Dyspraxia is a condition affecting the way the brain processes information and organises movement, thoughts and speech. Children with dyspraxia have problems with motor coordination (for instance crawling, jumping, playing ball games, fine coordination).
They also commonly have difficulties with organising their thoughts and speech and planning tasks. Some children are diagnosed with Verbal Dyslexia –where there is difficulty in coordinating speech. They may not have difficulty with their motor skills or these may be subsidiary to their speech problems.
Dyspraxia is sometimes called Developmental Co-Ordination Disorder (DCD). Although it is thought to affect up to six percent of the population in varying degrees of severity (it is much more common in boys), awareness of the condition is much lower than for other developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. Many children are undiagnosed and labelled as clumsy, disruptive, inattentive or lazy. The condition used to be known as Clumsy Child Syndrome.
What causes dyspraxia?
The causes of dyspraxia are not yet known, but it is thought to result from immaturity of neurone development in the central nervous system - the part of our brain responsible for processing information about our bodies and environment . This means messages to and from the brain are not sent properly and fine movements, including speech, are affected.
Although researchers have not identified a genetic cause of dyspraxia there is evidence that the condition tends to run in families.
How can I tell if my child has dyspraxia?
Although dyspraxia can only be diagnosed by a doctor, many parents realise fairly early that their child is developing differently. Yet as dyspraxia affects different children differently, list of symptoms is extensive and there is considerable overlap with other conditions (for instance Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyslexia), it can be hard to recognise.
Commonly, children with dyspraxia are delayed in meeting milestones such as rolling, sitting, standing and walking.
Parents and teachers often notice some of the following signs:
Difficulty in staying still – fidgeting etc.
Frequently falling over and bumping into things.
Poor fine motor skills – difficulties in handwriting, using scissors and games such as jigsaws. Children may avoid these activities.
Problems with activities such as riding a bike, playing with a ball etc.
Messy eating (beyond the age at which this is the norm), frequent spilling of drinks etc.
Difficulty following verbal instructions or understanding tasks. Frequently struggling to maintain concentration or complete work. Apparent difficulties in listening.
Difficulties with speech and/or language.
Struggling to dress self, tie shoe laces etc.
Children of school age may be reluctant to try new activities and avoid PE lessons. They often fall behind with school work and may also suffer from low self-esteem and friendship problems.
A child with dyspraxia may try to avoid school – perhaps reporting headaches or stomach ache, or having problems with sleep.
Getting a diagnosis
If you suspect your child might have dyspraxia it is important to investigate further as getting the appropriate support will allow your child to achieve their potential (and raise their self esteem which may otherwise be or become low).
The first port of call is usually the child's GP (or health visitor if the child is a pre-schooler) who can refer the child to a paediatrician or multi-disciplinary team (which might include a paediatrician, child psychologist, Speech and Language Therapist, Occupational Therapist) for assessment.
As children are often diagnosed with dyspraxia once they are at school, you could also discuss your concerns with the child's teacher or the Special Needs Coordinator (SENCO) who can arrange for your child to be seen in school by an Educational Psychologist (EP). He or she will suggest strategies for teachers to support your child, ways you can help at home and may recommend referral to a paediatrician for a definitive diagnosis.
How to support a child with dyspraxia
There is no cure for dyspraxia and the condition is a lifelong one – although many people find their symptoms lessen as they mature and develop better coping strategies.
Much can be done to support children with dyspraxia and allow them to meet their potential.
Routines and visual reminders (for instance post it notes or pictures in appropriate locations) make personal organisation much easier for children to remember what they need to be doing and what equipment they might need.
Difficulties with dressing can be alleviated by avoiding tight fitting clothes with fiddly buttons and zips. Laying clothes out layer by layer – in the order they need to go on – can make the task much more manageable.
If a child finds eating and drinking difficult try to avoid problems by not overfilling cups, using a straw and making sure crockery cannot slip.
In school children with dyspraxia benefit from having tasks broken down into smaller parts, checking they have understood instructions and having written or visual reminders.
Your child may benefit from some occupational therapy to help develop their day to day skills (such as eating, dressing, handwriting), and your GP should be able to arrange this if appropriate.
What parents say:
"I don't think many people have even heard of dyspraxia. Those that have often just think it's about being clumsy. Actually there are lots of types and signs and there is overlap with ADHD, dyslexia & autism which I think means it should be given more attention. Awareness definitely needs to improve, especially in schools so that children like Sam aren't just labelled as being immature, difficult or disruptive.
"For a long time everything was put down to him being young in the year but it became ever more apparent to us that Sam was different from the majority of other kids. I work with children so I had plenty to compare him with. His lack of concentration and tendency to daydream were extreme and getting him to perform tasks or do homework was very frustrating. He was constantly losing and forgetting things but we could see that he wasn't deliberately being difficult. We finally realised we weren't being silly or over-protective and insisted on having him properly assessed. As soon as that had happened we could make changes at home and school. It explained why Sam is the way he is and what his strengths and weakenesses are. Both us and his teachers can really help him now."
Ali, mother of Sam, eight.