Monday, 19 December 2016

Praxing this Dyspraxing: My Experience of Dyspraxia

I guess I'm pretty lucky being able to write my blogpost in my own way. I never used to be so candid in my opinions unless I was called upon my Religious Studies tutor to proffer an analysis of Richard Dawkins' anti-God delusion or Thomas Aquinas's penchant for santictising life on an infinite scale. Forming grammatically correct sentences and choosing the right words to try and make an impact can be a struggle for ordinary journos but when you're dyspraxic, and mildly dyslexic, it can seem like a mammoth challenge that requires a mindset Maggie May herself would be proud of. What if your article doesn't meet the required standards for final publication? What if punters spot your grammatical mistakes and compare you to Donald Trump for not being a thorough enough self- proofreader? It's incredibly important for budding journalists, editors, playwrights and other fellow creatives to know that being dyspraxic and/or dyslexic won't preclude you from chasing a career with the national tabloids and broadsheets or to get your article published on Buzzfeed or Vox. Dyspraxic creatives don't possess "a lower level of intelligence" and aren't essentially "low energy" people who can't be trusted to meet newspaper deadlines; we just have different methods of working to  construct our pieces and we do our best to strive to meet or exceed expectations placed on us. Part of the problem stems from the fact that very few employers know fully about dyspraxia as a condition and the bitty knowledge they may have may come from perpetuated stereotypes that classify dyspraxic people as "clumsy", "unreliable" or "difficult to work with". I feel these attitudes need to be changed and the stereotypes decoded.

Here's my bulletpoint by bulletpoint short introduction to dyspraxia and a small insight into living and coping with the condition:
  • Dyspraxia, or Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD) is a "condition that affects fine and/or gross motor coordination" (Dyspraxia Foundation: "About Dyspraxia").
  • There are different types of dyspraxia that have been identified by child psychologists in recent years:
    • Ideamotor dyspraxia is identified in children and adults who find it difficult to complete single-step motor tasks; so if a child finds it difficult to comb their hair or to say goodbye to anyone on a daily basis, they may have ideamotor dyspraxia.
    • Ideational dyspraxia is identified in children and adults who find it difficult to perform a sequence of movements that typically go together; so if your partner finds it difficult to remember how to make a bed or to brush their teeth even though you've  reminded them a 100 times, they may have ideational dyspraxia.
    • Oromotor dyspraxia is identified in children and adults who find it difficult to co-ordinate muscle movements of the mouth to pronounce words in a Standard English manner. Children may have speech that is slurred and difficult to understand because they are unable to enunciate.
    • Constructional dyspraxia is identified in children and adults who may find it harder to understand spatial relationships; if your Mum has trouble drawing geometric designs to help you with your homework or your brother finds it difficult to solve puzzles, they may have constructional dyspraxia.
  • Researchers are unsure what exactly causes dyspraxia; it may be caused by a genetic problem with nerve cells that send signals from the brain to muscle tissue. There are risk factors that may make it more likely a foetus might be born with dyspraxia, such as being born prematurely (before the 37th week), being born with a low birth weight (that was me!), or the mother excessively drinking or taking illegal drugs while pregnant.
  • Dyspraxia is a lifelong learning disability which has no cure. There are no pills I can take to suddenly make me able to write entirely legibly 100% of the time or to take away the cramp I get after a few hours of typing up my thoughts. It made me very upset when I was first told this after diagnosis aged 6 in 1994 but once I faced the fact that I'd never be an "average" child I became determined to try and learn how to cope with the motor control challenges that I was faced with. Before I was diagnosed I had already had intensive support to help with my initial speech and language development (I didn't decide to utter my first words until I was nearly 4 years old and only when prompted by a speech and language therapist) and I had to be taught how to hold a knife and fork properly, which took 6 months! I knew that I'd never be able to ride a bike so I always made sure that I had money for the bus to attend after school activities. I had trouble catching or kicking a ball but I was never a footballer wannabe...more of a Spice Girl wannabe. I guess my sexuality and gender differences helped rather than hindered me!
