About two months ago I took up ballet as a hobby. Now, as a 22 year old who’s never danced a step in her life outside of PE “dance” lessons, this might seem like a bold move. But what really surprises even myself is that I’ve chosen one of the hardest modes of dance to learn, and I have dyspraxia.
I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at the end of my second year of university after years of struggling and not really realising anything was wrong. I’d always been rubbish at PE, I found it impossible to organise myself for school, and the poor quality of my handwriting lead to me being told that examiners wouldn’t bother to read my exam papers. I was also clumsy and a little bit rubbish at making friends. However, nobody picked up on this, and I didn’t even hear about dyspraxia until a boy joined my school who also had it.
Oddly, it wasn’t finding out about dyspraxia initially that made me think I had it. I was fairly intelligent, extremely good at English and Geography, and so I just assumed I was fine, and that it was just bad luck that I couldn’t catch a ball and had the drawing skills of a 5 year old. I didn’t even think about how I’d been slow to reach my milestones, or how I couldn’t ride a bike or swim until I was 7 or 8. I just assumed I struggled because I did.
It was when I took my GCSEs and had my exams transcribed (a teaching assistant wrote out any words which couldn’t be read) that I started to twig that maybe it wasn’t just hard luck that I couldn’t write legibly. But I still didn’t ask to be tested for dyspraxia as I think I thought that I might be making it up. By the time I got to university I knew this wasn’t the case, but it still took me until second year to get tested (and there’s a classic dyspraxia symptom right there, disorganisation!).
So what is dyspraxia? At a base level, it’s a disorder of co-ordination and fine motor control. It’s sometimes referred to as “developmental co-ordination disorder”, and this makes sense as it’s something you’re born with. Dyspraxics learn to walk later than other children, and may have problems with their speech. However, dyspraxia is usually not picked up until a child is at school, as being a little late at crawling or walking isn’t seen as all that unusual.
It is unfortunate that most symptoms of dyspraxia are particularly evident in a school environment. At school you don’t have anybody to help you tie your laces, you have to learn to write, you have PE. And there’s also hidden traits as well. Dyspraxics, alongside dyslexics, do not have a good working memory. This is the memory which allows you to do mental arithmetic or write down a phone number as someone is saying it to you. In fact, for most dyspraxics, just being told something is a guarantee that it won’t be remembered, although most of us develop coping mechanisms (I put everything into my outlook calendar at work, and write things down if I’m being given a list of tasks). Dyspraxics also find it hard to organise their thoughts, as well as their lives. I could never, ever remember homework, or which books I needed to take in, my brain just didn’t understand how to do this. I did, and still do, live in a pretty much constant mess. Neatness means very little to me! An unfortunate side effect of not remembering books is that I used to carry all my school books in a rucksack to and from school. When a teacher told me I would hurt my back doing this, I started taking textbooks out. However, this meant they were usually in my locker or under my bed when I needed them in a lesson.
PE was a constant nightmare for me. I was always last picked for teams, and everybody used to complain if they had to play with me. I never had any idea where a ball was at any given time, and even if I could see the ball I just didn’t have the hand-eye co-ordination to catch it. Fortunately, several years after everyone else, I’m now actually quite good at catching. Dyspraxia is a little like an iceberg, as you get older the traits are less visible, you learn coping mechanisms or you just get better at things. However, even though it’s less visible on the outside, it’s still very evident within. When you have to try many times harder than everyone else to do “normal” things it gets very tiring. I have to put so much more effort into organising myself than the average person, and even then it’s rare for me to leave the house without forgetting something. Even walking down a street is a minefield at times; just how do you know which way to walk round someone who’s walking straight towards you? Mind you, my friend used to pull me out the way of lamp posts.
I lived with all of the above for 20 years before I got the magical email which let me know that, actually I wasn’t a freak, and I wasn’t just a bit useless at everything. I was dyspraxic, I had a specific learning difficulty. And actually, it explains everything. Why I’m rubbish at sport, why I don’t remember things, why I’ve always been seen as that little bit “different” to my peers (more about that later). It even explained why I learnt to read at such an early age and have a good writing ability, as well as why I seem to be able to retain ridiculously obscure facts when I can’t remember phone numbers. Dyspraxia is something of a blessing as well as a curse, and what I lack in sporting skills and non-verbal communication, I more than make up for with my verbal communication skills. That’s all a specific learning difficulty is really; a discrepancy in ability level between different skills.
