Welcome to part 2 of my investigation into dyspraxia and anxiety. I recently polled a Facebook group of dyspraxic adults to investigate how many of us experience anxiety. I was expecting there to be a few of us but the proportions were even worse than I imagined, and so I’ve decided to delve into why this happens and what we can do about it. I really recommend reading part 1 if you haven’t because it’s full of personal stories and experiences from people from all walks of life that help to illustrate what I mean. But to recap- lots of us have anxiety stemming from negative childhood experiences leading to low self esteem, and long term struggles with anxiety that are triggered by the kind of upsetting problems that we’re more likely to face as dyspraxic adults.
Once again, I’m not a professional in this area and these are purely my personal opinions based on mine and other people’s experiences, and if you’re having real trouble with your mental health, you need to see a professional.
I said I didn’t want this to be a pity party and the scales have started to tip that way, so what’s next? I think it’s important to shed light on this issue and what causes it, but I also want to think about how we can make it better. What can you do as a dyspraxic adult to minimise or manage your anxiety? How can we move forward to bring up happy, confident dyspraxic adults in future?
I’m a big believer in the social model of disability. I don’t think dyspraxic people are inherently flawed but we function in a world that’s not designed to meet our needs, so the biggest difference we can make are changes to the way the world treats neurodivergent people. I’ll move onto individual steps you can take later, but this comes first.
In my mind the first step is raising awareness of dyspraxia and how to recognise and embrace it in children earlier. The longer children and families go without an explanation of their differences, the more likely we are to feel inadequate or othered or like we aren’t trying hard enough. Parents who haven’t heard of dyspraxia can be at a loss when their very sensible parenting strategies that have worked with their other kids are suddenly failing. They think, I’ve tried everything I can and he still can’t use cutlery, dress himself, regulate his emotions, whatever it might be. No parent wants their child to feel they don’t fit in, but if there’s no way for them to understand what their child needs and why that’s different to the needs of their siblings and friends it’s almost inevitable.
This would be something for health visitors, schools and GPs to learn more about. GPs know to look for children who are floppy, not growing as fast as expected, “failing to thrive”. Schools know to look for children who struggle with spelling, understanding numbers or who don’t meet their developmental milestones. The signs of dyspraxia are more subtle and much less well known. Timely diagnosis and support early on could enable parents to understand and nurture neurodiverse children and empower them to advocate for their children’s needs in education.
We need GPs, health visitors and school staff to be trained to recognise early signs of dyspraxia.
Another issue is reluctance from schools to investigate someone’s difficulties if the child is ‘managing’. As a children’s occupational therapist I meet lots of parents frustrated by this problem. A child’s physical, psychological or neurodiverse condition is impacting on their school work, but if they’re in average sets the school may feel that they don’t have a problem because they haven’t fallen behind. This happens to lots of dyspraxics and is hugely frustrating because they know how much better they could be doing if the right adjustments were in place. These young people don’t get the opportunity to properly showcase their skills and achieve their full potential in education because something irrelevant like how quickly they can write by hand is skewing their results.
We need educators to understand that people of all ability levels can be affected by disability and neurodivergence, and need appropriate adjustments to teaching and exams.
We have also been doing non male dyspraxics a disservice for years. If you look at the NHS website, it will tell you that dyspraxia is 3-4 times more common in boys. However the same had been said about autism for many years, until recently people started to challenge it. Research suggests two key reasons for the gender discrepancy in autism diagnosis- one is that girls present with different signs and symptoms, and we only look out for the symptoms that are more common in boys. The other is that “masking” (when a person alters their behaviour to be more socially acceptable and more similar to peers) may be more common in girls, who might be very aware of their differences and feel really driven to fit in. This dichotomy also completely excludes non binary people. To my knowledge, there isn’t much research into gender differences in dyspraxia but as a late diagnosed dyspraxic woman, I suspect you’d find a similar result. The assumption that a young person’s differences can’t be attributed to dyspraxia because they’re not a boy is invalidating and can further contribute to anxiety.
We need to see more research to better understand how dyspraxia might look in women and non binary people, and we need to change people’s attitudes about this.
