19 Signs That You're Not Just Clumsy — You Have Dyspraxia

by Jenny Hollander
Jenny Hollander

Here's a running list of what I did by accident in the past 24 hours: I spilled boiling water on my big toe. I left my credit card in a Thai restaurant. I tried on two white T-shirts and discovered stains on both. I nearly fell out of the shower while shaving my leg. None of this comes as a surprise to me; after all, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, aka developmental coordination disorder, more than 15 years ago. And clumsiness is the most common and well-established symptom of dyspraxia, a neurological disorder often described as the "dyslexia of movement."

There's more to dyspraxia than clumsiness, however. Once known simply as "clumsy child syndrome," experts have come to recognize clumsiness as just one of its many symptoms. Much like dyslexia, dyspraxia is a learning disability with no cure — put simply, some of the messages your brain is sending to your body aren't getting through. Unlike dyslexia, however, it's not widely known, even though dyspraxia is estimated to affect "between 5 and 10 percent of all school-aged children," notes Robin L. Dole, who directs the Institute for Physical Therapy Education at Widener University.

Being clumsy doesn't necessarily mean you have a developmental disability — some people are just plain clumsy. For other people, however, clumsiness is actually the most obvious symptom of their developmental disorder. It's also important to note that not all people who have dyspraxia are clumsy: Both of my brothers have the disorder (which is often genetic), but one struggles mostly with handwriting; the other, speech patterns. These issues are now widely recognized as indicators of dyspraxia, along with clumsiness and at least two dozen others.

That said: Amanda Kirby, a renowned expert on specific learning difficulties and the author of Dyspraxia: The Hidden Handicap, notes that "nearly all" people with dyspraxia could be reasonably described as clumsy. "DCD by definition is a co-ordination difficulty," she says.

If you can relate to some of the below symptoms, with or without clumsiness, consider making an appointment with a behavioral specialist to find out whether you have dyspraxia. (You can find a specialist here.)

1. You Have Other Coordination Issues

Some people are just accident-prone. If you have dyspraxia, however, you might notice that other things feel "off": Maybe you struggle to hold a pencil, or maybe you don't like crossing your midline (e.g. putting on your left shoe with your right hand).

If you have dyspraxia, it's likely that your "motor coordination deficits interfere significantly and consistently with age-appropriate activities of daily living as well as school, work and play," explains Dole. "These challenges would have their onset in childhood."

Often, people with dyspraxia find specific tasks unbearably difficult. I can't snap my fingers and I can't dive; my father, who also has dyspraxia, can't ride a bike. My brother is athletic, but doesn't like to rely on the left side of his body — just the right. Some people with dyspraxia find it impossible to tie their shoelaces; Daniel Radcliffe, who told The Daily Mail back in 2008 that he has dyspraxia, moaned at the time, "Why, oh why, has Velcro not taken off?"

2. You Find It Hard To Concentrate

Research into developmental disorders takes into account the "high comorbidity" of dyspraxia and ADHD, meaning that many people with one also show symptoms of the other. (Some experts believe this "comorbidity" is as high as 50 percent.) "There is a great deal of overlap and co-existing occurrence of various learning difficulties or disabilities, and problems of motor coordination," agrees Dole.

Finding it hard to focus is a hallmark of ADHD, and it's a common struggle for people with dyspraxia as well. For me, this shows up in specific situations: I can curl up in a corner and read a book for hours, for example, but I know that I can't watch more than a few minutes of a movie I don't like, or literally any kind of sports match, without getting jumpy and distracted.

3. You Get Lost Easily

Jenny Hollander

In my sophomore year of college, all of my roommates bought their groceries from the supermarket a ten-minute walk from our home — but you had to take a Z-shaped route to get there, and I kept getting lost. Eventually, I figured out that if I took a right turn after leaving our house and walked straight down that road for 35 minutes, there was another supermarket. I never tried to go to the closer one again.

Don't get me wrong: Many people with dyspraxia do find it easier than that to get from A to B. Still, if you're going out of your way to avoid getting lost yet again, you might want to consider whether something's going on.

4. If You Are Clumsy, You've Always Been That Way

If you do have dyspraxia, you were born with it — so if you're suddenly a lot more clumsy than usual, that may not point to a developmental disorder.

