My teenage son has dyspraxia. When I tell people this, most of them give me a politely blank look, meaning, “I have no idea what you’re talking about but I’m too embarrassed to tell you.” And this is the response I’ve also had from most of his teachers during his 10 years at school. It’s not their fault; they receive very little special needs education during their teacher training. They’re expected to deal with children who have a whole range of disorders like autism, ADHD and dyslexia and yet know almost nothing about them and are expected to cope the best they can.
This woeful state of affairs has meant to a large extent, I have been educating my son’s teachers by giving them practical tips on how to help him and at the same time battling the scepticism of some who don’t believe my son has any kind of condition at all and that I’m just an overly worried middle-class mother who needs to stop bothering them.
Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts then. What is dyspraxia? It’s defined as, “a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring co-ordination and movement.” Well that’s part of the problem but the complete picture is so much more. Yes, my son doesn’t have the greatest co-ordination but he manages to write and tie his shoes laces; he just can’t do it as well as his peers.
The greatest impact has been to his concentration and short term memory. He can focus on a written task for 5 minutes, perhaps 10 if it really interests him and then his mind will wander; he can’t remember verbal instructions and has very poor organisational skills. His notes in class are often inadequate and it’s really difficult for him to put his thoughts down on paper, especially for a creative task. When it comes to verbal comprehension however, he’s right at the top of the scale. He has the added problem of being a very bright child, which masks his condition. As he’s started his GCSE coursework this year, his difficulties have become much more apparent and he needs a lot of support at home.
To give you some idea of how dyspraxia affects his life, let’s compare him with his brother who’s 10. Every morning the younger one will get out of bed and dress himself before coming downstairs and getting himself breakfast. When he’s finished he’ll go and clean his teeth and style his hair, usually without me reminding him to do any of it. When I tell him it’s time to leave to go to school he’ll put on his shoes and coat, then pick up his school bag without prompting.
The older one on the other hand needs constant reminders at every stage. I’ll have to get him out of bed (hey, he is a teen) and make sure he has some breakfast. Then I have to send him upstairs to get dressed. Unless I make sure he’s changing he will distract himself at every opportunity, either with his phone or a book. Once dressed I often stand over him to make sure he’s cleaning his teeth and getting his shoes on. He’s a little better at preparing his bag and making sure he has his keys but he’s very inconsistent. Then I have to insist that he leaves at a certain time or he will make himself late.
Homework causes the most stress. My son would prefer to do it in his bedroom but unless I check on him every few minutes I know that he won’t be doing it, he’ll have found something else to do. He doesn’t like me monitoring him but he dislikes sitting at the table downstairs even less.
Some of his homework he finds easy like maths and science because it’s logical and straightforward. English is an entirely different matter. Often he has no idea how to the tackle the task he’s been given and I have to break it down into manageable chunks and then we’ll look at each part together. French is also a struggle for him to retain and we’ll just do a little bit at a time so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
My son does have friends at school but they’re a small, select group. He wants to have more but many of his peers find him a little odd and unfortunately it’s a perception that once made is hard to change.
I know that once my son leaves school he’ll find his place in the world but it won’t be easy for him. What would make the biggest difference to his chances is if the world knew more about people who lived with developmental disorders and accepted them for who they are. One day this will happen, just as the barriers about talking about mental health are crumbling. Until then I’ll educate as many people as I can about dyspraxia as it is only through awareness that we can hope to affect change.