It took nearly 60 years for my father to learn that he had dyspraxia. Without ever understanding why, my dad had failed his driving test eight times, stepped on strangers’ feet every time he tried to dance, and couldn't follow a map. It wasn't until his 10-year-old daughter (me!) was formally diagnosed with dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder, that it began to register.
It's not a coincidence that my father and I both have dyspraxia, often referred to as DCD in the United States. Defined as a lifelong neurological disorder, it can be genetic. It primarily affects motor function (e.g., the ability to eat, speak, and move), alongside a Pandora’s box of other developmental symptoms. Alternately referred to as dysgraphia, dyspraxia, developmental coordination disorder (DCD), and specific developmental disorder of motor function (SDDMF), experts estimate that between 2 and 10 percent of the population has dyspraxia. Difficult to explain and complex to diagnose, the disorder boils down to this: Not all of the messages your brain is sending to your body are getting through. You’re not imagining it.
Sadly, the condition is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed. "Few physicians and parents and teachers are even aware of developmental motor disorders,” says Deborah Dewey, a University of Calgary professor who specializes in DCD research.
For me, it started with little things: bumping into people in the corridors at school. Getting lost on my way to class. My teachers noticed other things, too: I walked oddly, hunched and tilting to one side, with my feet turned inward. I was formally diagnosed before I was 11, only a few years after the founding of the first-ever Dyspraxia Foundation.
The early diagnosis made me lucky: I knew why I walked into walls, doors, desks, my own feet. I knew why I struggled to interject into conversations at the right moment. I knew that it was OK to find the whole thing kind of funny, really, because it wasn’t my fault. Many dyspraxic individuals aren't that lucky.
"Educators, therapists, medical doctors, and other professionals may think a person with dyspraxia has ODD or OCD or another emotional disorder,” says Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of the Sync series, including The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up. "In fact, the person may have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which affects how they respond to sensations of touch and movement," she adds. (Some experts view dyspraxia as a subset of SPD.)
One reason for the lack of accurate diagnoses is that many people with dyspraxia don't present with symptoms as "classic" as mine. “Dyspraxia/DCD is a cluster of difficulties and can present with different difficulties,” says Michèle Lee, who chairs the U.K.'s Dyspraxia Foundation. “The common symptom is difficulties with gross and fine motor skills.”
Some people with dyspraxia are physically coordinated, but can't tell their left from their right and can barely hold a pen. Daniel Radcliffe, who has dyspraxia, struggles to tie his shoelaces. (Other public figures who have openly spoken about having the disorder include Cara Delevingne and Florence Welch.) There's also considerable overlap with ADHD, autism, and SPD.
If this sounds familiar, how can you find out if you have dyspraxia? Well, you can’t self-diagnose; you'll need to be professionally assessed by at least one specialist who has experience in the field. This can be tricky. It's a fairly new field, especially outside of Commonwealth countries. Even the DSM — the United States’ diagnostic bible, short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — only made changes to its definition of "motor disorders," which now includes DCD, in 2013.
Below are some signs that could indicate you’re dyspraxic.
1. You’re Really Freaking Clumsy
Dyspraxia was known as “clumsy child syndrome” back in the '70s, although experts no longer use the term. While the label may describe some kids with dyspraxia — among the most common symptoms of dyspraxia is clumsiness, like tripping over yourself or dropping things or knocking things over — many people with dyspraxia aren’t that clumsy, nor are they children.
That said, I have dyspraxia, and I was a clumsy child (and now I’m a clumsy grown-up). I spill things so often that it doesn’t startle me anymore, and I’m never surprised by unexpected bruises.
2. You’re Especially Self-Conscious
"One thing that does stand out is that the majority of these children are aware from a very early age that they are different,” Dewey says. "They cannot do the same things as other kids. They cannot keep up, so they tend to withdraw, and in many cases their social world becomes very small."
