Dyspraxia Foundation

Dyspraxia: A Primer for Geeks

Education Health

Uncoordinated, he avoids trying out for sports teams. He shuffles down the hall with his shoelaces dragging and a shirt he put on inside-out. He’s awkward when talking to people and likes to retreat into comfort zones–hobbies and interests that he feels some sort of mastery over because everything else seems jumbled and confusing.

The other kids might look his way and say, “What a geek.”

But there’s much more to the story.

As many as one in ten suffer from dyspraxia. Many of the signs and symptoms are written off as quirky behaviors stereotypically assigned to “geekiness” or the simple awkwardness of youth.

By the time my son was in second grade, it was becoming apparent that he was experiencing the world differently. A really bright kid with very specific interests, his performance in school was uneven and he struggled with everyday tasks that his friends were starting to master.

After years of trying, he still couldn’t tie his shoes–he didn’t learn until middle school. Writing was an awkward experience for him. Letters would flip and he’d trail down the page with a drunken, wandering scrawl. Spelling was an extra challenge. At times he’d spell words without any of the vowels. He’d watch movies with his hands over his ears. We took to bringing earplugs along with us wherever we went.

He tried sports but his lack of coordination and the overwhelming stimulus he received from a field full of chaotic movement and a sideline full of screaming Texas football parents convinced him that our state’s obsession wasn’t his thing.

We’d taken him to counseling before and spoken with our doctor but never had much luck. He was too healthy and too normal to have any “real” problems. These were all things he’d “grow out of.”

It was an amazing teacher who recommended occupational therapy. Initially, we took him for his handwriting, but they quickly discovered the full extent of his difficulties and we finally had a name: dyspraxia.

Dyspraxia is an autism spectrum disorder often co-morbid with autism spectrum disorders. The how and why of it aren’t well understood, but the broad range of effects it can have on the mind are well-documented.

Dyspraxia alters the way sufferers process sensory information. Sound, sight, touch, and even vestibular and proprioception senses–the awareness of body movement and positioning in space–can be affected. Long- and short-term memory are also often at risk, leading to broken or disordered recall.

For years, the condition has flown under the radar. Even after Harry Potter himself (Daniel Radcliffe) shared his diagnosis in 2008, there’s still little understanding of the disorder in the US. Overseas, however, the UK has led the charge in treatment, diagnosis and support.

Once we knew the diagnosis, the next step was to make the school aware. His dyspraxia is now recognized under federal 504 law, and we meet yearly (or more often) with his teachers to both educate them on dyspraxia and discuss his progress and accommodations in the classroom.

Chances are you know someone who meets the description, maybe even someone close to you. Check out the Dyspraxia Foundation for more information and resources to help understand this under-acknowledged disorder.

Do you have any experiences with dyspraxia you’d like to share? Is this the first time you’ve heard of the disorder? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer any questions you may have.

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26 thoughts on “Dyspraxia: A Primer for Geeks

  1. I’ve never heard of Dyspraxia before. I’m very interested in these spectrum disorders. I myself suffer from a fortunately light form of Dysgraphia. While very young in school, I could not spell words, no matter how hard I tried. Spelling is the only “class” I have ever gotten an “F” in and the only class where I have only gotten a single “A”. I remember it very well, even though it was in the 1st grade. My 5th grade teacher said I’d never amount to anything (Ha! Spell check!). Yes, he said that in front of me to my parents. I guess it was good, as it did motivate them to get me my first electric typewriter with spell check built in (and shortly after a Commodore 64 with a writing program). Also, typing seems to help over hand writing. Since I work in the IT field, I also get lots of practice. Dang, I should have counted how many times I had to use spell check in this paragraph…

    I’m also not really into a lot of sports. I love watching Soccer, but don’t play. However, I like sports where I’m not on a team. I’ve been doing triathlons lately. There’s something about being dependent on myself and pushing myself without worrying about other people being dependent on me. Will I ever come in first? Probably not. However, it’s not about coming in first in the race. It’s about finishing the race. I wonder if doing something on ones own that is physical might help your son? The cheering at the end of the race might be overwhelming, but the majority of triathlons are away from people.

    1. Thanks for the comment! You’d need a diagnosis from a therapist, but the signs are there. Dysgraphia as you describe is often associated with dyspraxia. My son has the same trouble spelling. He reads constantly and can usually tell a misspelled word when he sees it, but there is a disconnect when he goes to write it down. Typing can help and even some writing strategies (like writing smaller or in separate boxes like on graph paper) can help. Much of dysgraphia involves being unable to tell the correct way to hold a pen, the proper amount of pressure to use, and tracking the lines on a page.

