Learning with dyspraxia: ‘I finally got a reason for my clumsy nature’

Biggest challenges for young people with condition are usually in school

Dyspraxia is estimated to affect somewhere between 6 and 10 per cent of the population, but it remains a largely hidden disability – and one that can negatively impact a child’s schooling and life outcomes.

Also known as developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), dyspraxia is primarily a condition that affects physical co-ordination. About 2 per cent of people are severely affected.

Róisín Keane (18) was first diagnosed when she was nine.

“It was interesting to finally get a reason for my clumsy nature,” she says. “It affects me in my everyday life. I’d bump into things or bang doors every so often. As a child, I had a hard time catching a ball.”

The biggest challenges for young people with dyspraxia, however, are usually in school.

“It affects how I co-ordinate my thoughts as much as it affects my hand and leg co-ordination,” says Keane.

“As I am in sixth year, my life revolves around those exams in June. When the time is hanging over your head in State exams, you really see the gap in equality. Dyspraxia isn’t stopping me; people are.

“I can wiggle my way around my problems if I’m [supported], but the State and the people who should understand are the ones who truly don’t get the big picture. Give us time to complete our work and don’t make it difficult for us to prove that we need assistive technology. Students who need reasonable accommodations are not being heard.”

James, who is using only his first name to protect his son's identity, is involved in the Lucan Hub Club, which supports children with dyspraxia and their families and which holds sporting events, parent nights and local and virtual talks.

“Some cases are severe and some less severe,” James says. “It does affect children socially, because there can be high levels of anxiety when they realise that they are different.

"We try to take a strengths-based approach, focusing on well-known people with dyspraxia, including actor Daniel Radcliffe, singer Florence Welch, model and actor Cara Delevingne and of course physicist Albert Einstein. "

Keane says that, while dyspraxia leaves her with a muddled thought process, this can be a positive.

“The result can be interesting and creative ideas, so while my way of learning may be slightly different to my peers, it allows me to showcase my true ability,” he says.

“Áine”, a parent who asked to remain anonymous, is also involved in the Lucan Hub Club. She says the first sign that her daughter may be dyspraxic was how her handwriting was not improving.

“The initial challenge was getting the diagnosis, and we had to go private. Forget going public: you can be waiting for years. Even then, we needed an occupational therapist assessment and a paediatric sign-off, and this took us over two years.

“The degree that fine motor skills are affected for dyspraxic people varies. For some people, eating is an issue [because] bringing a fork from plate to mouth is a challenge. In our case, writing is the issue. Our daughter can swim and cycle, she reads voraciously, has a great vocabulary and is very articulate.”

Across the board, parents of dyspraxic children say that, if they couldn’t afford to go private – and many who go private are put into debt – their children would not have received a diagnosis and support.

This means thousands of families who can’t access a diagnosis will see their children fall behind.

"If you are from a home where there are a lot of additional challenges or issues, the chances of dyspraxia being picked up are less," says Sharon Lane, CEO of Dyspraxia/DCD Ireland. "Awareness, even among professionals, is limited, and this has a knock-on effect on a child's education.

Áine says that support from other parents helped them understand and support their own child.

Dyspraxia Ireland has scaled back its co-ordination of local support groups because, says Lane, it did not have the resources. Across the country, parents of dyspraxic children say this is impacting on their ability to secure insurance and hold events or set up local clubs.

Intensive support

All dyspraxic people and their families interviewed here say the problem is not necessarily the dyspraxia itself, but the lack of understanding around the condition and the degree to which children struggle to access the necessary support.

Several also say that there is no gold standard test and, compared with other neurodiverse conditions – autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia – there is limited research on dyspraxia.

Neasa Sheahan is principal of the Catherine McAuley reading school in Dublin, which provides intensive support for children with severe dyslexia but also has a large number of students with dyspraxia (as the two conditions are often diagnosed together).

“It affects different children in different ways,” Sheahan says. “Most commonly, it impacts on a child’s handwriting; they often hate writing because it takes them so long and is so laborious. The single most important intervention for children is assistive technology – computers and laptops – but it is important that they have mastered the skill of using it to access the curriculum before they begin secondary school.

“The medical model of disability, however, means that accessing any kind of support to make education more accessible is a massive palaver. Children have to prove how bad their disability is for them to qualify for what they need. One of the ways in which resources are allocated in schools is around complexity of need, but this has not yet been defined and so it can be hard for schools to appeal.”

Dyspraxic people, their families and educators say the school system remains overfocused on handwriting, and that educators should have more flexibility to allow children to use assistive technology.

“There’s a fear that, if they get the assistive technology but don’t have a diagnosis by the time of the Junior or Leaving Cert, they’ll have to handwrite their exams,” says Sheahan.

“There can be issues at third level but it is generally so much easier there,” says Lane. “Children are getting there, though, because of the work parents do with them. So why does it have to be made so much more difficult in the school system?”

Signs of dyspraxia

  • * Late milestones (sitting, walking, speaking)
  • * Difficulty running, hopping, jumping or getting dressed
  • * Poor pencil grip
  • * Difficulty sorting shapes
  • * Unable to kick or catch a ball
  • * Immature art work
  • * No understanding of prepositions (in front of/ behind/ on etc)
  • See dyspraxia.ie for more information

What could make life better for dyspraxic children in school?

'Provide teachers with information' 
Claire, dyspraxic adult: "Schools should not wait for investigation disclosure of neurodiversity. They know they will have [children with dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism and ADHD] so why not be ready for it? Provide teachers with information so they have a good steer on whether someone has co-ordination difficulties and, while not dismissing it, don't necessarily over-pathologise it either. In the workplace, meanwhile, small adjustments – providing quiet spaces, alternatives to handwriting – can be of assistance to dyspraxic people and other neurodivergent people."

'Greater use of technology' 
Neasa Sheahan, principal: "Technology is the most useful way to help students overcome limitations, so a review of the relevant department of education circulars, involving all stakeholders, would help."

'More access to occupational therapy'  
Áine, parent: "Integrate occupational therapy into the school – so, for instance, they could do balance work in PE. Provide national training on neurodiversity. And provide support for local clubs that could offer support to children and families."

'Less focus on pens and copybooks' 
Sharon Lane, CEO of Dyspraxia/ DCD Ireland: "Children are expected to fit into the system that is still focused on copybooks and pens, so there needs to be more room for laptops, whiteboards and electronic devices."