Kranowitz agrees: “A little kid may feel that he’s 'no good' at beating the triangle, spreading apple butter on toast, donning dress-ups, or climbing monkey bars, so he’ll abstain. He feels he’s 'dumb' or 'no good at that' and doesn’t want to be scolded, cajoled, forced, or even noticed.”
She adds: "The underlying difficulty is physiological... and then it becomes psychological."
3. Your Balance Isn’t Great
I went to a Catholic junior school. We said the Lord’s Prayer standing up. I spent most of it with my eyes squeezed shut, trying not to fall backward or forward. I hoped God would understand.
4. Doing Two Things At Once Is A Herculean Task
Some people with dyspraxia find it near-impossible to hold two objects in their separate hands at once. It's not just physical multitasking that’s difficult: I can't listen and read at the same time, no matter how hard I concentrate. If it’s particularly loud, I struggle to read a word — even a billboard.
I’m also not great at walking and talking at the same time. Either I’m really into our conversation and you have to hold me back from cheerfully walking into lampposts/traffic lights/dumpsters, or I’m concentrating on not wandering into traffic and you’re wondering why I keep breaking off mid-sentence.
5. Your Eye-Hand Coordination Sucks
Here’s an easy way to test your eye-hand coordination: Pick up a ball and throw it against a nearby wall. Can you catch it? If you’re me, the answer is, “God, no, and also I just broke a light fixture.”
6. You Find Speaking And/Or Eating Weirdly Difficult
For some people with dyspraxia, being hyper-aware of the different mechanisms of eating — biting! chewing! swallowing! not doing any of the above to your own tongue! — makes food tricky. When I eat, I have to concentrate hard or risk choking: I gravitate toward soft, easy-to-eat foods like soup and pasta, especially if I’m eating with friends and have to focus on speaking at the same time. I eat at a snail’s pace, and very carefully.
For other people, speech itself is the most difficult part of being dyspraxic. (More on that later.)
7. You Have A Hard Time With Daily Tasks That Involve Moving
Picture this: You’ve arrived early to a dinner party, and you’re helping — or trying to help — the host prepare. Everybody is milling around the kitchen, chatting away. As for you, you’re quietly trying to focus on:
- not bumping into anybody
- not tripping over
- not allowing a stray limb to knock over the main course
- choosing an object to pick up/stir/clean
- walking over to said object and actually doing the picking up/stirring/cleaning, and
- giving the impression you’re being helpful and not just hanging out in the kitchen like a hungry pet.
You want to help, but, man, this is tiring. Does this sound familiar?
8. You Drink To Make The Symptoms Go Away
I’m not talking about sneaking gin into your morning OJ. But if you find yourself reaching for an extra glass of wine because it dulls your overloaded senses and makes you less self-conscious about your lack of coordination, you might want to consider whether something’s going on.
That said: "Most of the people I know do not drink as they are aware that their difficulties worsen,” Lee says. (Oops.)
9. You Have Trouble Coordinating Your Right And Left Sides
One of my brothers is very physically active, but he’s dyspraxic and struggles with coordination on the left side of his body. In other words, he knows that the right side of his body typically obeys his brain. The left side? Not so much.
“Almost all the children I see have severe midline of the body issues and this impacts their ability to visually track, play sports, and so on,” says Susan Orloff, the founder and head of Children's Special Services, which treats learning and developmentally challenged kids and teenagers in Atlanta.
For other people, a very “classic” symptom of dyspraxia is the inability to tell your right from your left. Which brings me to...
10. You’re Not Sure Whether You’re Left Or Right-Handed
Some people with dyspraxia use both their hands to perform everyday tasks, instead of one or the other. They might also struggle with using either hand. (Fun fact: This one affects my other dyspraxic brother.) Plenty of dyspraxic people are ambidextrous, which makes us sort of like X-Men, if you think about it. Also…
11. You Don’t Sit Normally
This is a weird one: I've never been able to sit at a chair normally. Instead, to be comfortable, I have to sit on one foot, or cross-legged, or with one knee up, or with my legs crossed, or with my feet on another surface. It helps me balance, I guess?
