it feels like only you don’t know why.
An example of this is learning to swim. From the age of six people attempted to teach me how to swim. I understood the basic principle, you lie on the water kicking your legs and moving your arms in a scooping motion to paddle through the pool. Despite that, it took an additional five years, and hundreds of pounds worth of group and private lessons for me to even achieve five meters of basic doggy paddling, by which point my 10-year-old peers were on their 25 meters badges using front crawl – a stroke I still haven’t managed to conquer.
At school, my teachers labeled me as lazy – which feels ironic considering that I had to work twice as hard as other people to complete basic tasks. That is particularly the case for those who struggle with organization and memory problems. At secondary school ( for ages 11-16), for example, I remember it was particularly difficult juggling nine subjects. I’d constantly lose text books, forget equipment such as P.E. clothes and pencil cases, and even though I’d do all of the homework the teachers would never get it because I’d forget to turn it in.
Despite all of this, I did quite well academically at school and eventually returned to college to get an English literature degree, followed by a journalism MA. I now make a living doing a job that I love. But the low self-esteem associated with my dyspraxia persists; the psychological ramifications of years I spent being told I wasn’t good enough remain. Following years of bullying from my peers for being clumsy, I still struggle to trust people. I’ve also got an intense phobia of being watched.
These days, my condition is manageable thanks to the support I received from healthcare specialists, and the understanding of my family once I’d been diagnosed. As well as counseling to help control my anxiety and depression, I also received occupational therapy support from a neuropsychologist. In attending monthly sessions, I was not only able to identify when the symptoms of my dyspraxia worsen (when I’m tired, stressed or angry) but was taught how implementing basic routines can help minimize the most difficult of symptoms, including forgetfulness and disorganization. These routines can be as simple as making sure keys always remain in the same place, and taking 15 minutes in the morning to plan what I need to do with my day.
I’m still clumsy, and it appears there’s nothing that can be done about that. But, the support available helped address some of the more frustrating limitations of having dyspraxia. Not being able to coordinate my body is still something I’m always incredibly insecure about, but my response to these anxieties continues to evolve, and I no longer feel stupid.
I'm not able to tell you where I would be if my problems had been recognized sooner. But I can’t understand why diagnosing dyspraxia and other cognitive problems in young children is being criticized. If additional support is being made available to learners from a younger age, support that prevents them from going through life feeling stupid and worthless like I did in the past, well, surely that can only be a good thing.