Slow Progress: On Living With Dyspraxia

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Words || Cameron Colwell

I’m fifteen and I can’t do origami. I’m in an auditorium on a school trip to Wollongong’s Nan Tien temple for Religious Studies. I’ve been given clear instructions on how to make an eight-pointed star, my fingers are filled with coloured pieces of paper, and I’m still working out stage six while my classmates are racing through stages eight, nine, ten. My hands won’t listen. The smiling teacher coming through the aisles, stops at me and furrows her brow. “Oh dear – What’s going on with yours?” I scramble to catch up, obeying her gentle instructions, but my fingers won’t listen. I can’t do origami. Eyes are on me, my face is quickly reddening, and I can’t do origami.

If people know what ‘dyspraxia’ is, and few do, it’s most likely that they think that it’s a disorder that makes people clumsy. This is true, but the nature of my disability is much more complicated than that. A very limited amount of resources, a low level of accessible research, and a high amount of co-morbidity with other conditions such as ADHD and autism (I have the former, but not the latter) means that lists of symptoms are vague and frustrating. A dependable, if brief, list of symptoms would be something like this: balance issues, low gross-motor skills, poor muscle tone, lack of spatial awareness, sensitivity issues to temperature and texture, as well as issues planning and following instructions.
While it is a disability not visible on the outside, I struggle to think of an area in my life where dyspraxia has not made an impact. Being a person with dyspraxia has meant I am excluded from most jobs available to young people, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors due to my clumsiness and slowness, I have such trouble learning how to drive that at twenty-one I have yet to get P’s, and I have left in my wake a frankly scandalous amount of shattered bowls, wine glasses, and coffee mugs.

However, just as significant as the physically expressed symptoms are the mental ones, for instance, my relationship to failure. My first encounter with a deep sense of inferiority was on sports fields, but it was also accumulated through the misguided comments of concerned teachers and parents over the years. A Year 2 teacher who embarrassed me on the playground by asking a Kindergartener to exhibit her ability to tie her own shoelaces in front of me, as proof there was no reason I shouldn’t be able to do my own, did not do wonders for my developing sense of self.

I have reports from early primary school teachers describing my six-year-old self: prone to dribbling, hopelessly clumsy, often struggling to remember tasks and a progressively worrying inability to tie his own shoelaces. I was not unaware of the concern, and the knowledge I was different alongside the lack of sporting proficiency, general messiness, and chronically illegible handwriting translated into a low self-esteem. Something was clearly not right, but the ‘something’ was unclear. Such was the case until I had the good fortune to have a family friend who was a specialist in learning disorders, which resulted in my being diagnosed with dyspraxia at age ten. However, while occupational therapy mitigated the worst of the symptoms, a sense of inferiority ate through my early years, only biting harder as stakes got higher, and school became more complicated. Internalising failure as a part of selfhood in the way that I did is a toxic process: to the adult who grows from a child convinced of their own incurable inferiority to their peers, each failure presents itself as proof that success isn’t possible, and each success seems to be an aberration that won’t happen again.

I found compensation in artistic ability. This is not unusual in dyspraxics: Florence Welch, Daniel Radcliffe, Charlotte Bronte, and George Orwell (the first two as diagnosed, the second and third as highly probable) come to mind. There’s an Orwell quote which, when I read it, was so resonant that it’s stuck with me ever since: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life”. Having the firm confidence that I would be an author at age ten as a result of wanting to “get my own back for my failure in everyday life” like Orwell is grim, but it rings true: one of the essential components of a worthwhile artistry is the ability to accept failure, to move beyond it. No significant success in art is possible without innovation, and innovation requires the testing of ideas that are doomed from inception. Not to say I have any particular fondness for dealing with rejection, mistakes, and loss, but I do have an advanced recognition of it as an essential step to improvement.

Also, unlike in other areas of life, writing presents a hypothetically infinite amount of times to redo something, a feature that I’m sure drew me towards it. However, there’s an inherent humbling sensation in knowing that the success I have achieved as a writer, in the short stories and articles I’ve published across a number of publications, and as an editor, is partly due to my need to alchemise the instinctive sense that there is something wrong with me, and I must make good of it through the act of creation. While writing and maturation has allowed me to grow out of the pain of the feeling that failure is something embedded in who I am, this impulse remains.

Like most of the people my age, I’m pretty terrified of my working future, with dyspraxia only complicating matters. In a highly competitive economy that increasingly lionises the independent, multi-skilled worker who can take on a varied amount of roles, dyspraxia is an enormous burden. The tendency towards higher linguistic skill and abstract thought mean nothing if I can’t pay the rent. On that note, it’s important to remember that the sense of failure I, and I’d imagine other dyspraxics, have internalised is not natural, but comes from living in a society that values the skills that dyspraxia precludes, and has little need for the ones dyspraxia enhances. Still, I’m in the privileged position of being in the (likely) final year of a double degree, so it’s not like I’m entirely unemployable.

I would very much like to take the typical sign-off on this kind of piece and write that although there’s been struggle, things are pretty good now; but I’m deeply bitter about the lack of support for dyspraxics. Resources about the condition, which affects somewhere between two and six per cent of the population, are thin, and often targeted at the parents of dyspraxics rather than dyspraxics themselves. Its obscurity means I’m often faced with the stress of having to explain it to people, who often project their worst misconceptions about disabled people onto me. There does not even seem to be a dedicated organisation around for Australian dyspraxics: most of my information beyond my own experiences comes from the brilliant Dyspraxia Foundation, based in the UK. There was once an Australian Dyspraxia Association, but it doesn’t seem to be around any longer. Also, as an invisible disability, timely diagnosis only comes to the fortunate, a fact that makes me wonder after those who have not been diagnosed early enough, if at all.