      My son’s diagnosis was about seven years ago and since then he has gotten much better with his co-ordination issues. He still shies away from sports but not long after his diagnosis, he told us he wanted to join the school orchestra. We were concerned but he persevered.That has been a tremendous help with his fine motor skills and he’s gotten really good at it, making the varsity orchestra last year. He’s been playing violin ever since and added mandolin recently.

      I do some running myself and that is a great suggestion. He’s been with me a few times and joined the AFROTC at his high school this year, so I think with their PT he’s picked up on the same ideas of pushing himself to meet individual goals as being less overwhelming.

      1. Ah! Music! I didn’t even think about that. I played trombone for over 7 years starting in 5th grade and am currently learning to play bass guitar. That’s a great suggestion! I’ve found that the music I’m producing has a relaxing effect on myself that helps me make better music. It’s a really nice circle of dependencies, if you can get it started.

        I do always tend to hold pens too tight when writing and, if I don’t have lines on the paper, I end up all over the place. Anyway, I’m not sure it needs a diagnosis, as I easily compensate with computers now. 🙂 It seems to very rarely affect my life. I am very glad to hear about the discussions though. I wonder what would have been different if there was more awareness when I was growing up.

        If you son is interested, you should check out sonic-pi. It’s an interactive programming environment to make music. I don’t suggest it as a replacement for instruments, but as a compliment to them. Just another way to make music that’s fun. It would also be good for other people who want to make music but can’t or aren’t interested in learning an instrument. It’s also free and runs on Windows/Mac/Linux. http://sonic-pi.net

  2. May I ask why you state Dyspraxia is on the Autism Spectrum? While it is often present with those on the Autism spectrum, it is a neurological condition separate from the spectrum from everything I have read or heard from neurodevelopmental pediatricians.

    1. You are correct that it is better stated that Dyspraxia is often co-morbid with Autism spectrum disorders and not specifically on the spectrum.

      Writing the article, I was trying to find the best way to define Dyspraxia which has been an slightly elusive thing ever since we heard the diagnosis. I stumbled across a whole host of definitions, most of which varied in subtle ways. Over the years, about a dozen different terms have been applied and now seems to be some confusion over conflating Dyspraxia with Developmental Coordination Disorder which, while similar, seems to miss many of the difficulties outside motor co-ordination.

      At any rate, I hope I didn’t add to any of the confusion while trying to shine some light!

      1. Thank you for clarifying Russ. In the journey with my Dyspraxic son I have been repeatedly told how “it is not like he has autism” and therefor does not qualify for services so it may be a bit raw.

        1. Yeah, I feel your pain. Again, this has been such a nebulous thing over the years people either want to break it up into different chunks which lessens the overall impact or assign the behaviors to other things like ADD or ADHD when, while there are similarities, the treatment and approaches are vastly different. Thanks for sharing your own wisdom on the issue.

      2. Thanks for updating. Dyspraxia can sometimes look like Autism Spectrum so its important to distinguish. Many children with ASD have Dyspraxia, but some children have Dyspraxia and do not have ASD. I don’t think Dyspraxia is simply conflated with DCD, but is a preferred term in much of the medical community. I do agree with you though that by using that term it doesn’t express well the broader concerns outside of just coordination that go along with it. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Dyspraxia has been around long before Asperger’s was removed from the DSM. Both often have issues with social skills, but they are separate diagnoses.

    2. Joni is right and one reason they sound similar is because (as clarified above – thanks Michele!) Asperger’s often also goes hand in hand with some form of Dyspraxia. Also like Joni says below, both can affect social skills but the key thing is that they do it in different ways. Dyspraxics can suffer socially from self esteem issues due to their motor skills and sensory processing can overwhelm them in certain environments. For Aspergers (anyone, correct me if I’m wrong here), I understand the disorder affects their social skills in very direct ways such as an impact on empathy and an inability to read and put into practice social cues.

