DYSPRAXIA & ANXIETY – STORIES FROM THE COMMUNITY (PART ONE)
Recently I polled a Facebook group of dyspraxic adults, asking who had struggled with anxiety previously. Five people said no, a hundred and thirteen said yes. I know that there are any number of factors confounding the validity of a Facebook poll and this isn’t entirely generalisable but it does paint a pretty damning (if not surprising) picture.
I was actually prompted to ask this question by an eye opening cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) session. My counsellor was explaining how low self esteem is often a result of childhood experiences of feeling inadequate or disappointing, and that low self esteem contributes to anxiety in adulthood.
This stuck with me- as a child there were so many dyspraxia related incidents that made me feel that way, and this made me give serious thought to the prevalence of anxiety in our community. I would like to understand more about dyspraxic adults’ experiences with anxiety- what does it feel like, why does it happen and what can we do about it? In this way (as with every article I’ve written here really), I’d like to help dyspraxic adults, self included, understand themselves better and be better understood by the neurotypicals around us.
I want to say a massive thank you to the lovely people who contributed their stories. One contributor produced music under the name UK-Craigie, and has written lots of music about mental health which is worth a listen.
#1. I’m not that kind of therapist- these are my personal opinions based on my experiences and the experiences other dyspraxics have been kind enough to share with me. Don’t take any of this as professional advice and if you’re really struggling, make sure you see your GP to get proper support.
#2. Using identity first language is a considered and conscious choice. Happy to discuss this issue with other neurodivergent folks but health/education professionals do not @ me to explain why PFL would be better.
Why could anxiety be so prevalent among dyspraxic adults?
According to the above theory, someone who has lots of experiences of feeling belittled or inadequate is likely to experience low self-esteem. In very basic terms, self esteem refers to the way you feel about yourself- a person with high self esteem might think that they are a good person, that they are successful, that they are well liked, while a person with low self esteem might think the opposite. Low self esteem over a long period of time can lead people to develop strong negative beliefs about their self, or assign negative labels to their self, eg. “I am not good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m a disappointment”, “I’m not lovable”.
From my own experiences and from what I hear from other dyspraxic adults, there are lots of reasons why we might be more likely to have experiences that make us feel inadequate, belittled, embarrassed etc. in childhood. Unlike some learning difficulties, the symptoms of dyspraxia are poorly known and very difficult to recognise. Taken from the Dyspraxia Foundation website, early childhood symptoms include “prone to temper tantrums”, “rejected by peers”, “tasks are often left unfinished”, “slow at dressing”, “barely legible handwriting”. To the untrained eye, this might not be indicative of a diagnosable condition, but of an uncooperative child. Parents become understandably frustrated and children pick up on this.
In primary school, a child might notice they can’t write like their peers or fall behind in PE. At age 5, I had a teacher take me round the classroom to show me how much neater everyone else’s handwriting was. Dyspraxic kids might get small comments about their handwriting, messy eating or scruffiness every day, so they might start to feel not quite good enough. At home, parents can’t understand why their child keeps breaking things, taking 15 minutes to put socks on or spilling water on the just-fixed ipad. As a child you understand why these things are frustrating to others but you can’t seem to help it despite your best efforts. The first seeds of feeling othered or inadequate can be planted at this stage.
Moving into adolescence, organisational responsibilities grow. The gap between dyspraxics and neurotypical peers can widen when you can’t find your classroom, bring the wrong homework and run the wrong way in rounders. Kids will take repeated lectures from teachers and families while struggling themselves to understand why things are so difficult that peers can do so naturally. As a teen, scoldings for not having the right pen or book were an almost daily occurrence for me, and I’d have to ring my friend’s landline every other evening to double check what the maths or French homework was. The result was sympathetic teasing from friends and confusion from my parents at my repetition of the same careless mistakes. I’d also need things explained or demonstrated in more detail to understand, which can easily be dismissed by teachers as not having listened the first time.