12. Organization Is Not Your Forte
I wasn't popular with my teachers. I was late to class, rarely brought the right books, and always finished my homework two days early or two days late. (OK, let’s face it, usually late.)
Organization is not my friend, but technology is. In order to function as a grown-ass woman, I keep a to-do list with an unholy number of subsections on every device (What To Remember, What To Do Today, What To Buy, What To Do Tomorrow, What To Just Not Forget) and go over it every couple of hours. If I suspect I’ll forget something, I scrawl it on my hand with a Sharpie.
13. Driving Is Just So Complicated
Remember when we talked about how my dad failed his driving test eight times? Yeah, well, you wouldn’t believe he’d ever passed if you saw him try to park a car. (Sorry, Dad.)
As for me? I took 20 hours’ worth of driving lessons before thanking my lucky stars for public transport and giving up. I would drift left when I thought I was driving in a straight line, and if it was an inanimate object in my neighborhood, I probably hit it at some point. Eventually, my driving instructor explained that I would need disability-specific driving lessons, switched seats with me, and drove me home. This was the end of my career behind the wheel.
And while we’re on the subject...
14. You Find It Incredibly Difficult To Learn A Physical Sequence
One of the reasons I gave up driving lessons: I could never master the act of actually putting a car into gear. Same with making coffee. Same with following recipes. Same with knitting, sailing, sewing, using a cash register, and following dance routines. If it has more than two steps, you’ve lost me. If I do manage to learn it, I’ll have forgotten the sequence a day later.
15. You Have Trouble Holding On To More Than One Thing At Once
You know when Eleven from Stranger Things scrunches up her face and concentrates hard on moving objects with her mind? Yeah, well, that’s me trying to hold a cup of tea in each hand.
16. You’re Easily Distracted, Even When You Want To Focus
As I mentioned, there’s significant overlap between ADHD and dyspraxia, which makes both difficult to diagnose. (Some people are diagnosed with both.) "My research has shown that most children with a motor impairment typically display problems in other areas,” Dewey says.
As with ADHD, dyspraxic individuals can find themselves daydreaming when they’re genuinely trying to concentrate — another reason my teachers weren’t my biggest fans — and background sounds can really throw them off.
Like, for example, when you’re trying to sleep.
17. You Can’t Sleep At Night
Many people with dyspraxia report sleeping difficulties. For me, any background noise can stop me from drifting off, sometimes for the entire night. It can be a ceiling fan, someone’s music, a conversation in the next apartment — anything my brain focuses on instead of sleep.
18. You Just Don’t “Get” Maps
OK, imagine this: You’re standing in a familiar place. You're blindfolded and spun around several times. When you take the blindfold off, everything looks familiar, but you can’t get your bearings for a moment. For just a second, you can recognize the things around you, but you can’t tell where you were coming from or where you’re going or in which direction home is. That’s how it feels to have no sense of direction. Look, I’m not talking about a “poor” sense of direction: Many people with dyspraxia have essentially zero sense of where they are in relation to the things around them.
Here’s a tidbit from an article in The Financial Times about a politician with dyspraxia:
Spoiler: Her office was the same place it always had been.
You learn to use visual landmarks to get from Point A and Point B, and you follow the little dot on Apple Maps around like it’s your religion. Because...
19. Your Spatial Awareness Is Barely Even A Thing
This helps explain the “crashing into inanimate objects” part, and also the “difficulty with driving” issue. It seems to me that, when walking through a crowd, most people have an understanding of how to move one's body parts so you don’t walk flat into anybody. I repeat: This is most people.
If you have dyspraxia, you might find yourself walking into strangers on the street constantly. Maybe you misjudge when a car in motion will pass you, so you almost trip over its bumper. You end up carrying Tide pens around in your bag because you can’t eat or drink anything without misjudging where it is in relation to your mouth and spilling it. (Wha? Me?)
