“Dys-what? Do you mean Dyslexia?”
A handful of my friends have admitted that they struggle to understand me, and how hidden conditions or specific learning difficulties can affect me in day-to-day situations. This article is for the kind and well meaning friends of Dyspraxic students – I hope it helps to explain from first-hand experience what it is like to manage and overcome an invisible set of struggles in the university setting.
It’s 6.45am, Monday. Time to get ready for a busy day at university. For breakfast, she takes out a bowl from the kitchen cupboard, and then a carton of apple juice from the fridge. Both the bowl and the apple juice somehow accompany her to the cutlery draw, where she takes out a spoon. She walks to the sink, then changes her mind and goes to the table, trying to remember what on earth she was intending to do with that carton of juice. She’s aware of a voice, her flatmate’s trying to start a conversation with her. Noise of traffic outside distracts her. What’s the time again? Before she can locate the answer in her jumbled mind, she senses the box of cereal now in her hand drop to the floor – crispy flakes go everywhere. Oops-a-daisy!
MEMORY; COORDINATION: A dyspraxic student might struggle with remembering lots of information or lists – we tend to get very easily distracted! This can lead to stressful situations in the university context, such as forgetting appointments, mixing up our diary or timetable. We also have to put extra effort into cooking, where concentration and multi-tasking are very important, but don’t always come naturally. Though I have learned to cook reasonably well (albeit rather slowly!) it does take a lot of effort to coordinate my movements, and focus on one task. It can be an even greater challenge when we’re stressed, or if our mind is wandering onto other matters.
It’s now 7.03. She’s missed the bus she was going to catch to campus. She anxiously waits for the next one, which is packed and standing. She wobbles about and feels unstable; rushed off the train by all the people around her. It’s now tipping it down, so she starts jogging. Her raincoat: she KNEW she had forgotten something. She slips in a puddle. Panic overwhelms her; her body feels drawn to danger like there’s some form of inbuilt magnetism in her body.
GROSS-MOTOR CONTROL; BALANCE; SPATIAL AWARENESS: Dyspraxics are said to have a “clumsy gait”. The condition can significantly affect balance and gross motor movements. I’m very heavy-handed and seem to be “accident prone” – I once broke a washing machine simply by opening the door! People with dyspraxia may also mix up their left and right (last week I had a jig with someone in the corridor because I couldn’t figure out how to dodge around them). I struggle to map-read, due to poor sense of direction and spatial awareness (sense of ourselves in relation to our surroundings). At home or far, dyspraxics can feel lost, so the Google Maps app is a must-have.
By the time she eventually gets to the first lecture (after bumping into a bunch of baffled students) she is exhausted. Coughing, whispering, and moving: she simply can’t follow the monotonous voice of the lecturer due to all the background stimuli.
AUDITORY PROCESSING: Students with dyspraxia may have slow auditory processing (so listening in lectures can be hard, we hear words but often miss a LOT of key info.) Try to be patient if you know your friend struggles to process info – perhaps give them one instruction/piece of info at a time so they have time to think about it. Chances are they care very much about what you have to say, but might also get carried away talking about something they are passionate about, and struggle with speech cues.
The tutor picks on her and asks a question. Because of all the sensory stimulation surrounding her though, she can’t form the words to respond. In group discussions she doesn’t always time her contributions properly, so by the time she’s thought of something good to add, the conversation has moved on!
LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION: Dyspraxia affects the way we process language. At times I find it hard to express myself properly and select the right words, despite knowing what I want to say. We want to keep up with and understand the pace of human communication, but sometimes we are significantly slower to follow conversations and can misread subtleties (notably sarcasm and irony). Group conversations are most challenging as there is more to focus on. [Some people have Verbal Dyspraxia/Apraxia, which affects speech and pronunciation of words].
She tries to write down everything she hears in the class, really wants to get all the good ideas down, but she can scarcely read back her own handwriting (it’s a unique scrawly style). How is she going to manage to write her essay if she has no notes to work from?
FINE-MOTOR CONTROL: As well as struggling with gross motor movements, fine motor skills (coordination of muscles and bones in small movements) can be tough too. Writing can pose a problem for many dyspraxics. I have poor pen grip, and it hurts to write for hours at a time. Students with dyspraxia often have extra time in their exams to compensate for this difficulty, and the use of a computer to type makes a huge difference. Note taking is a challenge, but sitting at the front of the lecture theatre and using a voice recorder can help alleviate this stress.
In the evening she is peer-pressured into meeting with her friends; she never was terribly assertive. Trouble is, they’re meeting at a bar, and the noise and lights and business overwhelm her before she’s even attempted to order a drink! She can’t tell them that from fear of embarrassment. She has a Dyspraxic Moment and trips in the bar, without even having taken a sip of alcohol. It’s all too much, she just wants to get home.
OVERWHELM IN SOCIAL SITUATIONS: Social situations can be emotionally exhausting. It’s hard to suppress the fear of committing another Dyspraxic Disaster and have a good time. ‘Social awkwardness’ seems to follow me around. It may seem like a dyspraxic student is in their own world, but it’s important to consider that, chances are, they are really trying to listen and concentrate on what you’re telling them.
She already has class work to do when she gets home. She is determined to find the answers to her assignment questions, though it takes her a long time to scan through the sea of text to find the relevant information – comprehension never was easy.
VISUAL PERCEPTION; READING: Dyspraxic students may take considerably longer to read, or plan/structure an essay – that’s because we have so many great ideas in our brains (did I mention how creative dyspraxics can be!?), but sometimes aren’t very efficient in sorting through them. [Some people might also have Visual Stress/Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (a condition I will write more about in a future post) and use coloured filters or glasses to help them read faster.]
After much perseverance the words start to jump around, so she puts the book to one side, and tries to relax. It takes her a long time to fall asleep – her mind running through the events of the day.
STRUGGLING TO RELAX; EMOTIONAL DIFFICULTIES: Relaxing and falling asleep can be difficult due to the sheer quantity of information to process and think about. The amalgamation of several things going wrong in one day can result in anxious feelings building up very quickly – we tend to get easily tired because of the overload to our sensitive system, so we do need to take breaks and spend some time alone, perhaps a little more often than non-dyspraxic students. If your friend needs extra support to help them cope, this isn’t a weakness.
The above isn’t merely a bad day – similar logistical nightmares are a regular reality for many dyspraxic students who struggle on in silence.
The condition can affect a student profoundly and threaten to impact upon their wellbeing, so it’s useful to have at least a basic awareness of general difficulties faced.
• Try to be reassuring in overwhelming situations and respect your friend’s wishes in social situations (going out for example) – dyspraxics don’t cope well when over-stimulated
• Listen and be thoughtful instead of coming across as critical
• Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something – this will mean a lot to your friend, and show how much you care
• Try to be patient and try not to take something personally
• Separate the person from their condition and love their quirks too if you can, because dyspraxics can be very caring, compassionate, and creative people too!
[Note: please do not take this blog as a stereotypical depiction of dyspraxia. Not all dyspraxics share the same traits – I am sharing my personal experience with a view to helping others gain a better understanding of some aspects of dyspraxia, though this blog is by no means an exhaustive/comprehensive list of traits.]
This Dyspraxia Awareness Week (11th-17th October), I challenge you not to judge but to listen, and not assume a hidden condition defines who your friend is as a person – there is so much more to a person than their difficulties, and as their friend, you can help to bring out their best qualities.