Dyspraxia: When the brain takes the ‘scenic route’

A teacher sweeps into the classroom, tells the pupils to take out a certain textbook, turn to page 25 and start writing out answers to question three and then question six, which is over the page . . .

It’s the kind of scenario that plays out in secondary schools every day all over the country. But the chances are that there’s one teenager in the classroom, like Oisín Whelan (13), for whom these simple but rapid-fire commands are extremely hard to follow.

As his mother Catherine explains, when his classmates are well on to step three, her son is probably still just taking the book out of his bag, wondering what page he is to open it at.

It’s not that he is stupid, nor that he is not listening, but Oisín has the hidden disability dyspraxia – or developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD) as it is medically classified – that affects gross and fine motor skills, as well planning and organisation abilities, all to a lesser or greater degree. It is down to the way the brain processes information – it “takes the scenic route”, is how one adult with the condition likes to describe it.

Once bluntly termed “clumsy child syndrome”, due to how it impairs physical co-ordination, it is in fact a life-long condition and is also likely to cause sensory processing issues. Among the estimated 6 per cent of children affected – with at least three times as many boys as girls diagnosed – early signs include by-passing the crawling stage, speech and language delays, slowness at dressing, inability to stay still, barely legible handwriting, unable to tie shoe laces and poor concentration.

One childhood incident before Oisín was diagnosed sticks out in his mother’s mind. She asked him would he mind putting the milk away. He said, “Sure, where does it go?” As she told him it was the fridge, she was wondering how on earth he didn’t realise that.

When she recounted this later to an occupational therapist after his diagnosis, he told her she had to realise he had no categories. “He doesn’t know where things live – it is like having a filing cabinet with no files to put your stuff in.” It would, he added, be up to her and her husband, Michael, to help “fill in all the gaps”.

Oisín, the eldest of two boys, was in first class at primary school when a teacher pulled Catherine aside and asked her if she was aware her son was struggling. She said she knew he was having difficulties with phonics and numbers and had sequencing problems.

But the teacher explained she thought it was a little bit more than that, initially suspecting dyslexia.

Catherine brought Oisín to their GP who referred him to an occupational therapist for assessment in conjunction with an educational psychologist. They did this privately as the public waiting list “was far too long”.

A recent survey of parents carried out by Dyspraxia/DCD Ireland found that 82 per cent of children with the condition are missing out on crucial treatment and therapies due to lengthy public health waiting lists and financial constraints in accessing private treatment.

Catherine believes that, generally, there is low awareness of dyspraxia/DCD “and, more importantly, if they are aware of it they don’t understand it”. But Dyspraxia/DCD Ireland, of which she is a board member, works at raising awareness, particularly among education and health professionals, and it has 13 support groups for parents around the country.

Oisín’s diagnosis of dyspraxia found that his audio learning was in the “supremacy” range but his written and visual learning was in the first percentile. They told her how extremely frustrating this gap must be for him.

“It all fell into place. It wasn’t just that he was being an awkward child, or that he was being difficult, or that it was just a phase he was going through. The poor guy just couldn’t get his head around the stuff,” says Catherine.

Ever since, she and her husband have been trying to do what they can to support him both practically and psychologically to cope with the added layer of difficulty he faces in daily living, from getting out on time in the morning washed and dressed, through his school work, to socialising. Things like audio-learning material that played to his strengths, while grinds at home eased the homework pressure.

“But the bigger underlying problem we had in the primary school was the lack of friends. He is a fabulous, sociable, sunny guy, but he just wouldn’t know where the boundaries were in terms of pals. He would always be butting in and missing the social cues.”

While then Catherine could befriend other mothers and invite children home, so that he would get a return visit, she knew that was all going to change at secondary. It was not long before this transition that she decided the time was right to give him a name for why he found it so hard to do many things his friends could do easily.

“It’s not because you are stupid and it’s not because you can’t do it, it’s because you process it differently and sometimes it takes you a little bit longer for your brain to wire up and give you the skills sets to do it in another way,” Catherine explained to him as they sat on the stairs of their north Dublin home. It helped that Oisín was a Harry Potter fan and that actor Daniel Radcliffe had talked about how he had dyspraxia.

Oisín didn’t see it as a negative and his parents stressed that it wasn’t his “get out card”.

“You can do it, but you are going to need a little bit more support to do it,” is how Catherine put it.

The Whelans chose a private school in Dublin for Oisín because “it just meant he would be a little bit more kept in a bubble”, she explains. They were also impressed that the principal there was the first to ask how did the dyspraxia affect Oisín and what could the school do for him.

The learning support co-ordinator invited him in twice before the start of the year. He gave him a map of the school, walked him through the building and allocated him a top locker at the end of a row to give him extra space.

Catherine got his timetable in advance and colour co-ordinated it – a different colour for every subject, also colour coding the books and putting them in different folders with matching coloured stickers. “It was taking it back to basics so he could turn it around for speed.”

Oisín took a while to find his feet in the new school and Catherine had to make frequent trips initially to drop in things he had forgotten. Keeping, as opposed to making, friends continues to be a challenge. Catherine used to bring him to after-school clubs, now he has to fend for himself.

“It’s hard to watch from the sidelines, I am not going to lie,” she says. He is good to engage with peers but he just doesn’t hang on to them as friends. But she has explained how people fall in and out of friendships and if he has one close friend, which he does, that’s enough.

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