“My school was very sporty which was very difficult for me because I had no muscle tone. I was always the person who was picked last for teams. The only sport I liked was cricket, however I couldn’t play it well due to my lack of hand/eye co-ordination and poor balance. I knew exactly where to place my cricket bat but couldn’t physically do it. The worst experience was when I tried to throw the cricket ball from the boundary to the wicket. For some reason, I tried to throw it underarm but I managed to throw it over my head and over the boundary, thus giving the opposite more runs. Everyone laughed at me and the story quickly went round the school so I never heard the end of it. Being teased about it was torture. Then at the end of the school year, the school magazine published a report on the match and my incident was mentioned. This meant I had to endure a whole new round of teasing” ~ Ian
At the same time, self care demands grow. As a teenager you start to need to shave, apply deodorant, put a bra on, keep your PE kit cleaner, wash more thoroughly and manage your periods. If these things go wrong they’re really embarrassing, and it might happen once or twice for a neurotypical kid, but on a weekly basis for dyspraxics. Young people don’t want to ask for help with self care when independence is so important, but the alternative is risking further humiliation. Teenagers can be cruel, and the bullying or social exclusion that can result from this can be even more damaging than disappointment from teachers and family. For lots of us, these issues were a significant contributor to feelings of inadequacy.
“Socially it was lots of little things. I could not get into my head to remember that you have to wear trainer socks with a skirt. I would be mortified one day and then get halfway to school and realise I had ankle socks on bare legs again and have to prepare for another day of crappy comments about it” ~ Anonymous
“Most days after school I used to go to bed when I got home and sleep till the next morning as I was so exhausted and fatigued” ~ Loren
“When I was a child I was often losing things and forgetting things and this often got me into trouble. My mum bought me a nice necklace and watch for my birthday which I managed to lose” ~ Anonymous
“Team sports were just absolutely impossible. A lot of people aren’t great at team sports so I can’t believe that we still only do athletics and team sports in school- hypercompetitive athleticism or co-ordination. I’m quite sporty now because I don’t have the same fear barriers other people have, but at school if you’re not the fastest or the strongest or coordinated enough for team sports you’re crap at PE”. ~ Anonymous
“PE: I absolutely hated it as I couldn’t do any of it and got bullied because of it.” ~ Loren
Most of these things only seem like small things as isolated incidents, but when they’re all day long they can make a person feel really small. For undiagnosed kids, when symptoms aren’t attributed to having a neurodivergence, you just feel like you’re not enough.
“I didn’t know I have dyspraxia till I was 19 years old so I felt I was different to everybody else and that there was something wrong with me but didn’t know what it was. I felt as though I’m stupid” ~ Loren
“All children mess around but I was always the final straw as to why we didn’t get to do something. My brother and sister could be slow as well but if I was the last one ready it would become my fault that we didn’t get to go somewhere. Or if someone’s annoyed and they say something sarcastic, I might think they were being literal and answer literally and they’d think I was being rude and it would be the final straw in them losing their temper and cancelling. This was such a big issue and my brother and sister definitely resented me. Now I realise these were all dyspraxic problems but it made it feel like a personal issue between me and my mum. In hindsight those demands weren’t reasonable of me, but to see it from my mum’s point of view, they would be reasonable of a normal child my age” ~ Milo
“I was often told I was careless which impacted my self esteem a lot as I cared a lot but just couldn’t remember things”. ~ Anonymous
“At the time these things didn’t seem like they were important to me but obviously they were because I still remember them now and I don’t remember much from my childhood. Like I don’t remember much about school but I do remember my parents sitting me down for hours in front of a big book that was literally just pictures of clocks. I think I did feel a sense of ‘come on, you must be able to do it’. Maybe because I knew they believed I could do it, so because I wasn’t they must have thought I wasn’t trying”. ~ Milo
What happens then?