  • Back in the mid 1990s, dyspraxia was only just being talked about as a learning disability and few children and adults had been diagnosed with the condition let alone effective treatment being devised. I was extremely lucky to have had primary teachers who cared about me so much they wanted to find out why I was struggling with practical tasks. My dyspraxia diagnosis led to me getting a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) from my local authority (Lincolnshire) who paid for 1-1 physiotherapist sessions to help improve my motor skills. Mrs Searston was my physio for 4 years and I thank her every day for having helped me gain the control needed to grip a pen to write down my thoughts properly and to catch a ball without worrying about being hit in the face. When I broke my right arm falling off a rope slide aged 8 I had to re-learn how to write and how to hold a fork and knife and I'd have never got back to a satisfactory motor-skill level without extra lessons with Mrs Searston. Sadly very few primary school and secondary school pupils now have access to regular physio with a physiotherapist they get to know over a period of a few years within their own school environment. Dyspraxia is more than just being "clumsy" or not being able to cycle or catch a football. In fact there are dyspraxic people who can do both!
  • Being re-diagnosed as an adult whilst at University was awkward for me. Whilst I appreciated the need for the psychologist to test my spatial problem solving skills I did feel a bit silly having to create solutions using building blocks or remembering some random pieces of information from a passage talking about Rachel losing her umbrella on the train. The assessment itself was conducted calmly and I didn't feel nervous about completing the tasks. When I read the results of the assessment I was upset because the way it was written made me seem like a failure who'd never be able to cope with the challenges of advanced academic study or enter the world of work. I felt as if I'd not really made that much progress. However, it's very important that dyspraxic university students who have to be re-diagnosed remind themselves of what they had to achieve academically to get to university in the first place. I managed to achieve 5 A's at A Level and a B at AS Level to get into the University of York (a Russell Group University) to read English and Philosophy. All the hours I had spent on reading and re-reading novels, play scripts and poetry to make sure I understood the semantics and pragmatics of the texts, all the hours I had spent going through theories detailing 18th century atheistic and agnostic beliefs about God  and all the hours I had spent learning the intricacies of French and German grammar etc. matters. I earned my place at Uni, so why should I feel upset about an assessment which still proved that I had an exceptional awareness of general knowledge and a slightly higher than average reading ability? It's much better to accentuate the positives and realise there are some things that I cannot change. I'm never going to be a fantastic geometric drawer or builder and I'm not going to be the next Jess Ennis-Hill or Anton Du Beke but that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things!
So what are some of the effects of being dyspraxic?
  • Dyspraxia can affect a person's ability to structure sentences, paragraphs and to create a cohesive essay or article but dyspraxic students at university can achieve a 2:1 or First even in essay laden subjects like English Literature and Philosophy. I should know because I'm one of them! I managed to gain a 2:1 for my English and Philosophy degree from the University of York and I studied modules as diverse as "Gender and Identity from John Locke to Jane Austen" to "Philosophy of Art". There's something fantastically empowering about uncovering the stories of writers such as Fanny Burney and Aphra Behn who revelled in being "different from the norm" and I managed to decode themes and socio-historical context and write about them in the same way as my fellow English students. It's really about making sure you plan your essay comprehensively; make sure what you're hoping to cover paragraph-by-paragraph, plan your research and make sure to type up quotes needed for your essay to support your argument (make reference to the source in the footnotes of your essay and in the bibliography) and proofread your essay before you submit it, taking into account the word count quota and you'll be fine. The best thing to do is to choose primary texts that pip your interest and that you'll not tire of...that's why I chose to write my essays about Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish's satire and Iris Murdoch's treatment of absurd relationships with reference to Virtue Ethics theory and Aristotle.
  • Dyspraxia can make it difficult for a suffer to write substantive answers to essay questions in exam conditions because of fine motor control issues; rest time is vital to allow the hand to recover from the stress of having to concentrate on letter formation. Typing exam answers is certainly one way to get around the letter formation issue but time will still need to be given to rest the hand. As long as you have a valid diagnosis your personal Uni tutor should be able to negotiate this with exam invigilators.