Dole explains what it feels like to be a child who has dyspraxia. "Think about this situation — if every time you watched a classmate in gym class run up to kick a ball, it was done with great precision, power, and coordination ... And every time you tried, it was [as] if you were doing it for the first time." She continues: "Your body doesn't quite know how fast to move, when to move, how to speed up or slow down, how much force to use, in what sequence the motions should take place ... All of these things seem like they were magic for the other children."

That said, it's entirely possible that a person with dyspraxia can become less clumsy over time. As psychologist Sylvia Moody writes for The British Journal Of Medical Practice: "Adults with dyspraxia often have improved their motor coordination skills over the years ... Their chief difficulties in education and employment are more likely to be related to the cognitive aspects of dyspraxia." Think: organizational skills, doing things in sequence, and timekeeping.

5. It's Hard For You To Hold Things

Maybe you drop your iPhone all the time, or you constantly spill beverages. I have a thriving collection of Tide pens for when I spill something on myself. Thing is, I'm always losing said Tide pens, so now I just pick them up at Rite-Aid like some people pick up Tic-Tacs.

Which brings me to...

6. You Just Lose Things All The Time

A part of me is convinced that, somewhere, there's an alternate universe where all of my pens, books, earrings, T-shirts, and iPhone cords live.

7. You're Particularly Sensitive To Noise, Touch, or Light

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Lots of people with dyspraxia are hyper-sensitive to particular sensations: touch, new clothes, noise, bright lights. Some experts view dyspraxia as a subset of Sensory Processing Disorder, which is broadly defined as a struggle to process sensory information — whether it's holding objects, being in a moving vehicle, or the feel of certain fabrics against your skin.

It's thought that people with dyspraxia are more easily overwhelmed by what's pummeling their senses, making them more vulnerable to panic attacks. (I often get anxious in loud restaurants.)

Which is partly because...

8. Eating Is Kind Of Difficult

Food is great and all, but it's also hard. Coordination-wise, there's a lot going on: Maybe you struggle to hold your knife and your fork as you chew your food, cut it into pieces, talk, drink. Maybe you don't like the texture of certain foods, or you're an embarrassingly messy eater, or you have to focus hard on the act of chewing and swallowing.

"Almost everything we do requires you to be co-ordinated," Kirby says. "From the time we get up until we go to bed we are moving in some way — dressing, feeding, walking, working."

I know it sounds weird, and maybe you've tried to hide it, but trust me: If you find eating physically stressful, you're not alone. Eating is one of life's great joys, but eating is also a goddamn onslaught for your senses.

9. You're Frustrated And Anxious

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A 2013 study in the journal BMC Neurology found that more than 60 percent of children who have learning disorders (like dyspraxia, dyslexia, and ADHD) also suffer "neuropsychopathologies" — like mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.

"The consequence of DCD is that [it] impacts on social participation and also limits activities of daily living. People often have low self-esteem and are anxious," says Kirby.

It's hard to say whether having a mood disorder is a symptom of dyspraxia, or whether people with dyspraxia are more likely to have mood disorders because they struggle with aspects of everyday life. Regardless, research suggests there's a ton of "comorbidity" between developmental and psychological disorders — if you have one, you're much more likely to have the other.

10. You Speak Too Loudly, Or Too Slowly, Or Too Quickly, Or...

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For many people with dyspraxia, "speech apraxia" is their biggest issue. Speech apraxia is when messages from your brain aren't all getting through to your lips, jaw, or tongue — basically, the parts of your body needed to speak effectively — which makes it difficult to form words the way that you want to.

In people with dyspraxia, this can be severe (e.g. you find it incredibly hard to say what you want) to mild (I speak more quickly than average, for example, but people can usually understand me). There are a lot of excellent specialists who treat speech apraxia specifically — so while your dyspraxia isn't going away, you can improve your speech patterns with speech therapy.

11. You Can't Think About More Than One Thing At Once

Think about it: If dyspraxia makes it hard for you to hold an object in each hand at the same time, it makes sense that you'd also struggle to multitask.

Let's say someone gives me a list of instructions: Okay, Jenny, you're going to turn right at the bus stop, walk straight ahead for three minutes, then cross the road. All I'll remember in 30 seconds is "turn right at the bus stop."

12. Nobody Can Read Your Handwriting


As with speech apraxia, this symptom can range from severe (e.g. nobody can read a word you write) to mild (maybe you have to write slowly and carefully, but it's typically legible).

