What it was like growing up dyspraxic (and autistic) and undiagnosed
Learning to ride a bike is one of those key childhood milestones. At age five or so, you’d graduate from using support wheels, and soon enough you’d be roaming around your neighbourhood with your friends… or at least that is how I imagine it. I never moved past the stage of needing support wheels. No matter how much patience my parents—both keen cyclists in their youth—had for me, I could never work out how to remain balanced atop a bike for longer than a second, not just out of fear, but because it seemed genuinely physically impossible. For me, remaining firmly on the seat and pedaling at the same time were two separate actions that I couldn’t possibly carry out simultaneously. For the longest time, I was the only person I knew for whom the laws of physics weren’t in their favor—and I carried the associated shame until I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at age 18.
Like autism and ADHD, dyspraxia is a condition of neurological development that affects our coordination in several areas. It affects fine and gross motor skills, as well as organisation, executive functioning, working memory, speech, and socialisation, which I would say also demands a kind of mental coordination. For dyspraxics, following a series of tasks in the day in the right order and without many delays can be just as difficult as following a dance sequence. We may even struggle to enunciate certain sounds to the point where a whole separate subtype of dyspraxia, called developmental verbal dyspraxia, can also be diagnosed. Despite the academic difficulties it creates, dyspraxia is not a cognitive disability; rather, according to the neurodiversity paradigm, it is a natural variation in our neurological development. Still, it can be difficult to be gentle and forgiving with ourselves when we have spent all of our lives struggling with things that our neurotypical peers wouldn’t even give a second thought to.
One of the first instances where I remember feeling “deficient” to other children was when I started primary school and everybody, except for me, had learnt how to tie their shoelaces. My teacher would take me out of the classroom and watch me nervously fuss about with the shoelaces until I managed to loop the laces somewhat correctly. That hawk-like vigilance she embodied as she observed me closely didn’t help me learn anything, as I didn’t actually know what I was meant to do and only imitated what I thought she wanted to see. That same mechanism of only pretending to do what I was meant to do so that people would stop being embarrassed by me was something that I carried out all of my life. For instance, I would try to look like I was really invested in a math exercise when I actually had no idea of how to follow the instructions to help me solve it. Or I would walk in the same direction as my classmates when playing a team sport because I couldn’t intuitively pick up the rules.
A lot of camouflaging was required in order to avoid appearing as embarrassing as I thought I was, but the vicious teenagers I went to school with could always see right through it. When I revisited my childhood diaries over lockdown, I found an anecdote that struck me as particularly awful. At the time of the diary entry, my year was involved in some competitive football matches and I really wanted to participate. Unfortunately, one of my classmates claimed publicly that I would be slow for the rest of my life and should therefore never ruin any team sports. It was as though everyone could perceive that slowness: when playing dodgeball, the popular girls would rush to hit me first knowing that I was an easy target; their cruel glares remain perfectly visible in my mind. I also tried joining several sports clubs over my time at school, such as volleyball, gymnastics, and (though not a sport per se) ballet, but none with much success. Ballet was a particularly sad loss for me, as I love ballet as an art form so much, but I could that my classmates, and even the teacher, thought I was just there to waste their time. As I grew older, this perceived slowness became something I noticed much more often and in settings far removed from sport; even when I was out enjoying recess, I could tell other girls were different from me: they seemed more graceful, more elegant, less likely to bump into everything in their path than I was. And surely, they didn’t have to wear their skirts the other way around because they couldn’t grasp the buttons round the back, nor did they have to wear shoes with velcro. Being in possession of a body that made me feel clumsy and inadequate was, in retrospect, a huge factor behind the eating disorder I have struggled with since I was thirteen.
As I got closer and closer to my graduation date, I couldn’t really think of anything I wanted to study at university. I mostly spent my time at school drawing and daydreaming, since my teachers had essentially given up on me: I was smart enough to pass exams without them needing to worry that I’d fail the year, but I was “disengaged”, or so they thought, because I’d always forget my books and never turn any work in on time. The truth was, though, that nobody had ever taught me any organisation skills and I was so overwhelmed by how little I understood of everything that I just didn’t bother. Why would I bother to try my best when people had already decided that I was lazy and undisciplined?
I wanted so badly to learn, and not having anyone understand the sort of adjustments I needed impacted me hugely when I went to university. Attending Durham University offered me a chance I had only dreamt of, which was to study a subject I genuinely loved: first history, and then an eclectic combination of medieval English literature, German, and Art History. But on top of the academic shortcomings I had to deal with, dyspraxia manifested itself in several other areas that made me feel like there was something very wrong with me as a person. For instance, I accidentally set off the fire alarm in my building within days of arriving. Because I couldn’t read maps very well, I ended up being spectacularly late to my very first introductory session. I felt like my social interactions were very clumsy as well (perhaps even more so considering the fact that I am also autistic and not from the UK), meaning that I’d stumble on my words, constantly interrupt other people, and not know how I was meant to greet and say goodbye to someone else my age (exemplified in the mortifying experience of trying to kiss a guy on the cheek when that is far from a common greeting in the UK).
Despite being highly motivated to excel in my academic work, I was no taught the tools I needed to succeed academically. I had never been taught how to write an essay, so my sentences were jumbled and overly complicated, and the references—if I remembered to add them—were a mess. I could never complete the assigned reading no matter how early I started, and I continued to turn everything in very late or, worse yet, not even be aware that there were any assignments to submit. This became the point where all the “failures” linked to my dyspraxia became overbearing and I sought help through the university’s counselling system, but until dyspraxia was actually mentioned, I believed that these were indeed failures or character flaws, or that I just happened to be condemned to getting everything wrong for the rest of my life. A few weeks and a tiresome assessment later, I was diagnosed!
My dyspraxia diagnosis gave me the space and context to finally forgive myself for all of the mishaps: all the times I spilled something on the floor, tripped on my own feet in front of other people, felt I had made my sports team lose points; and all the social interactions that I felt could’ve gone much better if I had simply tried a little harder. The thing is though, I was already trying hard enough to independently navigate the world as a dyspraxic person and, whether I realised it or not at the time, being dyspraxic made me much better at some things! I have spent great amounts of time and energy trying to create alternatives to the issues I frequently come across, and I don’t need to do things like neurotypical people in order to achieve the same goals. And as for the times that people made me feel ashamed of myself: I am at the point where I can see that is was and is never my fault if others refuse to be compassionate towards those who struggle in areas where they don’t. It takes a while — even years! — to fully internalise this belief, but the sooner you stop blaming yourself for other people’s reactions, the more work you do to strengthen your self-esteem.
I may not be able to ride a bike, but that isn’t a measure of my value – plus I can do plenty more!