If you’re reading this and you have dyspraxia, you know exactly how that feels. So do I.
My dyspraxia diagnosis didn’t arrive until I was 59. I’d already spent a lifetime feeling different, frustrated, incompetent, confused, and, worst of all, stupid. Except, deep down, I knew I wasn’t stupid. My ability with words and language demonstrated that. In that context, I was super-human; in the context of normal life though, I was sub-human.
My schooldays were accidents waiting to happen – and they usually did. Falling from the topmost rung of the climbing frame, and being the only girl in a class of 30 unable to master a few, simple dance steps were two of the most publicly spectacular. But the lower-level difficulties took their toll as well.
Life out of school wasn’t easy either, littered as it was with getting stuck up trees, in locked toilets, lost in Romford market, and on buses travelling in the wrong direction. The external world seemed unremittingly hostile, booby-trapped with inanimate objects such as striped deckchairs and long-handled hoes that took on a life of their own the moment I approached.
Dyspraxia did, however, have an upside. I became resilient in the extreme. Whatever happened, I developed an absolutely unshakeable belief in my own ability to sort it out. I gave myself plenty of practice.
In spite of freaking out over an unfamiliar can-opener during my first week at university, I navigated my unsteady way to a degree in English and History, and went on to have a successful career as a corporate copywriter.
In the background though, life was a matter of endurance and avoidance rather than enjoyment. Every situation had the potential for embarrassment. What was I going to trip over, spill, drop, bump into, or not be able to use this time?
And so life continued in its exhausting and frustrating way until I read Caged in Chaos, aged 59. I read it at one sitting, and felt as though I’d come home. I finally understood that my brain was wired differently.
Step 1: Identify your ‘compensating super-abundance’
The biggest shift in my relationship with my dyspraxia came after a chance remark by my neuroscience professor. Here’s what she said:
‘Whenever there’s a deficiency in one part of the brain, there’ll be a compensating super-abundance in another.’
I realised that my ‘compensating super-abundance’ was my gift with words. I also realised that I wasn’t prepared to surrender that, not even if it meant that the dyspraxia would disappear. This was the moment when I stopped railing against my dyspraxia, and began to accept it.
If it isn’t obvious to you what your compensating abilities are, ask your family and friends. Those close to us often have a more accurate perception of us than we do of ourselves.
Step 2: Dump the shame about dyspraxia
For most of my life, I’ve concealed my dyspraxia because I felt ashamed of it. Shame is a heavy emotion that leeches energy from us. It’s also 100% inappropriate. None of us with dyspraxia or any other neurological condition asked to be endowed with it. It’s just the way the balls fall in the genetic inheritance lottery.
Step 3: Conduct an audit of that lottery
For those of us with siblings, this is a really useful exercise. I’ll use my own family as an example. My older brother inherited the squint and the high cholesterol; my younger brother inherited the type 1 diabetes; my sister inherited the varicose veins and the high cholesterol; I inherited the gum disease and the dyspraxia.
That’s a fairly even distribution across the four of us. We all inherited two conditions, apart from my younger brother who ended up with the diabetes which out-ranks any of the others by a country mile. When I put my dyspraxia in this context, I feel lucky.
Step 4: Learn to laugh at yourself and your dyspraxia
When I shifted from hiding my dyspraxia to being open about it and finding the humour within, I made an important discovery. Other people weren’t waiting to judge and mock me; they were on my side.
Here’s a recent example. During a bus journey, as I got up to leave, I felt myself being yanked backwards and off balance. The cord from my jacket had wound itself round the metal bar and become trapped under the seat. A few years back, I’d have felt so ashamed and embarrassed that I’d have been unable to work out either what had happened or how to remedy the situation.
On this occasion, I realised it was funny. I started laughing at myself, and the other passengers laughed with me. They also helped me to disentangle myself – and we all felt better for having had a good laugh.
Step 5: Develop new neural pathways
When I was studying neuroscience, I learned about neural plasticity. It’s the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections in response to new situations or changes in the environment. I know that sounds too science-y to be true, but it is. I know because I’ve experienced it.
The ability to form new neural pathways is really, really good news for us dyspraxics. It means that we’re not stuck in the same old, limiting patterns of behaviour.
The best example I can give you from my life is that I wanted to hike, but walking, never mind hiking, had always been hazardous for me. Tripping over kerbstones, falling over my own feet, walking into lampposts, falling upstairs were frequent occurrences. How could I possibly take up hiking?
I created ‘new situations or changes in the environment’ by practising over and over again, going for longer and longer walks over trickier and trickier terrain. All that practice paid off: my balance and coordination have improved, and I’ve now walked over 4,500 kilometres on various Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes.
Can I still get frustrated with my dyspraxia? Of course. But I no longer see it as a limiting condition. Now it’s a quirk of nature that challenges me to tackle those activities that used to live in the ‘impossible for me’ box.
Julia Barnickle says
You are a shining example of what can be achieved by believing in yourself and knowing that the brain can be re-wired, Elaine. Although I don’t have dyspraxia (that I’m aware of), I do recognise some of the challenges you mention, as well as the belief that I can get myself out of trouble. I hope your message spreads far and wide. x
Elaine Hopkins says
Thank you, Julia. Validation by others who have seen us in action is very reassuring. I hope the message spreads as well. I’ll do my best to make sure it does. I appreciate your support as an early adopter of these ideas.