The Dyspraxic achievement paradox

I’m aware I haven’t written anything for a long time – too long, regrettably. For that I apologise… Much has happened (good things and not so good things). Good things: I have been planning an exciting year abroad next year, and have done well to receive a competitive scholarship to study abroad! Not so good things: After a series of less than satisfying results for some ‘academic’ University work, I have had a prompt to write about my experiences again in the hope I can react positively to these negative results.

I believe what I am experiencing with these continuous academic disappointments is a very common scenario among students with Dyspraxia, ADHD, Dyslexia and the like, but a difficult phenomenon to articulate. Many are aware of difficulties, but not everyone questions why? How? In my experience, lecturers are academics and though they may give up time to try to help, they tend to lack knowledge of coping with SpLds. Similarly, support staff like mentors/skills tutors may have a great understanding of my needs, but unfortunately don’t understand my subject enough to help with its academic context.

I imagine that many parents share the frustration – whether in GCSEs, A-Levels or other, children try so hard to overcome the difficulties with which they are faced, by putting in extra hours with tutors, mentors, their friends, doing extra reading… And yet none of these attempts seem to really help. The core ‘problems’ remain. People may say that Dyspraxia is a condition you can overcome. But the reality is sadly not so optimistic…

In some cases, the disappointment with academic achievements can lead to perhaps extreme thoughts like wanting to quit your degree and give up entirely on academic qualification because you feel utterly useless despite your best efforts. Often I wonder if lecturers (or teachers for that matter) truly consider the detrimental effect a comment like ‘your (insert subject here) needs work’ will have on said students’ well-being, especially when feedback of this nature fails to offer specific advice. I need to be told simply and explicitly in an accessible way: how do I actually improve? The jargon lecturers use, the accelerated pace at which they impart their knowledge, is simply too much for me to cope with.

What’s the paradox?

We compensate for the areas in which we lack, time and time again. I have good reasoning skills, great spelling ability, and top vocabulary knowledge (91 percentile would you believe!) Even the psychologist confirmed it: intellectually I fall within the ‘average’ range, and I managed to get into a top university, and succeed in gaining internships/places on trips abroad. Despite this, I struggle to put together an essay, which seems to be what’s important nowadays – coherent planning, building up a solid argument, incorporating the perfect amount of secondary criticism…

It all might sound manageable but for a dyspraxic student, getting your thoughts together is tough. Even doing all the necessary reading takes hours if you have Meares Irlen/Visual Stress – words jump about on the page. Concentrating on something for longer than half an hour, and getting the right end of the stick when interpreting an idiomatic literary passage are just some of the challenges humanities students with SpLds face. And there isn’t enough awareness of these, particularly among academics, who frequently ask me to help them to help me.

How does Dyspraxia affect a student academically?

In my case, my ‘Dyspraxic difficulties’ predominantly relate to a significantly low auditory processing speed. My capacity for mental manipulation of auditory material is significantly weaker than my verbal knowledge and reasoning skills.

In reality, being at a top university with a condition like Dyspraxia can make life very challenging in so many ways. It isn’t as simple as ‘not worrying’ or thinking positively. When something goes wrong – such as getting a ‘bad’ mark – and particularly when you know you’ve tried your best, spent several hours working on it in the library, followed by hours meticulously proof-reading and peer-reviewing – it’s unsurprising to be flooded with incontrollable feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

As I write this post, I’m trying not to feel demoralised – I’m trying very hard to “look on the bright side” as my wise friends keep telling me.

“It’s not the end of the world”, “it’s just one bad mark”, and I suppose they are right.

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Is there a solution?

This is something I have been considering for some time. At times like this it can be necessary to take a step back and gain some objectivity. I’d love to shout yes, “you can overcome your difficulties if you try hard enough”. It’s only now that I’m learning: trying isn’t enough. Acceptance seems to be the only comfort.

Surround yourself by people and things that do make you happy, and remember that you can’t enjoy all parts of the degree/be good at everything all the time – being perfect would be unnatural, and just because you’re taking exams/doing an academic course doesn’t mean you’ve sold your soul to it. The discomfort and dissatisfaction is so hard to process but it is a temporary state – look to your friends and family for support and reassurance because chances are, they will think you’re doing much better than you feel you are.

I ask professionals, academics, parents, and teachers – if you don’t understand the way a child/student’s mind is working, try asking them how you can help. Show an interest in how others learn and be patient with them – reward a child’s determination to learn. With the right amount of support and guidance, they may just get the hang of what you’re trying to explain to them. Think about any particular strengths the pupil might have, and whether you could get around a problem/make the child feel better about themselves by focusing on those!

And… don’t lose sight of the most important thing in learning: enjoyment. Avoid letting yourself become so obsessed by marks and grading and expectations in an already pressurising world – please don’t put someone off their interest.

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