  3. Thank you Russ for posting this. Can I ask you about my daughter? She is now 13 and has had 504 plans at school for years under memory and auditory processing deficits. However i feel there is something still that has never been diagnosed. She is great at sports and loves dancing, has great rhythm and does a lot better with school when the lesson is a hands on activity than when it’s a lecture. Writing has been a challenge but she is now able to write neatly and straight on a line. Spelling remains a challenge. She often misses vowels completely and has learned to use her ipod to speak into to get the words she wants printed on the screen so she can copy them on paper. (This technology is such a great aid! ) Reading remains a challenge. She has to work so hard to translate the coding of written language that she cannot get to the comprehension part of the puzzle. It’s like there’s a skip in the process, like a needle jumping on a record. She says it’s better if she reads out loud because the sound of her own voice aids in comprehension. But it’s essentially 2 separate processes. Reading-speaking. Then hearing-comprehension. Make sense? The other amazing thing that she does is that she has a very spatial way of seeing. She doesn’t see street signs for the coded language they’re meant to be but for blue triangles or yellow diamonds or whatever. She recently decorated her room with a graphic collection of photographs taped to the wall. She organized these with no regard to the content of the photograph or individual images. Some are even upside down. But she saw only the colors and shapes and used these details to create an overall effect, itself not a representation of anything specific, but an interesting design as a whole.
    Sorry to go on and on. I don’t think she fits the dyspraxia model you described, but there must be a whole family of related “disorders” that might help me understand her way of sensory processing?

    1. She might not have the issues associated with gross motor co-ordination but it certainly sounds like she has many of the issues associated with sensory processing. Her trick for copying words sounds to me like she has developed her own unique coping strategy to deal with the jumbled sensory information her brain is receiving. The difficulty with diagnosing Dyspraxia and the confusion behind it is that it manifests differently in every child. I can’t diagnose her but have you taken her to an occupational therapist? You are correct in that there may be other things going on as Dyspraxia is often present with other issues but due to the complexity it takes long-term testing and therapy to sort everything out. Her creativity with the images sounds amazing and while I know it may be related to her disorder, I think it is a great example of how a dyspraxic’s unique view of the world can transcend disability and offer a way of seeing things people often miss.

      1. The other possibility is visual-motor and visual processing issues making it hard to distinguish and interpret what she sees. My daughter, who is diagnosed with dcd/ dyspraxia and dysgraphia also has trouble making her eyes team together and processing visual input. She also finds reading aloud and context clues helpful. A behavioral optometrist who practices vision therapy could help uncover this problem. It is also possible to have both dyslexia and visual-motor/ visual processing issues, but they are two separate diagnoses.

    2. Has your daughter been tested for dyslexia? Many bright people who struggle to decode the written word have the learning disorder known as dyslexia. A subset of them seem to be spatially gifted as well. I have spent time in groups dealing with DCD/ dyspraxia, learning disorders, ADHD, and ASD. There seems to be some overlap between all of them (perhaps because neurological quirks are complicated and have fall out for the nervous system as a whole?), and people who qualify for any of those diagnoses, or any combination thereof, often have sensory processing issues.

      1. Thank you Russ and Ceridwen for the replies and suggestions. I’ve asked repeatedly over the years about dyslexia as she often makes classic dyslexic mistakes – flipping numbers 46 vs 64 and confusing g-b-d-q. But specialists at school who have been testing her, say no. My husband has dyslexia and recognizes so many similarities, so we just proceed from that perspective regardless of what the official diagnosis is. She has received speech therapy over the years, but never OT. I’m going to try there. Thanks so much again.

  4. We have a nine year old with Dyspraxia. He is an amazing kid – very creative and intuitive. He was diagnosed in the spring of 2013. OT helps a lot, as does speech therapy. I am wondering if you are aware of any connection between seizures and Dyspraxia?

    1. Susan, I don’t think there is any direct link between the two but Dyspraxia often presents alongside many other neurological disorders. Plus, partial seizures can often mimic a dyspraxic child’s response to over-stimulus making it difficult to tell the two apart without a proper diagnosis. Thank you also for telling us about the creative and intuitive sides of your son’s personality as well – there are in fact positive lessons to be learned and these unique kids are certainly not just a list of symptoms. Great to hear the OT is helping him!

  5. This is a very timely post for me. I had not heard of dyspraxia until a few weeks ago. My son is almost four years old and his preschool teacher had been alerting me of fine motor delays all school year. She finally recommended he see an occupational therapist, so I have been learning about Dyspraxia, Developmental Coordination Disorder and sensory issues recently. Since my son is so young, the therapists are hesitant to diagnose anything now since he might just be a energetic kid who hasn’t quite learned how to use his limbs yet, but they have suspicions that he fits in these categories.

    It sounds like most children are a little older when diagnosed. I would like to ask you and your commenters if you noticed signs of dyspraxia when your children were little. And knowing what you know now, is there something I could work on at this age with my son to help lessen the problems when he gets older. I worry most about the social impact on him because I feel like that’s where I can help the least.

    1. My son was 18 months when I requested an evaluation and was diagnosed at 20 months. His Dyspraxia showed up at birth with poor feeding and tongue control which transitioned into a failure to speak. He was diagnosed by a neurodevelopmental specialist. We then did occupational and speech therapy intensively (at some points 3x a week) for years. At twelve we now do check ins with the specialist when we hit a snag we can’t figure out on our own, but mostly at this point it is meeting to make sure there is nothing else going on, and some visits with OT to get at home exercises, suggestions, and support.

