Okay, let’s start off with a show of hands. How many dyspraxic people can honestly say they loved their school days? No, I didn’t think too many hands would go up.
I was born in 1980, when dyspraxia was not on many professionals – or parents – radars, so I was diagnosed at the age of 23, (in)conveniently after I had completed formal education. Miraculously, I came out as completely average – straight Cs for my GCSEs and A-Levels and a 2:2 in my degree (a whole other story). My physical challenges were well-documented, driving even the most patient of teachers to distraction, but the social challenges I faced were largely ignored, or attributed to other experiences I had growing up.
I am relieved to see that in nearly 40 years, dyspraxic children’s experience of school has improved. They have access to social stories, friendship benches and earlier professional interventions, but one key ingredient in friendship is confidence, which seems to be overlooked. While I was researching this article, I read numerous articles and not one mentioned this vital skill.
The problem is, it is very hard to increase a dyspraxic child’s confidence and frighteningly easy to knock it. When I first started school, for example, getting from one day to the next was challenging enough, so as much as I wanted to make, and keep, friends, it wasn’t my top priority. Fast forward to high school and the gap between myself and my peers was ever increasing. This made keeping up with the school’s demands much harder. Those that did reach out found themselves mediating between their friends and me or being forced to choose between joining in with the teasing or being teased themselves.
Just as bad is the effect this had on my family, who were forever trying to help me make friends. Like Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, I bounded up to someone, feeling hopeful and excited, and then almost immediately failed, which knocked my confidence. It didn’t help that my every deviation from the norm flew round the school, humiliating me and causing my brother to be mocked by children in his year group and those further up the school. I still feel guilty that my differences made my brother’s school experience so unpleasant. The advice I had been given (don’t take over conversations being a key one and separating private and public information being another – sorry Mum!), felt almost impossible to practice and were hard to swallow. I spent most of my school and university years feeling like a failure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I also lacked confidence.
What saved me were my outside interests. They were atypical – I loved musicals, for example – but being able to pursue them outside of school helped enormously. I had something to look forward to after school. I unintentionally chose quite structured activities, so everyone knew what was happening next. I had a role, which made me feel included and made me feel better about being me. Better still, few of my school ‘friends’ went, so I could relax a little, which improved my social skills and helped me enjoy myself.
Studying abroad helped too. Of all my school experiences, the best ones were in foreign countries. My American high school was particularly helpful, where the focus was on what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t. The word ‘freak’, frequently applied to me in the UK, was replaced with ‘unique’. The inference was the same but I got positive feedback that I could relate to and therefore appreciate, in contrast to the backhanded compliments I got in the UK.
I took adult education classes after I left school, which helped me meet people and further expanded my interests. It also increased my self-esteem because I had some success.
As an adult, I still struggle to make friends and confidence is by no means the only element you need to make friends. Boundaries, for example, are important and a lack of them has led to some friendships becoming almost like a form of guidance, rather than sharing time together. This is not helped by still being unable to work out the difference between public and private information, and working out appropriate conversation topics which, much like high school, seem to change on an almost daily basis and sometimes more!
Confidence however leads to self-belief, which means you make better choices. You also feel comfortable with those choices, so if you disagree with someone it is easier to reach a resolution. Dealing effectively with conflict is also creates balance in a friendship and it is good to see conflict resolution skills slowly coming into the classroom.
I want to close this article by thanking my friends. They come in many forms, shapes and sizes. They are beyond patient, they make me laugh and they cry with me. I have exceptionally wise friends, giving me space to explore my life and they are there to celebrate my successes. They are specific without my needing to ask them to. It is true what they say (and here, I risk a lack of appropriacy): A good friend is like a bra: hard to find one you’re comfortable with, always provides support, holds you tight and is always close to your heart.