I was assessed for dyspraxia in 2016, aged 33. I wrote a version of this blog post several months later to reflect on why it mattered to me. I also wanted to share the perspective of an adult diagnosis because it was something I wrestled with – would it be worth finding out and what difference would it make anyway?
It’s something children have, right?
If you are reading this as someone who was assessed as an adult, or as an adult who thinks they might have dyspraxia, then like me you have probably found a lot of the information available is targetted at children. This is something the Dyspraxia Foundation try to address although it does make sense when you think about it; parents and schools mostly clock when important milestones are missed or when a child struggles with some activities much more than they do others.
However, there is a noticeable imbalance of information available for adults with dyspraxia even though it doesn’t go away, you just learn to manage it. Learning to manage it means different things dependant on when you were diagnosed. For example, you may see difficulties as shortcomings or weaknesses. They may be the cause of unkind treatment for which you blame yourself. Having an assessment helps you understand your world and explain it to others. However, the volume of materials targetted at children made me reluctant to pursue a diagnosis at first. I didn’t see the point and I thought it was too late.
I didn’t know what dyspraxia was until my twenties. I certainly hadn’t heard of it when I was at University. I immediately knew this was something that made sense to me but I couldn’t easily see how the NHS would support a diagnosis at my age (they typically don’t) and taking it further almost felt like an indulgence, after all, I had got this far. However, I couldn’t put it to bed. I needed to know more as it was beginning to help me to make sense of my past.
Since being assessed, I have spent a long time thinking about my childhood in the context of having dyspraxia, and there is no denying that being a child makes the condition especially tough. As a child, you do not have any agency and you are often forced into situations you struggle with but without being able to explain why. Of course, with dyspraxia, you do not even have agency over your own body.
It is hard to explain how everyday things terrified me as a child. If someone threw a pan at me to catch, I would be terrified of missing it and being ridiculed. I was scared of sports to the point of obsession. For a short while, I tried. I wasn’t overweight then as I am now and couldn’t quite understand, perhaps unkindly, why I was the slowest runner in the class. You notice these things at school, these things matter. I was painfully shy and awkward then, and after time, the mickey-taking from other pupils and teachers alike made P.E. the root cause of twice-weekly dread.
I managed to convince a newly qualified teacher to not force me into taking part in weekly swimming classes at Clapham Pools. Instead, she let me sit beside the pool as she tested herself on Spanish vocabulary. I think that’s why I went on to buck the family trend and enjoy a modern language GCSE;
My next teacher wouldn’t let me get away with this, and although she was probably right, she lacked compassion. To her, I was wet and oversensitive. She was a stickler for neatness in everything and I was scruffy in every possible way. I looked dirty and I often was. My sloppiness extended to my untidy handwriting and my unwillingness to take part in physical activities was an irritation.
Most other teachers had a different take because, in spite of these shortcomings, I was clearly a very bright child, and for most of my teachers, that was enough. That was plenty. They had other children to worry about. Teachers frequently congratulated my mother, the school cleaner, for having raised a model student – quiet (withdrawn), polite (because I lived in constant fear of being forced to catch something) and curious (slightly obsessive).
My first obsession was history and The Tudors especially. When aged seven, our class was asked to write a few sentences about Henry VIII, I wrote the equivalent of an essay. At Assembly, I had to read some of my work aloud, I was confronted by a sea of crossed legs and bored faces, propped up by one hand. I quietly read my work, all the time looking down and speaking to the page. I was interrupted by my teacher from the back of the hall. ‘No, no, this isn’t right. Mary – speak up. Mary knows lots about The Tudors. Mary, tell them the names of his wives, in order and what happened to them.’ I obliged and answered more questions, slowly growing in confidence and pride. I didn’t do much for my street cred that day.
I suppose a lot of teachers put my timidity down to being a bookworm (I actually wasn’t – there was an assumption I read all the time which simply wasn’t true – I am a competent reader but I struggle with reading at length and lose concentration). My handwriting was incoherent, but that was a minor failing and so I was left to my own devices.
At home, things were different; I wasn’t an introvert at all. I talked incessantly. The youngest of four sisters I soaked up knowledge from those around me. Adults didn’t baby me. I watched old films and adult television.
Secondary school was worse. I increasingly lost interest in academia although I still did well. I wanted to fit in more but as a teenage girl with dyspraxia, personal grooming didn’t come naturally to me. I also made my life harder by liking bands and films that others found weird. I was bullied for long time had I didn’t look forward to University where I’d most likely account for more of the same. I barely put any thought into where I would go, choosing the same university as my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t even visit there first.
Everything aligned when I went to university on a social level. I embraced my independence, and I made friends instantly. I spent the next three years living and making my own choices. I wasn’t shy at all (who knew?!) but I was in the habit of poisoning myself with too much booze, getting obsessed with boys and spending all my student loan on nights out, but I lived those years. And if I fell over a lot, well, I was often tipsy…
I do wonder what difference an assessment would have had during that period of hedonism. I wasn’t present enough for anyone to notice but had I started university with my dyspraxia diagnosis, I think I would have engaged with it a lot more. The concentration difficulties, the struggle for comprehension, reading slowly and short-term memory, were too much for me to confront alone when I was experiencing some form of arrested development.
