What You Need to Know About Dyspraxia (Or, Developmental Coordination Disorder)

What You Need to Know About Dyspraxia

Takeaway: Dyspraxia is a developmental difference where the brain has trouble coordinating physical movements. Children with dyspraxia appear ‘clumsy’ and have problems with everyday activities like self-care, writing, and playing sports. But with the right kind of help, they can learn to adapt and live fulfilling lives.

Dyspraxia is a developmental difference where the brain has trouble coordinating physical movements.

A child with dyspraxia would find it hard to use scissors, tie her laces, catch a ball, or play sports. That’s because these activities require her to move her legs, arms, and fingers in a highly coordinated way. Obviously, this complicates her personal, school, and social life. For example, she might want to take part in PE, but will soon get frustrated at not being able to learn things as quickly as her friends. She might find her body isn’t doing what she wants it to do, even though she’s trying hard. And if the frustration builds and she starts avoiding sports and games, she might begin to feel socially isolated.

Technically, the term we want to use is Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD).

That’s because people develop coordination issues for many reasons (e.g., from cerebral palsy or a stroke). So, ‘dyspraxia’ is an umbrella term, and the type of dyspraxia we’re exploring is the one caused by a child’s brain developing differently. In professional circles, it’s called Developmental Coordination Disorder, or DCD.

Children with DCD show predictable patterns in the way they struggle with coordination.

Here are some examples:

Developmental milestones

  • They often take longer than usual to reach developmental milestones like rolling over, sitting, standing, walking, and speaking.

Before starting school, they might

  • Find it hard to run, jump, catch, and kick a ball like their friends
  • Fall over often
  • Climb stairs with difficulty
  • Struggle with jigsaw puzzles or games where they have to sort shapes
  • Have problems dressing themselves
  • Find it hard to hold pencils properly
  • Take longer to learn physical skills

In school, they might

  • Start disliking and avoiding PE. They might shy away from games in general, especially when their friends start mastering more complex sports movements — for example, zig-zagging between opponents in football
  • Might be less fit than their friends because they don’t feel like exercising
  • Often get labelled as ‘clumsy’, because they drop things or bump into them
  • Find it hard to write, and their handwriting often isn’t as good as their friends’
  • Struggle with other tasks that need coordination, like drawing or elaborate art projects
  • Appear restless because they move their arms and legs even while sitting
  • Seem down and unmotivated because of their challenges

“If my child is clumsy, does that mean she’s got DCD?”

No. Just because a child has poor coordination, it doesn’t mean she has DCD. For an official diagnosis:

  1. Her coordination problems need to have started very early on.
  2. They have to be significantly worse than other children her age.
  3. They need to have a noticeable impact on her daily routine.

Also, you can’t know for sure about DCD until your child is about 5 years old or more.

DLD doesn’t just ‘go away’, but there are things we can do to address it.

In formal therapy, we would use one or more of these approaches.

1. We can help children with the specific tasks they struggle with.

Here, we’re trying to make daily life a little easier on the child. For example, if she has problems tying her laces, we’ll address that. We’ll break it down into small steps which she can master through practise. Where possible, we can also modify the task to make it easier. So, if she finds it hard to hold a pen, we can add special grips to make it easier for her. Or, instead of having to tie laces, she might prefer shoes with velcro would. And even with exercising, we can find the easiest option and encourage her to do that.

2. We can train the brain to sense and processes information differently.

Helping a child improve her skills with daily tasks is a practical, high-impact approach. But we can also work at a more foundational level. If we can tweak the way her brain processes sensory input and information, her coordination could improve. So, health professionals like occupational therapists can use techniques like sensory integration therapy to help prime the underlying mechanisms of the brain. [Note: With sensory integration therapy, we’d use exercises that simulate her senses in a structured, repetitive way. Over time, her brain will learn to react better to these sensations, which in turn will improve her coordination.]

3. We can help with other related conditions.

Sometimes a child has other challenges that also need to be addressed. For example, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or autism.

Luckily, there are many things you can do to help your child at home.

Experiment and find the right balance of making your child adapt to her environment, and adapting the environment to her needs.

1. Find ways to help her practise.

There are dozens of moments throughout the day for informal practice. For example, folding clothes, mopping the floor, tossing a salad, stretching dough, etc. These sorts of functional tasks are more fun than formal training, like finger exercises. So, pay attention to which ones she enjoys and give her more of those. As she gets better at them, slowly increase their difficulty. For example, if she’s cutting out shapes in dough, you can make the cut-outs more intricate. The trick with practice is to do it often. So, a few minutes every day is better than packing all those minutes into one massive session on the weekend.

2. Think of creative alternatives.

If she’s finding a task particularly hard, be creative in simplifying it. That might mean switching to velcro shoes, elastic waists for trousers, and using innovative fastenings on clothes. For sports and games, it might mean switching from group activities to solo pursuits. Football, for example, means a lot of coordination and peer pressure to perform well and compete. In contrast, swimming can be a relaxing activity where she gets exercise and the freedom to improve at her own pace.

3. Involve her in the planning.

She’ll progress much faster if you allow her into the planning sessions. Which tasks should she practise? Why does it matter that she gets good at them? How are you going to break them into smaller bite-size chunks? When she connects the effort to a meaningful reward, she’s more likely to take ownership of the process.

4. Encourage, encourage, encourage.

This process of trying, failing, learning, and trying again can be exhausting and demoralising. Remember to be patient, give her extra time to get the hang of things, and above all, never stop cheering! For every success, remind her that it’s because of all her hard work. As she begins to acknowledge her role in the victories, you’ll likely see her self-esteem improve.

Are you concerned that your child might have dyspraxia? Ask an expert.

If your child struggles with some of the issues discussed in this post, consider consulting with a trained educational psychologist. The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London.

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