Growing up in the fifties, dyspraxia either had not been identified or was unknown outside specialist areas.
The first official recognition that there was something wrong was when a teacher complained to my parents that I wasn’t doing my homework, specifically not learning my spellings. When my parents refuted this, saying they supervised my homework, and tested me on what I had learnt, I was sent to the headmaster for an assessment. I vaguely remember the interview. He asked a lot of questions. He later told my parents my intelligence was normal, perhaps higher than normal, and I appeared to have “number blindness”. But no-one could account for how I had learnt something one day, but my mind was a blank slate to that information the next.
In my forties, I heard of dyspraxia for the first time. There was a short interview with a child on television who described his bad memory, clumsiness and insensitivity to touch. I went and told my husband the child’s description of dyspraxia, whereupon he burst out laughing and said “Well, is the condition curable, because you are still like that”.
To date there is no cure for dyspraxia, but if the condition is identified in young children a number of physical therapies can help the condition.
Dyspraxia presents in a different way in each person. For me, the main problem was a terrible short term memory, although my long term memory, mysteriously is very good. As a child I couldn’t understand why it took me so much longer to learn something new, than other children. I would take an hour to learn something that other children could learn in ten minutes. This made me a slow learner. One result was I got left behind in maths, because I was forced to move onto new topics before I had grasped the previous ones. And then could not understand the new topics, because understanding them relied on understanding the previous ones. Later, I also found I could not learn languages, shorthand or any subject where a large number of atomised facts had to be memorised.
To give two examples of what my memory was like, I remember the occasion when a teacher honoured me with the task of going to see a teacher, with such and such a name, at this room number with this message. I could not remember everything at once. I had to do one of my prioritising assessments on what was most important to remember and found myself outside the door of that teacher’s classroom but unable to remember both her name or the message.
Mental arithmetic was murder. By this stage I was viewed as among the more intelligent pupils in the class, but when the teacher held mental arithmetic sessions he thought I was taking the Mickey in that I could never answer a question, to the hilarity of everyone else, who thought the same. The problem was this. In mental arithmetic you have to remember the first part of the problem, the second part of the problem, the process to carry out, keep all this in your head while you carry out the process, and then come up with the answer. I found I could remember one of the numbers and the function, but not both, and I couldn’t remember everything altogether while carrying out the process.
But the hell of school was something you cannot avoid in school. Other children. Where other children learnt fast, but could not concentrate for any length of time, say about 15 minutes, my processing speed was so slow, accompanied with a low energy level, that those 15 minutes were just enough to get my brain in gear, and interested in the subject and wanting to continue. Just when the teacher changed the subject to keep the attention of the other children. Each stop and switching subject left me exhausted and further and further behind. So I gave up. I ignored school but made up for it by reading in all my spare time. I used to go through 7 library books a week, and I was reading adult books before I finished primary. Two years into grammar I was demolishing the university texts of both my mother and sister.
Bad memory. Slow processing speed. The next dyspraxic set is wrongly tuned sensory input. In my case I am hyper sensitive to sound and light and touch, but insensitive to pain.
As a child my combination of clumsiness with being very active meant I was black and blue, and usually bleeding gallons from my knees, but merrily telling the other horrified children, “No, it doesn’t hurt at all’. One bonus. Nobody even attempted to bully me.
But because of noise sensitivity, and inability to process changing information quickly I soon came to detest children for their qualities of making sudden unexpected shrieking sounds and dashing around so you couldn’t figure out where they were. With touch sensitivity I hated being touched and children don’t observe personal space. The first 10 years of your life, subjectively, are much longer than 10 years. More than long enough for me to decide that as soon as the company of children was not compulsory, I would avoid them completely. I also have no tolerance for teens and young adults for the same reason. Too noisy. Things that other people enjoy, like crowds and noise and bright lights, are all things I avoid.
I like reading. But according to my mother, I shouldn’t do it in the dark.
All this time, neither myself, nor anyone else had heard of dyspraxia. The next (short-lived) adventure was when I became old enough, my father took me out for my first driving lesson. He came back, grey and shaking and I never got into the driving seat again. Yes, I probably could learn how to drive, if there was no-one else on the road. But not being able to spread my attention over many things at once, my choice is concentrate on what is going on in the car OR what is going on outside. Doing both together is nearly impossible. Add to that my really slow processing speed, combined with another mental quirk which has nothing to do with dyspraxia, an absence of survival reflexes, I would be death on wheels. By the time I had realised among the multiple inputs that a pedestrian/child/dog had stepped out in front of my wheels, with no survival reflex, either for myself or for other people, and gone through the lengthy process of identifying that this is a new priority and needs to be put first – I would have run over them.
On the same basis I could never look after children. Once, when baby sitting, I was walking down the street holding the hand of the two-year old. Then he did what infants are prone to do. He suddenly snatched his hand from mine and sprinted headlong towards the road and oncoming traffic. I stood perplexed, wondering why the child was no longer holding my hand. I watched him run towards the traffic feeling nothing other than mild curiousity along the lines – why is he doing that? Then my brain kicked in with, this is a problem, you need to think about this. Perhaps you need to do something. Fortunately, just before he reached the road, he slammed on the brakes. I realised not only could I never look after children, but from then on I put as much distance between myself and children as possible. If they do something unexpected, I do not have the needed reactions to protect them from their impulsive behaviour.
I found dyspraxia was much easier to live with as I aged. As a child I had become a very strong swimmer, swimming competitively and learning life saving. I also learnt to ride a bike. I tried to train away my clumsiness by learning how to juggle. These helped with the poor physical coordination. But bad memory has been the biggest problem. But by the time you are an adult you have worked out routines for most areas of life, and you are working from long term memory. But I cannot respond quickly to novel situations, or fast paced situations with many variables. And that for me means nearly every social situation or a pressured work environment.
I am now in my sixties, so a lot of the problems dyspraxia cause are now irrelevant. But recently, after a freak illness, which might well have been carbon monoxide poisoning, I remembered a freak accident when I was pre-school child (started school aged 4) at home with my mother. My father came in from work and found my mother unconscious with carbon monoxide poisoning, on the kitchen floor. My parents immediately replaced the gas with electricity.
But carbon monoxide poisoning not only affects children more, especially very young children, but can also leave long term brain damage affecting short term memory, physical coordination, and sensory sensitivity. The same characteristics of dyspraxia.
I wonder if there has been any research done on dyspraxic people to see if they had an experience of carbon monoxide poisoning in infancy?