I barely engaged in academic life. I found lectures hard. I made many notes but couldn’t make sense of them afterwards. My mind wandered, and I soon went in less and less. About half-way through I may as well have been studying my degree remotely. Somehow I scraped a 2:1, despite procrastination and entire spent nights awake doing everything that bit too late. I still have nightmares about having failed after all or having my degree taken away from me. In fact, these nightmares are now so detailed that I often forget I have a degree at all.
The gender myth
I recently read an article about the late diagnosis of women with autism, and in it, the National Autistic Society found that twice as many women as men were undiagnosed. The reason I mention this is that dyspraxia is often thought to be more common in men, but there is no reason to explain why this is. There is one theory, and I subscribe to it, that women are less likely to be diagnosed.
There were so many symptoms in my childhood. The physical ones were evident – my fine and gross motor skills remain very poor. I have no sense of spatial awareness – my inability to judge distances makes crossing the road very stressful, and I don’t understand the physical space I take up (which being a fat adult can be especially problematic). My problem with speech, my memory and my difficulty with sequential thinking should have been apparent as a child. When I was being assessed as an adult, I was told I was ‘textbook’.
Yes, awareness of dyspraxia is an issue, but I cannot help but feel that if a boy had exhibited the same problems with coordination and visible stress when asked to participate in sports, some concern would have been raised and they may have worked out what the problem was. There are gendered expectations and for that reason, girls can get overlooked.
I am not sure it is a ‘chicken or egg’ situation but I can see how dyspraxia exacerbates anxiety. It certainly knocked my self-esteem; being back to front and inside out nine times out of ten is exhausting.
I am 35 years old and I am unable to tie my laces, use cutlery or ride a bike. I mix words and sounds up. I struggle with speech. My short-term memory is poor. I am not always aware of the space I take up. I hear how a word should sound but I cannot say it. I have no spacial awareness and Google Maps doesn’t always help me. I’ve turned up to social occasions in tears because I got lost and then I got angry with myself for being useless. I struggle with personal grooming and so it takes me much longer to get ready than most. I’m that annoying pedestrian in the street who gets shouted at by an angry commuter – you know, the one that suddenly changes direction and causes the world to end as a result. I have a limited sense of distance and space, and will always wait to see my good friend, ‘Green Man’ before attempting to cross roads (that’s just good sense though surely?).
Low self-esteem and high anxiety have made some personal relationships tough and I wouldn’t do my twenties again if you paid me. It took a long time for me to realise there was something more to all of this than being a rubbish person.
Not finding the words
I found myself getting increasingly frustrated as I mixed up words or couldn’t remember them at all. I was worried about how I was being perceived by others – for being judged as inarticulate or possibly ‘thick’. I shied away from public speaking, and I had to work twice as hard to keep on top of things – often taking work home and never feeling able to entirely switch off.
I wanted the assessment to understand myself in the same way that knowing about my anxiety had been a huge relief.
Most importantly, it would give me words to explain all the differences I felt. The way simple tasks just took longer and tired me out. I wanted people to understand I wasn’t intentionally scruffy. My desk is messy for a reason. I fall up the stairs, I spill coffee everywhere and wear my clothes inside out because of something. It isn’t a quirk.
I thought long and hard about this as it isn’t something you can afford to do with discretion unless you can pay for an assessment privately. I couldn’t. Instead, I looked into it with my HR department, and they referred for evaluation. Not all employers will do this.
I did deliberate about whether this was the right thing to. What if I wasn’t dyspraxic? Maybe I have the symptoms but not the condition. Maybe I have no excuses, and I am just crap after all. Or if I am, will people think less of me? Will they find out about my anxiety disorder? Who will I have to share all of this with?
I didn’t really find peace with all of these worries and concerns. I just knew that I needed to know and that I would work everything else out.
Well, yes. I’ve been very candid about it, and it feels a part of who I am now. I am proud of how I’ve coped with it and how I found strategies for dealing with dyspraxia before I even knew what it was. It has helped my self-esteem and it has given me the confidence to try new things and not care so much about failure.
People’s reactions are interesting. I think some of those close to me realised quickly that it made sense, it explained things. For others, I am not sure it matched the version of me they know, and so it has been more of an eye-opener. A lot of people tend to tell me they’ve suspected themselves or people they are close to as being dyspraxic. And there are others who I suspect don’t know why I even bothered to find out.
I would like there to be a greater understanding of what dyspraxia means and how it can manifest itself in different ways. How the combination of the many ways it can express itself can drive you to distraction. How it can rob you of your confidence or willingness to move outside of what makes you comfortable. How it can lead someone to spend their life avoiding things that are, without explanation, so much harder than they should be.
I’ve joined the Dyspraxia Foundation, and I started this blog as a way of starting to do something useful with this new information. If you are interested in hearing about the ways in which dyspraxia can impact a person at work, please read their very useful guide, Working with Dyspraxia – a Hidden Asset.