I was that kid who used to fall down the stairs on a regular basis. I was that kid who needed all their strength to open a bag of pretzels, only to witness those pretzels fly across the room after a fatal popping sound, as if my little brown Snyder’s bag was actually a firecracker. I was that kid who needed help doing her hair in the morning even in the fourth grade, that kid who used a rubber pencil grip and that kid who needed the directions explained at least three times before they could start to figure out what to do.
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not lazy and I’m not stupid. For most people, things like fine motor skills, organization and comprehension of basic directions come fairly naturally. These are the skills and characteristics you probably take for granted, the knowledge and functions you may believe everyone has. In a perfect world, you may be right; but as we’ve seen all too often recently, the world we live in is far from perfect.
This week, October 9th-15th, is Dyspraxia Awareness Week. Unfortunately, however, there are still many people who have never heard of dyspraxia, despite efforts to raise awareness by high profile celebrities like Daniel Radcliffe and Cara Delevigne, who both struggle with the disorder. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, the condition is caused by an interference in the transmission of messages from the brain to the body. Most notably, it affects coordination and fine gross motor skills, but often it leads to a variety of other difficulties as well, with skills and faculties such as organization, planning, social and emotional health, memory, speech and the ability to carry out movements in the correct order.
It is important to remember that dyspraxia does not affect all those who suffer from it the same way, and while some may struggle with speech or regulating their emotions, others may not, and may instead experience difficulties maintaining personal organization or managing time. Those with dyspraxia may experience any combination of the challenges listed, and there are both mild and more severe forms of the disorder.
I am fortunate to not have struggled much with speech, emotional health or social anxiety, and as a result, many people do not know I have a disorder unless I explicitly state it. In a way, however, it can be incredibly frustrating to work and interact with people who don’t understand the obstacles I do face. I’ve had my fair share of judgmental stares from my confused peers and exasperated sighs from teachers and supervisors.
My hands constantly need to fidget or keep busy, and while today I recognize this and can accommodate by doodling, folding my hands or squeezing a stress ball, I did not have the resources or awareness to cope in elementary school, and as a result, I would sometimes shake my hands. While not dangerous or distracting, it was a unique and unusual behavior for my classmates and teachers to witness. The nicer kids would ask me why I did that, to which I would respond by saying I was “excited,” but truthfully, I didn’t really know. Some kids would stare at me like I was a freak, and I would immediately stop and pretend like it never happened, hoping those who saw would just forget.
Perhaps even more humiliating than being judged by students was being judged by adults. I’ve often envied my many friends and family members who dance their hearts out and cherish every minute of it. I dabbled in ballet, as most little girls do, but even with the “cuteness factor,” it was very obvious that I had two left feet. I may have gained the skills and confidence I needed to become a talented dancer had I only received a little encouragement. Instead, my ballet teacher scolded me for my mistakes in front of the entire class and at times, sent me to practice by myself on the bar. As a five-year-old, my spirit was fragile, and experiencing my strict dance teacher’s utter disdain was enough to break it. Unfortunately, these incidents would recur throughout my school years. I vividly remember a gymnastics coach telling me I simply “don’t listen,” and a karate instructor accusing me of “not practicing,” when their explanations and demonstrations didn’t work for me.
As time wore on, I became more and more critical of myself. I had trouble keeping up with the other students in music class when learning to play the recorder, so I told myself I couldn’t play musical instruments. I could never get my drawings and paintings to look as flawless as my art teacher’s, so I told myself I was a lousy artist. In gym it was difficult for me to learn how to run, so I told myself it was because I was fat and out of shape.
Middle school is already a trying time, but having a disability and mounting insecurities made it ten times harder. I detested myself and didn’t think I was good at anything. Instead of being myself and exploring my own passions and interests, I became a follower, doing what other kids did to fit in. I begged my mom to buy me expensive clothes from stores like Hollister, and I played soccer, even though I didn’t love it, simply because other kids my age played sports.
In high school I realized I wasn’t happy. I slowly developed self-confidence by focusing on my positive attributes. For all the adults who told me I “didn’t listen,” or “didn’t practice,” there were equally as many who praised my hard work, dedication and good nature. For all the activities I struggled with, such as art or athletics, there were plenty more that suited me perfectly, such as acting, writing, singing and being a leader.
I also came to learn that a lot of the things I “couldn’t do,” I actually could. I just needed to practice longer or harder or a different way. I tried learning how to dive every summer at camp, and I could never do it. Though it took a lot of thinking and strategizing, I eventually figured it out at 14, by imagining I was somersaulting into the water. I learned how to ski by starting out very slowly and skiing across rather than down. I discovered that bright-colored folders are easier to organize than giant, awkward three-ring binders. I can pretty much achieve anything I set my mind to, so long as I am willing to work hard and have patience.
This week, I hope everyone will try to learn a little more about dyspraxia. Realize that for me and others like me, dyspraxia awareness is every day. I’m aware of my condition when I struggle to carry my food from the buffet to the table in the dining hall, and when I, now a freshman in college, still need to ask for help opening bags and figuring out which way is left and which way is right. If you suffer from dyspraxia, know that the key to getting through these embarrassing situations is to be able to laugh at yourself and keep a positive attitude. If you do not have dyspraxia, all I ask is that you be aware that it does exist and that it can make the tasks and skills you find so natural and easy incredibly difficult for someone else. We are all different, and we are all capable of achieving great things, so long as we know ourselves and how we work best.
Lead Image Credit: Aprilyn Podd via Flickr Creative Commons.