  • Sometimes I do find myself repeating ideas and concepts when I'm writing texts or speaking in a debate. I know that I have a bank of lexis that I seem to fall back on and it can be a bit irksome for readers to keep seeing the same constructions. However, repetition isn't always a bad thing in speech as it can help to get  across the importance that you attach to your readers/viewers understanding key ideas and concepts that underpin your argument. Keep yourself in check by rehearsing speeches, editing where necessary and try and take account of register and tone.  Having an uncontrollable pitch can be a nightmare at times too but you can even use pitch to your advantage; it shows that you have character to your voice that very few would be able to copy. Try and read your audience to see how they react but if you can't, don't worry about it! It's the content of your speech and whether you can communicate your message across effectively that matters most!
  • I can be overly sensitive to light which means that I will type with the light off and blinds closed if I'm working on an essay or article during the day. I know that will be weird for friends to see but as I do it from home it doesn't really matter. I did used to do it whilst employed as an Accounts Assistant and I think that my colleagues used to think I was trying to get away with doing the minimal amount of data entry but they got used to seeing the room dark in the end. The reason why I worked on data entry alone is because I found constant chatter a bit distracting, especially when I was trying to finalise purchase ledger figures or complete the payroll. I wasn't being anti-social but I just tend to work faster in a quiet environment. When I did lighter tasks I didn't need complete radio silence and I did socialise with my colleagues during breaks and lunch time!
  • I am ambidextrous; I write with my right hand but touch type with my left hand. It never used to be that way but over the years I've found it easier to separate motor tasks and my coordination and typing speed seems to have increased as a result. 12 years ago my typing speed was around 30 words per minute (wpm) which is below average for an administrative/office based job; now I can type at 60 wpm on average with few spelling mistakes. So I say it's imperative to encourage a dyspraxic person to start using the laptop/computer in lessons across the National Curriculum, so that they can master the repetitive typing movements and get used to using spelling programmes to help them decode words and phrases they need to know in order to pass key exams. There's no reason why dyspraxic students can't take notes during a History lesson on Henry VIII and use the internet or dictionary to look up words they do not understand whilst the teacher is speaking. Allowing a student to take charge of their own learning empowers them and makes them more likely to take in and process the information they need to process to answer exam questions.
  • I used to find following a set of instructions accurately very difficult, especially if they were never written down. On average it takes me at least 3 minutes to get a sense of what's required of me in a physical task and the more instructions that are given to me in a short space of time, the harder it is to sequence them and remember them. This doesn't mean you've had a #BrainFail, it just means that you shouldn't be afraid to ask your tutor/manager to repeat the instructions a few times so that you can remember the sequence and perform it accurately. Also, I find it a good idea to avoid making the tea...I couldn't always remember how many sugars my colleagues wanted in their tea or coffee and my HR Manager never bothered to write the requests down. Luckily I had colleagues who were more than willing to make me a cuppa or two during the day and I never felt guilty about asking them, as I always remembered my Ps and Qs. Manners cost nothing, remember!
  • I do find I have a tendency of opting out of tasks that I find difficult but they usually tend to be physically based. I remember a HR exercise I took part in whilst employed as an Accounts Assistant in Lincoln and we were asked to become part of an assembly line helping to wire plugs. I was given the task of preparing the wires for insertion into the plug but I found it incredibly difficult to use the stripping tool and after 5 minutes of "umming and aahing" I gave up and decided to micro-manage the task to make sure the plugs were completed, including Quality Control checking. It turned out I was very good at motivating colleagues on the assembly but not so good at the Quality Control, which irked one of my colleagues, who called me useless. It can be a difficult HR situation to be involved in but the key to trying to defuse the situation was to explain why my dyspraxia had made it difficult for me to wire the plugs and how my lack of awareness of wiring plugs meant that I couldn't really Quality Control check efficiently. I don't think the colleague concerned was fully satisfied but the reality is that dyspraxia can limit a person's ability to complete physical tasks fully, even if they wanted to be an essential part of the team. Suffice to say I've not applied for engineering or electrician apprenticeships since I went through the HR simulation!