      My son just simply does not like to play with a ton of kids, but he has one really great friend, and thankfully in this world of technology is not any different typing in school than anyone else (handwriting remains a HUGE issue for him). He does not like team sports, because he trips, randomly drops things and gets tired – all that were getting him looked down on by team mates. Instead he has learned to do individual things like golf, or Tai Kwon Do. He may never be the best at either, but he can see that he is personally improving, and still make friends. Of course video games are a huge thing to do with friends – it is just a matter of finding games that worked for him.

    2. We did notice signs when he was younger and had no clue as to the cause. He was always very quiet as a child (though he spoke fairly early). Most people would say we were “lucky” but normal kids scream and fuss. He never really learned to crawl, instead he would roll from place to place. Again, “cute” at the time. When he did learn to walk he seemed well coordinated so we didn’t think much of it. As a toddler we noticed he was skittish around movement. Curtains that fluttered or ceiling fans really made him anxious. Then there were the noise sensitivity issues. The delayed skills such as shoe tying, writing, and riding his bike. All of these were early signs of motor control and sensory processing issues for us.

      Michele has great suggestions – occupational therapy helped our son as well. We no longer attend and he has done a great job adjusting to and employing some of the strategies he learned there. I would recommend that as well. Since it manifests in so many different ways, the most important thing you can do is spend time figuring out exactly where he seems to be the most impacted and help him develop strategies to overcome those sticking points. Find an activity he enjoys that will challenge him but that he is eager to succeed at. For my son, it was violin. He’s played since elementary school and it has helped so much with many aspects of his Dyspraxia.

      Socially, encourage his interests. My son also started with one close friend in school and their group eventually expanded to include the five boys that make up our boy scout troop. Scouting has been good for us as it is a small group activity with a fairly open format and broad activity list. Plus, when done right, it empowers the boys to take charge of things and encourages them to learn from mistakes. Each of his friends has unique personalities and have trouble opening up socially – peas in a pod. But now that they are in high school, they’re starting to expand their circles.

      I hope this helps and best wishes to you and your son.

  6. I would love to find out how you got your son formally diagnosed. We have been to both an Occupational therapist and a physical therapist who both agreed that my son exhibits signs of dyspraxia but could not give a formal diagnosis. Our next step is seeing a developmental behavior specialist…but I hate putting my son through so many evaluations. He’s seven and very perceptive. I I want to get him the help he needs but I’m not sure the most direct way to do it.thanks for any help you could offer.

    1. I’m guessing you want formal diagnosis for education purposes? At our occupational therapist there were a series of tests they conducted and we took this information to the school counselor. We also had a teacher who first suggested OT, so we already had someone at the school who recognized the need. By the 504 regulations, no testing is even actually required – you only need individuals who are knowledgeable about the child. There is a good guide to section 504 here: http://www.greatschools.org/special-education/legal-rights/868-section-504.gs Hope that helps.

  7. Hey, I also have dyspraxia. I was written off by my teachers as ‘lazy’, ‘slow’ and ‘stupid’ for so long that I started to believe it. It really affected my confidence. It wasn’t until last year, in my first year of university that I was diagnosed as dyspraxic, and it’s made a huge difference. Partly in the extra support I now get, but partly in that I no longer feel like I’m just useless at everything – I just accept that it takes me more effort.
    Something you probably won’t have been told but that I’ve noticed – tell your son that as he gets older he’ll have to be careful with alcohol. We tend to develop coping mechanisms for speech and co-ordination that we don’t even realize we have (we’re still clumsy etc but less so). Those mechanisms tend to break down when drunk or tired etc, which could be dangerous in certain situations.

  8. Thanks for this! I am dyspraxic – and I find there’s too much focus on the ‘can;t catch a ball’ bit and not enough on the socially awkward stuff. I’m a performance artists and am currently doing some work with other dyspraxic artists about how our dyspraxia informs our approach to art – http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/whats-on/max-dyspraxe-neurodivergent-revolution-fun-time-discussion-time-travel/

    One question we keep asking ourselves is whether Harry Potter is dyspraxic like Daniel Radcliffe. Any thoughts?

    1. You’re welcome! This is the coolest comment yet… Was Harry Potter dyspraxic? I really think that’s a good possibility whether Rowling intended it or not. His experience at Hogwarts does in ways mirror the difficulties academically and socially which a dyspraxic might experience. Thanks for the site link and keep up the good work!

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