Mimi Robson and Kitya Mark explore what having dyspraxia, a rarely publicised and frequently misunderstood specific learning difficulty, can mean for the self-perception of young adults.
Illustration by Roween Rawat
CN: Sex, ableism
Having dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), which impacts movement, sensory perception and psychological functions, can feel like having a store-cupboard crammed full of comical but also mortifying stories.
One of us recalls accidentally throwing a partner out of bed (twice, in under fifteen minutes) because it was difficult to adjust to the confines of her single mattress. This opens up a floodgate of memories of mishaps and minor calamities – forgotten names, turning up 50 minutes late after a bitter feud with Google Maps, struggles with items of clothing – the list goes on.
There are ways to tell all of these stories as light and entertaining anecdotes; there is something inherently funny about being a ‘clutz’ , and at times it can be tempting to play up to this persona. We both fulfil the classic ‘arts student’ stereotype – yet this is a stereotype informed by the ingrained sexist view that arts students are seen as generally women, and are consequently ‘ditzy’ figures.
We want to use this space to reflect on how, although dyspraxics may choose to make a joke out of their experiences, dyspraxia can lead to considerable personal and academic difficulties.
When discussing the effects of dyspraxia, our conversation quickly moved to the kind of intimate and sexual scenes of clutsiness outlined at the start of this article – and we’d like to suggest that this is because of the prominence that these instances can have in terms of self-perception, rather than just that we’re both sex-obsessed over-sharers (give us the benefit of the doubt). While sexuality need not be an important part of anyone’s life, for us and for some other people as well there can be a sense that, all jokes aside, feeling like a competent sexual being matters.
“It can make you feel persistently uncoordinated, inelegant, and frankly lost in most places”
Bedroom contexts, for most people, can be difficult to navigate. But these contexts become more difficult when ‘navigation’, specifically, is not your strong point. Dyspraxia can mean that your limbs don’t always perform the limb thing in quite the way that you hoped that they would; it can make you feel persistently uncoordinated, inelegant, and frankly lost in most places. In the bedroom this means that you don’t just feel subtly embarrassed but you can also feel vulnerable and even undesirable if you struggle to move in a ‘sexy’ way; and, of course, nothing makes us feel sexier than being gently told that we are like a foal that can’t walk properly, or sarcastically asked how we manage to get dressed in the morning. Mmmm.
In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Neville expresses the line ‘I lack bodily grace and the courage that comes with it’, and this statement has a surprising capacity to speak to some of the public and private effects that dyspraxia can have. What is undermining about having dyspraxia is not only the movement, but all of the things that do (or do not) come with it, and the difficulties that accompany feeling as though you’re always sat in the wrong place in the room. And the feeling that every intimate moment comes with the threat that you might spoil it with your clumsiness. There are more endearing ways to get your date ‘wet’ than accidentally spilling a drink over them, we assure you.
“There are more endearing ways to get your date ‘wet’ than accidentally spilling a drink over them, we assure you”
Dyspraxia might seem entertaining to some, but in its more serious forms it is perhaps unsurprising that it impacts self-perception. The connection between dyspraxia and mental health has started to receive more consideration; a recent study suggested that late adolescents with moderate-to-severe DCD were 78% more likely to experience mental health difficulties. These difficulties were associated with challenges in social communication and low self-esteem, and the risk was found to be even higher for female participants.
These psychological conditions are also associated with the less conspicuous effect that dyspraxia can have on mental processes. Dyspraxia seems to hold an isolated position even within the realms of neurodiversity. There is a lack of understanding which shrouds dyspraxia, particularly when compared to more recognized conditions such as dyslexia or ADHD. While dyspraxia does not impact the overall IQ of a person, difficulties with things like working memory (the use and retention of short-term information), issues with planning and structuring words and ideas, as well as increased difficulties with organisation can generate anxiety and low self-worth if the right support is not in place.
Moreover, studies carried out by Helen Duncan in the Cambridge Disability Resource Centre have so far suggested that students with learning difficulties (SpLD), which includes dyspraxia, face particular challenges within the Cambridge academic system. Her research, carried out with 252 participants so far from the faculties of English, History, Law, Maths and Medicine, has shown that students with SpLD achieve slightly lower exam marks than students without SpLD. While both groups get higher dissertation marks than exam marks, the difference is also significantly greater for students with SpLD. This suggests that students with specific learning difficulties underachieve in their exams, even those who are given a word processor and extra time – and while this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, it is easy to see how these discrepancies might feel undermining.
“It can feel challenging if you are the only person you know who has to turn off all music to read a text, who loses hours of the day trying to remember what work they have to do from the day before”
But dyspraxia is complicated. For all our complaining, there is nothing inherently life-threatening about it (unless you accidentally cross the road at the wrong time, which to be fair can seem like quite a palpable risk). Having a disability which is largely invisible can be another form of privilege. At the same time, because of this lack of visibility, dyspraxia can feel incredibly isolating; finding each other to write this article triggered something in between a rant and a therapy session.
It can feel challenging if you are the only person you know who has to turn off all music to read a text, who cannot work when the library fans are turned on, who loses hours of the day trying to remember what work they have to do from the day before, where their folders are, or even what chapters they recently read. On the whole, there is not only little consideration of these experiences, but the act of raising them comes with the dismissive accusation that you’re “blaming everything on dyspraxia”.
Being dyspraxic can sometimes feel like living in a world that wasn’t proofed against you, where no matter how well you do in your Cambridge exams, you’ll still somehow manage to pour coffee down the front of your blouse on graduation day. But let’s not pretend that laughing along with a nosy parent, or the seven thousandth neurotypical straight-white-man who made fun of your handwriting, can’t be both grating and undermining in a world where the challenges, underneath the humour, are consistently ignored.