Speaking of pens.
20. You Can’t Hold On To Your Pen
One of the more “classic” dyspraxia symptoms is struggling with a pen or pencil. Think about it: When you’re writing by hand, your brain has to focus on the pressure you’re putting on your pen and the way you’re tensing the different muscles in your hand and how much you’re pushing down on the paper and the shape of the letters you’re forming — and that’s without thinking about what you’re actually trying to write down. It’s a ton of frantic messages from your brain, and in dyspraxic individuals, not all of those messages are getting through.
Not to mention...
21. Your Handwriting Has Been A Big Problem
Maybe your handwriting is OK, but you struggle to hold onto your pen. Maybe writing by hand is so difficult for you that you’d only ever write on keyboards if you could. Maybe your handwriting was terrible when you were younger, but it improved with age. Whatever your issues are or were, writing with a pen by hand requires you to use ton of different motor skills in unison, so people with dyspraxia can find it hella tricky.
22. You Talk Too Quickly (Or Too Slowly, Or Too Loudly, Or Too Softly)
Man, the world expects a lot from you, doesn’t it? Everybody around you has this extraordinary sense of how loud is appropriate, how soft is unintelligible, and how to pronounce certain words. If you don’t have that, well, let me assure you that you’re not the only person to yell out confidential information you thought you were whispering.
For some people, a struggle to physically form words — as in, difficulty moving their tongue against their teeth to correctly form words — is their primary symptom of dyspraxia. (This is also known as speech apraxia.)
Especially when your other senses are overloaded. For example...
23. You Struggle To Hear Or Speak In Loud Environments
I don’t dislike loud noises. But I hate loud spaces when I’m trying to speak. It’s like walking through water: Maybe I can make my voice loud enough, but I can’t concentrate on enunciating and I become hard to understand. If I’m focusing on emphasizing words correctly, I’m not able to focus on raising my voice, and nobody can hear what I’m saying.
This is one reason I lean toward that extra glass of wine when I’m in bars: The louder the environment, the more my senses are overloaded and the more I want everything to calm the hell down already.
24. The Way You Walk Is A Little Off
You know, in my mind, I walk just fine.
I can assure you this is not the case.
I’ve been told that I walk an “s”-shaped path — hunched over, veering to the right, to the middle, then to the left, and back to the middle. If you’re walking next to me, I’ll bump hips with you. And not in that fun '80s way.
25. You Struggle Learning Some Skills, But Not Others
Some skills, like learning how to dance a certain sequence of steps, feel like you're like trying to climb a cliff face without climbing equipment (and almost as dangerous). Whether it’s calculus, a cash register, or the new Instagram update, trying and failing to learn “simple" skills can make you feel like an idiot. But there are other skills — like recalling specific details or spelling complex words, for example — that come so easily, you’re sure you must be cheating.
Me? I could not grasp the laws of physics, no matter how hard I tried. I took French for a full decade and never got past the most rudimentary of greetings. But I liked writing. I even liked writing lines 50 times over when I was in detention for daydreaming in class.
26. You Have Low Muscle Tone
This can occur for all sorts of reasons, of course, but is also a symptom of dyspraxia. I can stand up for long periods of time, technically, but I’m terrible at it. After a couple of minutes upright, I want to sit down so badly I can’t focus on anything else.
27. You’ve Been Diagnosed With Other Disorders
For some people, dyspraxia can exist by itself. For others, it exists along with one or more disorders, including but not limited to: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, Aspergers’ syndrome, and sensory, social, or language disorders.
Here’s the good news: If you do have DCD — again, don't self-diagnose, since dyspraxia can so often be confused with other disorders — there are treatment options. No, there's no “cure” for dyspraxia. However, you can improve your motor skills with occupational therapy; pick up assistive technology tips from online communities; treat speech difficulties with speech therapy; and address any psychological issues with a licensed therapist and/or psychiatrist. You can get more information about how to get a diagnosis here.