  • I have sometimes felt ashamed of "being different" to my peers but I realised that there isn't much merit in "trying to fit in" anyways. As long as you knuckle down, try and find your academic or vocational niche and treat your peers with compassion and kindness, that's all that really matters. I knew a dyspraxic guy at school, Jack, who was angry that his mates wouldn't let him play rugby after school because they saw him as a "liability" and the continued rejection led to him self harming through cutting his arms with whatever sharp object he could find. I only found out about it after Jack had been self-harming for 6 months; I remember coming to his house and waiting in the lounge. I needed the toilet so headed to the bathroom and as I was coming out of the toilet I saw Jack attempting to use a shard of broken glass to cut himself; Jack stopped when he saw me looking at him. I was horrified and convinced him to stop tell his Mum before he did it again. Later I realised that it must have been harder for Jack to accept his dyspraxia diagnosis because he'd been so outgoing and charismatic before he was diagnosed (he didn't find out until he was 14) and afterwards he felt that his friends were judging him and choosing to alienate him because they had researched videos of guys with dyspraxia and they were "stereotypically clumsy" and "always hurting themselves". I didn't know what to say to Jack to reassure him that most of his friends were not wanting to alienate him but to help him be safe but it took Jack a long time to regain his self-esteem. I count myself lucky that I never took comfort from self-harming but I'd be lying if I said there haven't been times in my life when I've considered myself worth-less than my non-dyspraxic friends. If you ever feel that you're not coping with the news that you have dyspraxia, I'd encourage you to go to your GP and ask to see a therapist. Cognitive behavioural therapy can really help you to talk through the problems that have arisen as a result of diagnosis so you can then help yourself to come up with coping strategies that can implemented at work- for example, if you find background noise distracting whilst doing admin work, you can ask your employer to consider moving you to a quieter space in the office, offer you noise cancelling headphones or think about a teleworking option that would allow you to work from home rather than in the office.
A few useful tips:
  • Think about using a calendar, keeping a diary to remember important dates and record key instructions that need to be memorised as they relate to tasks that need to be performed on a regular basis. For example, when I worked as a Bookkeeper I had to remember to access the Company Payroll on a monthly basis to make sure I had recorded my working hours correctly to get paid the right amount. I wrote down the instructions needed to access the program and after a few times of doing it I had committed it to memory. The diary was there as a crux in case I forgot the instructions and it made me feel confident that I'd never get into trouble for being inaccurate.
  • Learn how to use Microsoft Office competently by enrolling on the ECDL Extra and Advanced courses. Before I started on the Level 2 Microsoft Word course I only really knew how to perform basic computer tasks, such as writing an essay and inserting a picture from the Internet to illustrate an article. After I finished the Level 3 Microsoft Access course I felt so much more confident with using the Office Program, to the point that I knew that if an employer asked me to set up a database to keep track of debtors and creditors to their business and wanted weekly reports on changes in numbers being added to the database, I could process them without fretting about entering the wrong field or accidentally deleting a set of data without knowing how to retrieve it. This helped me tremendously when I went on to study the AAT Accountancy and Finance course at college because I knew that I had fine-tuned the computing skills I needed to achieve a pass when it came to using the accounting and payroll software. Sage Line 50 is pretty much the same as using a database inputting system so if you know how to use Access, you can master the Sage Accounts and Payroll system.
  • Ask your employer about flexi-time or teleworking arrangements if you're finding it hard to concentrate in the office. Sometimes a HR Manager will only be too happy to accommodate your needs as the freed up office space can be used by an apprentice.
  • If you are finding it difficult to get past the job search or interview stage, ask your Job Centre Advisor to get you on the Access To Work programme to help you with preparing for interviews and signposting you to local job clubs run by organisations such as the Sure Trust. You may also be eligible for an Access To Work grant, which is designed to help pay for practical support to help you start work or to set up a business (but is not for start-up costs e.g. paying for electricity). Practical support for dyspraxic people includes providing special equipment to help with structuring reports, paying the annual salary of a support worker or even disability awareness training for your colleagues so they better understand your condition.
  • Never talk yourself down. You are a wonderful person who deserves to succeed in life regardless of having dyspraxia. If Florence Welsh can start her own successful band and Daniel Radcliffe can overcome his self-esteem issues to become an extremely well known actor and "the face of Harry Potter", you can write the next script for a blockbuster or stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and deliver a kooky routine about being a dyspraxic person. Be compassionate towards others, be compassionate towards yourself and do everything you can to try and succeed in your chosen field (s). Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Don't be afraid to apply for a PR position or Accounts position even if you think you may not be "good enough" to get an interview despite having the qualifications needed to do the job. Be bold, be brave, be brilliant!