Difficulty with handwriting is a common symptom of dyspraxia: Like eating, writing by hand involves a lot of messages traveling to your body from your brain, and not all of them are quite getting through. And, as with speech apraxia, this is an issue that can be managed through working with a specialist.

13. You've Been Diagnosed With Other Disorders


Brace yourself: We're going to talk about "comorbidity" again. (Fun fact: Thanks to point number ten, I can't pronounce "comorbidity.")

Dyspraxia shares many symptoms with dyslexia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, Asperger's syndrome, and autism. It also often occurs in tandem with mood disorders like anxiety and depressive disorders. “All of a sudden I was hit with a massive wave of depression and anxiety and self-hatred," Cara Delevingne told Vogue about coping with her dyspraxia as a teenager.

Look, I know this sounds scary, especially if you think you may have dyspraxia. You can't "cure" it, but you can absolutely manage dyspraxia and live a healthy and fulfilling life. (I mean, look at Cara Delevingne. She's Cara Delevingne, for God's sake.)

14. Man, Learning New Skills Is Tough

Some people with dyspraxia can strengthen specific connections between brain and body with practice. I'm never going to be the worst's greatest skier, for example, but the more I practice it, the less challenging it becomes.

The problem, at least for me, is when I try an entirely new physical skill that I have very little experience with. Ice skating? Rollerblading? Basketball? You've got to be kidding me.

The same goes for learning any cognitive skill that requires me to multitask: It's a horrifying, exaggerated, hilarious exercise. This is why I don't drive, for example, and why I was nearly fired from a deli one time for accidentally putting four shots of expresso in every "regular" coffee.

15. Seriously, How Can One Person Lose So Many Things??

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Where do they all go?!

(It's a shame I didn't lose that coffee before handing it to all those disgruntled customers, come to think of it.)

16. You Can't Tell Your Left From Your Right

Not being able to distinguish between your left and your right is a hallmark of dyspraxia. (It also goes some way to explain why you might get lost so often.)

Speaking of...

17. Everyday Tasks Frustrate You Most Of All

For the most part, having dyspraxia doesn't bother me as an adult. I only get frustrated when it unexpectedly interferes with my daily life: When I walk into an important meeting and trip over my own feet. When I'm trying to get to know somebody and it's too loud for me to enunciate properly, so they can't understand what I'm saying. When the flashing lights and loud music in spin class make me hyperventilate.

For me, the big things — my non-existent sense of direction; my dreadful organizational skills; every time my body won't move the way I want it to — are unsurprising and, actually, kind of funny. It's the little, everyday actions that are just that little bit harder and just the last bloody straw.

18. Your Muscles Are Weaker Than They Should Be

Many people with dyspraxia also have hypotonia, otherwise known as low muscle tone.

For some people, this symptom can be severe: Maybe you find that a 15-minute walk leaves you fatigued, and that standing up for more than a couple of minutes is uncomfortable. For others, it's milder: heavy doors are never my friend, for example.

Unfortunately, it can turn into a cycle. Because you find moving from Point A to Point B hard anyway, you're not using those muscles as often as other people are, so you remain fatigued after even gentle exercise. You can work with a specialist or personal trainer, however, to build your muscle tone.

19. You Walk Or Run Awkwardly

If you have dyspraxia, there's a good chance somebody has commented about the awkward way you walk or run. It might not be all that noticeable — an acquaintance may not realize it, but your family and friends probably will.

"You run like a sheep with its legs tied together, sort of," a classmate told me kindly in third grade. (It's true. I do.) Also, I once accidentally jogged into wet cement and it dried in the shape of my sneakers, which I like to think of as a permanent tribute to my own hopelessness.

If these symptoms sound familiar, what should you do now? Even if this entire list describes you to a T, do not self-diagnose yourself with dyspraxia. Many dyspraxia symptoms can actually be indicators of dyslexia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, autism, or Asperger's syndrome. What you believe to be dyspraxia could be SPD, or ADHD — which, it bears mentioning, shows up differently in women — or even more than one disorder. Some symptoms could even point to a brain injury.

You should also be aware that not all medical professionals have experience in the field of developmental disorders. "Professionals who misdiagnose or under-diagnose dyspraxia aren’t stupid or mean — but they may be ignorant," says Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of the Sync series, including The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up. "People tend to be down on what they’re not up on."

Don't lose hope. Find a professional in your area who has experience with developmental disabilities, and be as clear as possible about your range of symptoms.

Read more on dyspraxia

27 Signs You Have Dyspraxia