The cumulation of the above situations and more is often that a person experiences difficulties with self esteem. As I mentioned, this can lead to negative beliefs about the self, such as “I’m not good enough”, “I’m rubbish”, “I’m unlovable”, “I’m a failure”. This interesting part is that as people grow into adults, they cope with this by setting themselves rigid and often subconscious ‘rules’ for life. Provided they abide by these rules and meet the conditions they set themselves, they can keep on top of their self esteem. For example- “I’m not a failure as long as I have a girlfriend and I have a good job and I don’t receive any criticism at work and I pass all my exams and I’m good at driving”. When something happens that means you’re not meeting your conditions (and they will for anybody eventually), your rules are broken, your sense of self suffers and this leads to anxiety.
Of course this is only one theory but when my counsellor explained it it felt as though everything made sense. Even if you’re neurotypical, nobody can lead a perfect life forever. Lots of people have a point on their license at some point or other. Everybody gets constructive criticism at work. Most people will fail an exam or an interview at some point, and for people with low self esteem this can lead to the image you’ve created for yourself crumbling apart. And if you’re dyspraxic there are so many every day setbacks that could cause you to question your self worth.
Personally, I haven’t outgrown some of the niggles that bothered me at school. I still forget to bring pens to work, for example, and even though in your 20s this is more likely to result in pity than an after school detention, I’m not sure that’s any better for the self esteem. My work role involves changing teams every few months, so a new set of people have to get used to how I work quite often. Every time I brace myself for the “wow you write really slowly”s and the confusion at my ability to forget my trousers, shoes and pager on the same day while holding down a complex job, and even though I’m at peace with these difficulties, going through that process repeatedly is exhausting. Often it will challenge my perception that I’m successful and send me into an anxious spiral.
Outside work, we’re more likely to repeatedly fail the driving test or ding another car while parallel parking. We might struggle to keep up with family, run late for something important, mess up a job interview, we’re more likely to lose our tempers or to cry in public situations, the list is endless. Understanding the “unwritten” rules of conversation is harder which can make social interactions anxiety provoking, compounded by the fact that we might get laughed at often for tripping up, knocking things over, breaking things, etc. This means social incidents that leave you feeling dejected and different can be frequent, contributing significantly to anxiety.
Here are some real world examples:
“ As an adult I find simple things like driving somewhere I’ve never been before or crossing a road or simply going somewhere for the first time creates a lot of anxiety” ~ Anonymous
“I’ve never had that much trouble with fine motor skills, but oh I can struggle with hand/eye co-ordination, balance etc. I do things like putting one oven glove on and picking the hot tray up with the ungloved hand!” ~ Anonymous
“Meeting new mums at the school gates makes me anxious as I want to remember names etc. but know I’ll immediately forget and don’t want to come across rude.” ~ Anonymous
“Leaving fingers in door handles and walking off. Constantly misjudging conversations and volume, interrupting people I annoy them. I’m constantly thinking I’m not good enough” ~ Anonymous
Another common aspect of the dyspraxic experience is the feeling, after a lifetime of frequent setbacks, of constantly waiting for the next thing to go wrong. If the kinds of things described above keep happening to you, you might find you’re never feeling quite secure in your position, even if things are going well. I’ve had lots of experiences of thinking I’m doing fine and suddenly noticing a catastrophic mistake, from realising I couldn’t write fast enough in my SATS at 11 to realising my MOT had expired at 22. Any time you’re in a good place, you might worry it’s just a false sense of security, meaning that you’re constantly on edge, looking out for the next disaster. This is exhausting over time.
All in all it seems we’ve painted a pretty bleak picture. A complex range of common and almost inevitable childhood experiences, compounded by negative professional and social interactions in adulthood, leading to a dyspraxic population where anxiety is massively over-represented. Depressing, right? But the good news is, there are lots of steps we can take towards a world that’s more welcoming for us, and lots we can do as individuals to look after ourselves as well. If you’d like to learn more, I hope you’ll read my (slightly more uplifting) part 2!
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