Clumsy And Awkward? Dyspraxia May Explain It.
When I was a little girl of about three in the early 1970s, my mother took me to my first dancing class. Embarrassed by my total lack of co-ordination, she marched me out, never to return. I can’t remember what she said but my memory of how it felt is embedded on a cellular level. I have always been clumsy and I have always known it.
I excelled at some things at school but sport was not one of them. I’m still tormented by memories of missing the ball as I grasped for the air around it, twenty five sets of eyes burning into me. The laughing and taunting soon followed. The torture continued in the brutality of picking teams.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the aerobics craze. I was a teenager and it provided another opportunity to parade fluoro gear. But how on earth do you know what to move and when? There was no point trying to follow the instructor as they were facing the opposite way and try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with the person in front. I would leave frustrated and full of unspent energy, especially if I had twisted my ankle part way in.
It’s not that I don’t like to exercise. In fact physical fitness is a crucial part of managing the business of being me. But I’ve long since given up anything that involves a complex sequence of movements or having a team depend on me. I’ve developed a preference for simple, solitary activities such as running and swimming.
And yet, it seems that even staying upright whilst running in a straight line is beyond me. A few years ago I was on an early morning jog when I lost my footing and landed on my left shoulder. An x-ray in hospital emergency revealed an upper humerus fracture in four places. My surgeon later described how his colleagues had gathered around the image to play ‘guess the trauma incident’. Car accident? Violent blow? No. Slipped on literally nothing, perhaps momentarily distracted by a passing dog.
Two months afterwards, I lost my footing again, this time falling on my backside and breaking my collarbone while walking into the lift at work. Yes, walking into the lift. Yes, my collarbone.
I followed my surgeon’s suggestion and got tested for bone density which turned out to be abnormally low. Combine that with having trouble staying on your feet and you have a perfect storm. The only wonder was that I hadn’t broken any bones before. I’m super-cautious these days. Crossing the street feels like an adventure sport.
That little jogging slip was a gift that kept on giving: three lots of surgery including a recent shoulder replacement. A few more months of physio and I should be right as rain. Finally able to reach for the alcohol on the top shelf with my left arm.
More revelation was on its way: last year I was diagnosed autistic. In the process of learning as much as I could about autism, I also learned about dyspraxia.
Also known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder, dyspraxia is a condition that affects the way information is transmitted via neural pathways in the brain. It impacts on the ability to plan and process motor tasks, affecting a broad range of tasks involving motor skills, spatial awareness, direction, planning and organisation.
It’s estimated that up to 10% of people experience dyspraxia. It’s not unusual for it to co-exist with neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD although some people have it on its own. Dyspraxia is more of a loose constellation of traits rather that a strict definition. A person might have difficulties in some areas but not others.
As well as sometimes co-occurring with autism and ADHD, dyspraxia has traits in common with them as indicated by the above graphic. Lists of traits for dyspraxia can include difficulties following instructions, fitting into groups, concentrating, picking up non-verbal signs, adapting to unpredictable situations, as well as sensory sensitivity, impulsivity and emotional outbursts. They may also include secondary effects such as frustration and lack of self esteem. For me, the overlap manifests in the social awkwardness I feel in some situations: there is a sense my body being out of sync with my environment.
I haven’t been formally diagnosed with dyspraxia but I tick so many boxes that it seems like an inescapable truth. Just like knowing I have autism, I’m happy to run with something that provides validation and explains the previously unexplainable. Like discovering I was autistic, learning about dyspraxia allowed me to see a whole lot of odd and disparate traits as part of a unified whole.
These are some of the things I’ve struggled with throughout my life which it turns out are gathered under the umbrella of dyspraxia.
Gross Motor skills
This is how we co-ordinate the body to use the big muscle groups to perform the big movements — running, jumping, throwing and staying upright. Lacking these skills is what makes me clumsy. It’s woven into my everyday life. I’m forever walking into walls and and doorframes. In my own home. That I’ve lived in for a number of years. Some with dyspraxia talk about having unexplained cuts and bruises.
I’m constantly dropping and spilling things. It took me a while to realise it would actually save me time transporting a bunch of things to another room in three trips instead of one. I’m more likely to experience this when I’m sleep- deprived, overwhelmed or stressed. There was one particularly trying week when I broke the full set of six wine glasses.
Unlike some people with dyspraxia, I don’t have problems with fine motor skills: the use of smaller muscles to complete tasks such as tying shoelaces, drawing and writing. I‘m not sure why. It could be that the solitary, creative activities I took refuge in as a child (such as making rows of creatures from tiny shells) helped develop and strengthen the neural pathways involved.
Spatial awareness and visual perception
Lack of awareness of the body’s position in space and of spatial relationships is a feature of dyspraxia. I often feel awkward in a public gathering because I just don’t know what to do with my body: how to stand, what way to face. I’ll walk around a group of people rather than navigating my way through them. When I’m driving I tend to think other vehicles are a lot closer than they are. I don’t sacrifice incidental exercise because I so often choose to park 10 minutes away rather than try and execute a reverse park. I avoid any space where I’m not confident of being able to manouvre the car without causing damage.
I am incredibly guarded about my personal space. I could probably write a post just on that issue, there is so much to unpack. I need to have my back to the wall in a room where there’s a group of people and I don’t like anyone sneaking up behind me. I have a larger buffer zone around me than the average person. I don’t like it when people invade it and I’ve been known to tell them so. Crowds are a nightmare, especially in a confined space. Unless I want to risk a panic attack they’re best avoided.
Sense of direction
During my time backpacking around the world I have quite literally gone off the beaten track many times. But the truth is, I don’t need to be far from home to get lost. I once took a new date to pick up a pizza but couldn’t find the restaurant in the main street of the neighbouring suburb. I don’t know what I did before Google Maps. I use it even for familiar routes because you, know, you need to know which is the fastest. Some people affected by this aspect of dyspraxia have trouble telling left from right. I think a muscle memory of wearing a watch on my left hand for many years saved me from that, provided that I remember which arm is my left.
Organisational skills, planning and following instructions
This is an area of my life that requires constant vigilance. Being autistic means that the imperative to feel that my life is under control is very strong but I struggle with executive functioning. As being organised doesn’t come naturally, I have to employ a range of strategies. I rely on a system of paper and electronic calendars, diaries and lists to keep things ticking along. I like to have information represented visually in a way that I can make sense of it at a glance: clear step by step instructions, flowcharts, bullet points, short paragraphs with headings and mind-maps for non-sequential relationships. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks I have to do and have difficulty prioritising them. I try to break things down into smaller tasks and cross them off the list as I go.
Speech and language
I believe this is one aspect of dyspraxia that affected me more as a child. I remember mixing up similar sounds (th/s/f). Curiously, my mother sent me to elocution lessons in an attempt to rectify it. However as an adult I do sometimes feel like I am tripping over my words as sentences come out garbled. Best to put the complex stuff in an email.
Children who are diagnosed with dyspraxia today would likely receive support from an occupational therapist or speech therapist. Medical professionals observe that children with dyspraxia learn to compensate for the things they find difficult by creatively and finding other ways of doing things. They can be resourceful and determined. Adults who discover their neurology later in life find a path between continuing their coping mechanisms and making adjustments to their lives.
Sometimes you just have to laugh it off. My life is challenging and it’s hard work. My autism bundle also includes a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. But I resist buying into the deficit-based medical model and focus on my strengths. Broken bones aside, dyspraxia actually gives me some light relief in a slapstick kind of a way. It feels like my body is having a laugh.
If you’re interested in what the profile of strengths and weaknesses might look like in an autistic person, I’ve written about it here: