Me and My Dyspraxic Brain
It’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week so I wanted to talk to you about my brain which is probably a bit different to yours, unless you are another one of the 20% or so of the population that has dyspraxia.
Don’t worry, that’s the response I’m used to getting! Dyspraxia is Dyslexia’s lessor known cousin. Rather than impacting the ability to read and interpret words, dyspraxia impacts the ability to plan and co-ordinate movement.
Like Dyslexia it is a neurological disorder that doesn’t impact intelligence but it can often lead to learning difficulties.
My brain doesn’t process information in the same way as most other people’s. In Dyspraxia, it is believed that the motor neurons haven’t developed properly and therefore, can’t form proper connections and it takes longer for the brain to process data.
In other words, only part of the message is getting through and the bit that does come through usually arrives late.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes describes it as “being out of sync” with the environment around you. And that is a pretty good description – I often feel out of sync with the rest of the world. But the best description I’ve ever come across was by Victoria Biggs, author of the book Caged in Chaos (a very telling title of her book about life growing up with dyspraxia). She described it like this:
“We know what we need to do but our bodies don’t speak the same language as our brains and the translator is drunk!”. And that’s it – I know exactly what I need to do but my brain always seems to be a few degrees out of alignment!
So what does this mean in terms of living day to day?
People with Dyspraxia will find both simple and complex motor tasks difficult – we don’t seem to know where we are in relation to our surroundings so I am constantly covered in bruises. I know where the stair banister is in my house, it’s been there for the entire 12 years we’ve lived here, but it doesn’t stop me walking in to it on a regular basis (you see, I just always seem to be a few degrees out!). This was what led to the condition being dubbed as “clumsy child syndrome” long before it was possible to be diagnosed with Dyspraxia (which explains why I arrived at my teens already having twisted both my ankles twice, fractured one of them and torn the tendons in the other).
Complex motor tasks like writing, brushing your teeth, putting on make-up, tying shoelaces are even more difficult. You’ll notice I don’t wear much make-up, and my hair is usually up because boy is drying your hair difficult! First of all my brain has to try and co-ordinate two hands at the same time to do two different things – hold a brush and hold a hairdryer. At this point my brain is already struggling. But then I have to translate that tricky co-ordination to be back to front as I’m doing it in front of a mirror. That’s it, my brain has just exploded! And my hair usually ends up looking like it has too! So hair up!
People with Dyspraxia struggle with perception and it’s not just mirrors that play with our brains. Living in London for 15 years I had a daily struggle with the moving monster that is escalators! Picture this… my brain isn’t sure where I am in relation to my surroundings, I’m always just a few degree’s out, the messages about when to move and where to move are delayed in the processing plant of my brain, and every time my brain thinks it’s got a good enough understanding of what to do… the bloody thing moves! So next time there is a pile up at the top of an escalator because the person at the front has been hesitating for 5 minutes with their foot hovering above the moving steps, firstly, check it’s not me, and secondly spare a thought for them as there is a high chance they are Dyspraxic. And if you think the pile up at the top of the escalator is bad wait for the chaos when it’s time to get off at the bottom! You know when pilots say they don’t land a plane, they just crash it safely? Well that’s what getting off an escalator with Dyspraxia is like. It’s a controlled crash… with more crash and less control.
The other biggie for me is travelling – for two reasons. Firstly I don’t know my left from right. Yes, I know, I’m a 45 year old woman who doesn’t know her left from right. And I would be rich if I had a pound for everyone who had said “hey just do that thing with your hands where you can see an L”. My brain can’t compute that. If it could it would have done it 40 years ago! It’s just like telling the time. Every time I look at a clock face it’s like it’s the first time I’ve seen at it. I have to work it out from scratch every single time which is another reason why travelling is so hard for me – not only are the directions difficult but I have to try and figure out when to leave. I have post-it notes scattered around telling me what time I need to be somewhere, what time I need to leave and what time I need to get up and I generally have to get that double checked by someone. Even if it’s somewhere I’ve been before and know well. If I need to be somewhere at 9.45am and it takes me 35 minutes to get there I literally have to count that backwards in 5 minute chunks to figure out what time I have to leave. And even when I do that I get it wrong sometimes! That makes dinner time interesting too – sometimes I can have dinner ready and be wondering where my husband is and realise I’m an hour early and he won’t even have left work yet!
This is why many Dyspraxics struggle with organisation skills. Most people look at me and say I’m pretty organised. That’s because I’ve had to learn really hard how to do it – if I don’t use a planner, set timers, use coloured pens and highlighters, have things stored in an orderly way, I miss things, I loose things. There is a surface level of organisation in my life but if you look too hard below the surface you will find chaos, in fact, in every room in my house you will find a cupboard or a draw that contains my chaos.
Dyspraxia definitely made school hard for me, especially when it came to exam time. Concentrating is a real issue for Dyspraxics – partly because of sensory overload. The filter on our brain connected with our senses is faulty. When I’m in a coffee shop with friends I can’t filter out all the background noise. The conversation you are trying to have with me is the same volume as everyone else’s conversation. Throw the coffee machines noise into the mix and I’ve got so much noise in my head I struggle to hear and process what’s important.
Revision is also an interesting thing. I can’t revise at all. I literally can not read a factual book that I have read before, my eyes refuse to stay on the page. It’s like when you get two opposing magnets and try and put them together, they just keep repelling themselves. This is why I have to have factual books in paper form. When I am reading them for the first time I use coloured highlighters to mark the important bits. When I do that it helps to anchor my eyes to the page and allows me to read it again. Without that my eyes do that slippy thing when they feel like their possessed!
It’s not that my brain can’t do these things. It can tell the time and figure out left from right, but it just takes longer and it takes more effort. Which is why many people with dyspraxia suffer with fatigue issues. Every day life is just harder work. That’s why I didn’t learn to drive or swim until I was in my 30’s – I can do them, but learning them took so much longer and couldn’t be done in the way everyone else learns. When I took on the challenge of learning to dance for the local Strictly Got to Dance competition for my local charity the biggest challenge (other than not falling into people and standing on my instructors toes!) was teaching my teacher how to teach me because his normal way of teaching was not going to work for me.
The other thing about Dyspraxia that is often missed is that it comes with a great big bucket load of anxiety. A huge bucket. Some of that anxiety stems from the fact that we can’t do what everyone else is doing so easily, that learned anxiety of “I’m not good enough” but there is also just a general background level of anxiety. It’s not about being anxious about a specific thing (although I always get that stomach lurch when someone asks me directions or what the time is). As a child it was just there, a general level of anxiety lurking in the background for no specific reason. When you’re anxious about a thing, you can figure out how to deal with it, but when you are just anxious for no specific, fathomable reason other than just being, it’s really hard to know what to do with it.
That anxiety also makes the difficult job of communication even more tricky. Lets not even go there with my terrible handwriting that no one can understand (even me sometimes!) and my brains difficulty in filtering out all that extra background noise. On top of that my out of sync brain often comes up with a word that’s almost right but not quite (when I talk about the upstairs cupboard I mean the one attached to the wall, not one that is on the next floor up in the house). Dyspraxics have a tendancy to talk over other people and interrupt them in that out of sync brain way that just doesn’t quite get the timing right.
So there’s a lot of tricky stuff about Dyspraxia but you know there are some amazing things too. We are usually highly creative – not necessarily in the traditional sense though, remember, we’re a few degrees out! I can’t draw something that is supposed to look like something you’d recognise but I excel at patterns which is why I love painting my mandala stones. My brain makes sense of things by seeing patterns – the clock face is a series of pie slices, navigation is done by landmarks and the rhythm of the turns.
We have to be creative to find ways around our differences so we are good at coming up with novel ideas and seeing a different perspective to others.
There is a tendancy for people with Dyspraxia to be in the caring professions either with people or animals as they have an innate ability to empathise with different perspectives.
So as an adult it’s much easier to look at my Dyspraxia as the thing that provides my lovable quirks. I’ve found ways around the tricky things and once you leave school much of the things I found hard to learn you don’t ever need to know (seriously, I can get by in life without understanding fractions, my phone has a calculator if I need it and sat navs are a gift from god for Dyspraxics hoping to get somewhere on time). Yes, it can be frustrating, particularly when I’m tired as my brain needs that extra energy to do the simple things. But it’s just part of who I am.
So what do I want you to take away from this? To have patience with other people’s differences. We are all different. We all find different things easy and difficult. Celebrate the wonderful differences that make people unique and don’t try and force them into understanding the world in your way. Listen out for the differences, because it’s in those differences that our eyes are opened to amazing things we might never have seen before.
About the Author: Caroline Prout is based in our Thrapston clinic in rural East Northamptonshire. Caroline chose to retrain as a hypnotherapist after her own anxiety led to physical health problems and a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “One of the things that helped me the most in my recovery was understanding how our brains work and why that can have such a huge impact on our wellbeing, both physical and mental and this is something I now share with all my clients”. Using her own experiences and training Caroline specialises in helping people overcome anxiety and chronic conditions such as CFS, Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune conditions.
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