So, why did I take up ballet? Well, it’s simple really. I finally feel like I wanted a challenge. When you find quite a lot of things very difficult, it is sometimes a step too far to push yourself beyond just doing what everyone else does. But I challenged myself when I was an outdoor instructor, and now I work in an office I felt I needed something else to get my teeth into. I’d always liked the idea of doing ballet (although I wanted to do gymnastics when I was little!) and the thought of being graceful intrigued me.
What I didn’t realise when I took it up is just how useful ballet would be. It means I spend an hour a week thinking about my entire body, how I hold myself and what each part is doing. It enforces a consciousness I don’t really have naturally, and it helps my spatial awareness as well as my co-ordination. It means I have to know my left and rights, something I find ridiculously difficult. And, as well as all this, I get to dance. And who doesn’t like to dance? I have to try a lot harder than everyone else, but I’m usually not the only person who doesn’t get an exercise right first time. By the end of last term I could do all the exercises, even the echappes (changing feet from fifth position to second on demi-pointe) I found so hard to keep up with at the start. It’s so rewarding to work hard and get results from my body. The final real benefit to ballet is that it gives me an hour in which I think of nothing but where my feet are and I whether I’m standing up straight. All my worries and anxieties just don’t exist when I’m executing a grande plie. I’m more concerned with getting back up again!
So that’s the physical and academic side of dyspraxia, but what of the social side? The most profound effect of my specific learning difficulty (SpLD) is that it’s caused me to have serious issues with “fitting in” and making friends. Somehow I’ve always been marked out as a bit weird, and I’ve perhaps not naturally had the friend-making skills of others my age, in fact I always wanted to hang out with adults when I was a child and it’s perhaps telling that a lot of my friends even now are older than me.
As you might imagine, this made school absolute hell. Primary school was pretty much OK, I wasn’t massively popular but people let me get on with my slight oddness (playing imaginary games in the playground at the age of 10 anyone?). I had some friends, and I didn’t really have any enemies, so this was all fine. It was when I got to secondary school that everything kicked off, and I’m never quite sure what I did. In year 7 I made a fair bit of effort to fit in, and I even thought I’d made friends. And then the bullying started, and it didn’t stop until I left school in year 13. My lack of social skills, as well as my clumsiness and all the other effects of my undiagnosed SpLD meant I was a bit of an easy target. I didn’t know how to deal with bullies, how to reply to cruel words. Usually I would just try to ignore them, or walk away. Worst was when I burst in to tears.
By the age of 13 I was not in a happy place. I used to dread going to school, and would mope around the school library hiding from pretty much everybody. It seemed at this time as I walked through the school grounds that absolutely everybody had some sort of comment to make towards me. I lost all my so-called friends as they were embarrassed for me. I withdrew into myself, I would tell people to go away if they tried to speak to me in the library when I was reading. Fortunately for me a particular friend of mine realised I could do with a friend and didn’t let this put her off. I became very worried to go places by myself, I was obsessed with nuclear war and the end of the world. I was so very unhappy and anxious and the comments and the laughing just didn’t stop.
Even into sixth form children in the lower years would say things to me. By this point I had given up on trying to fit in and had made myself almost as weird as possible just to give people something to laugh at (one such instance made my sister cry with embarrassment). I constantly got into trouble in sixth form for wearing my “hippy clothes” and I loathed school so much I started skipping lessons. I later found out it’s very common for undiagnosed dyspraxics to become disenfranchised with school, and whilst it’s all my own fault I only got mediocre A levels, I do feel that not having had any support contributed towards this.
When I left school and went to university the bullying nightmare finally stopped. At least in reality. However, I still carry around each and every thing that was said to me whilst I was at school. I assume that people in the street must be thinking how weird I am, I don’t think I am attractive. I don’t think people want to know me, and I think this is why I don’t seem to be able to make lasting friendships. I find it hard to make the first move to contact people because, hey, why would they want to hear from me? And it’s still making me miserable.
I fear I am baring too much of my soul here, so I’ll stop. But dyspraxia has shaped my life in so many ways, some of them extremely good, but it’s also caused me a lot of grief. I wouldn’t swap who I am though, for despite the feelings I’ve described above, I’m extremely proud to be myself, and really I always have been. I don’t pretend to be anybody else because I only really know how to be me. I just wish I believed that people would accept it!