Belated awareness for #DyspraxiaWeek, and getting back into the swing of things

Hallo zusammen!

awareness-week-logoLast week (9th-15th Oct) was Dyspraxia Awareness Week. Staying true to my Dyspraxic qualities, my blog post is more than a week late. Sorry! On Sunday 9th I flew from Düsseldorf back home, to spend the autumn holiday with my family, friends, and boyfriend, who I missed very much. After many flights, re-visiting the SkyTrain experience, and analysing bus timetables, I’m relieved to say I made it there and back in one piece. Although the holiday was far too short and felt rushed in many ways, I feel stronger after the rest.

In light of the Awareness Week, I wanted to reflect upon, and remind myself of, some postive experiences of a dyspraxic language student managing abroad (two months down). Just what can be achieved?

home
“Where we love is our home – Home that our feet might leave, but not our hearts.”

Since I started my role as an English Language Assistant at the beginning of September, I believe my experience of struggling with dyspraxia has helped me to better understand and connect with my pupils. I can relate to Alex*, who struggles to keep up with the fast pace of the lesson, and always seems to be without a partner in pair work. I also accept quiet Sophie* who keeps herself to herself at break times. I can often see parts of myself in the pupils, which helps me to find ways of explaining things to meet their own needs.

I am more open-minded to differences – perhaps greater tolerance and sensitivity comes with that. Although I may get lost in a big group conversation, and struggle to commit all the details of a story to memory, I don’t lose the determination or the will to socialise. In this sense, not giving up is a positive attitude that dyspraxia helps to develop. When something goes wrong you end up fighting for it to go right.

On my far-from-smooth journey through the education system, I have been incredibly lucky to have the support of my family and friends. I also feel that I have become a much more independent thinker since moving from school to university. Throwing myself in often uncomfortable situations has actually been a blessing, hopefully for greater resilience in the long-term. We’ll see…

In the last few years, I have managed and passed two years of University, I have lived alone to complete an internship (twice), and the hugest leap I have ever made: living alone in Germany.  It wasn’t that long ago that I used to feel panic and overwhelm when entering Tesco. I’ve made progress in this area – I can go shopping in foreign countries, and communicate without English.

I have gained confidence to join clubs/activities, actively go and meet people of all ages and backgrounds. Getting from A to B is a major source of stress for many dyspraxics, and for me this has involved falling over on buses, and taking trams in the wrong direction, but I honestly end up enjoying many of my travel experiences, and have not given up on public transport yet.

I regularly have many rich, interesting conversations with new people – from public transport encounters to regular chats with my landlady who doesn’t speak English. I have enjoyed playing board games with strangers, talking about language, literature, and society in German with young people from all over the world, singing foreign songs in a big choir with people I don’t know, and learning a new language (Dutch) through a foreign language (German)…

Five years ago I just wouldn’t have been doing all this.

I am still working through dyspraxia and its associated challenges, and I am definitely not perfect. But that isn’t my aim – I am out of my comfort zone, and learning more about myself, as well as the world. Things aren’t really so negative, are they?

I’d like to finish this post with the following thought: living with a learning difference or disability should be no barrier to a foreign language or country. Your experience can be as rich as you let it.

misspraxic

 


Please check out the Dyspraxia Foundation website – a charity doing excellent work to support inviduals and families affected by the condition.

In the chaos of the autumn holiday, I also missed Meares Irlen Awareness Week 17th-21st October. Also known as Visual Stress, this is a condition that can cause difficulty with reading. Coloured overlays, screens, and lenses can help increase reading speed. At some point, I would like to blog about this condition too. In the meantime, you can look at the website here to find out more.

 *I changed all the names of pupils and teachers to maintain confidentiality.
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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.

misspraxic

Dyspraxia Awareness Week 2015: Being at Univeristy with Dyspraxia and how you can support a friend

“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.simpsons 2


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].Simpsons


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.

– misspraxic