Major overhauls are needed in the way dyspraxia is presented to families. From various Facebook groups, parent-led seminars and personal contacts I know lots of people with dyspraxic kids. Unfortunately lots of families talk about dyspraxia as though it’s a terrible disease, or something that must be battled, or emphasise the need to use person-first language, as though dyspraxia is an embarrassing thing to identify with. Although it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties a child might face, these attitudes can actually contribute to a child feeling othered, less than, or inadequate, which might lead to anxiety in later life. And as a dyspraxic adult I know there are loads of positives to being dyspraxic, and a diagnosis is a great opportunity to understand how your child interacts with the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t always what families get to hear.
The first things parents might hear are “failing to” or “not meeting expectations at”, prefaced with “I’m sorry but”s and “I’m worried that”s, which set you up for bad news. They might then go to the NHS website and read all the “unable to”s and “rejected by”s and start to see their child’s suspected diagnosis as a life sentence rather than something to help you understand the person they’ve always been. Luckily in my house, a diagnosis of dyspraxia or autism is something to be celebrated, but not everyone is as fortunate as me.
It’s not that I think things should be sugar coated; I know that there will be challenges going through life dyspraxic, and some of these will affect a person’s family. But if we want dyspraxics to have high self esteem and a confidence we need to reframe this as a problem with the systems that children interact with rather than a problem with, you know, our children themselves. Coming back to the example of parents of dyspraxics, I also know some whose attitudes are positive and encouraging for their kids as well as validating the things they struggle with. I know parents who exude pride and positivity when talking about their dyspraxic kids but will still fight tooth and nail with a school or local authority when someone needs to advocate for them.
We need to give balanced information to parents during diagnosis and beyond, and encourage them to embrace the positive aspects of dyspraxia.
“He was always such an anxious child and I wish I’d known that he was dyspraxic. I’d been told dyspraxia was being bad at tennis, how could I have known?” ~ Anon
“Had we (or the health visitor, or school staff, for that matter) been more aware of the range of effects dyspraxia causes, we would have been equipped to see it and seek a diagnosis much sooner. In the meantime, we could also have helped our daughter to know that she wasn’t ‘failing’ at all, but doing amazingly with things that were much harder for her than for her peers.”
If you’ve got dyspraxic friends or colleagues
Lots of the work we can do to reduce anxiety in dyspraxic adults comes from something really simple: just be respectful. As a society we aren’t great at respecting differences. We post the right hashtags but when we actually come across a person who interacts a bit differently to how we expect, doesn’t perfectly follow social cues, doesn’t make eye contact or makes too much eye contact, accidentally interrupts in conversations, comes across as a bit distant or a bit intense, speaks very loudly or very quietly…we immediately pick up on these differences and tend to label that person as weird or strange. Lots of dyspraxic adults might do one or more of the above and lots of us have experiences of being socially sidelined because of it. Dyspraxic adults might also feel embarrassed in public by finding it more difficult to eat without spilling, drink without choking, walk through a crowded room without tripping, and these things can also make social occasions really stressful. Not everybody who does these things is dyspraxic, but regardless they still deserve basic respect. If we could expect a bit more kindness from people in general, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many dyspraxic adults who are anxious about social situations.
If you have dyspraxic friends, think about how they’d like you to respond in different situations. I fall over a lot and my friends help me by not acting embarrassed if I’m being clumsy in public and checking that I’m okay without dwelling on it. I like to have a sense of humour about accidents that happen so it’s fine that my friends laugh along with me, but some people feel differently and don’t want friends to be amused by their misfortune. This is completely reasonable, so follow their lead on how these situations should be approached and if you’re not sure, just ask! Life is a lot less anxiety provoking if you understand how people will behave around you.
There are other dyspraxic habits that might inconvenience you. Personally I forget and lose things a lot, so I frequently turn up somewhere without everything I need. My partner can’t keep time at all, so he often makes him and his friends late for stuff. If things like this pose a real problem to you, try to help your friend find a solution rather than just complaining about it. As a preteen I would forget my toothbrush a lot, so my friend’s mum bought a spare toothbrush for me just in case. Now I keep a spare one in my most used bag, and going away is less anxiety provoking. My partner says with lateness, it would be helpful if friends helped him understand the timeframes. For example, if they said “we’re going climbing at 6” he might turn up at 6:45 because he finds it really difficult to understand how long getting ready and travelling would take. But if they said “we’re going climbing at 6…so we’ll cook at 4:45, eat at 5:30 and get changed at 5:45” then he’d be able to do the same and make it on time. These ideas wouldn’t work for everyone, but collaboratively looking for solutions is a good approach in general. Neither of us could become more organised just by trying harder and constant complaints about these things are not great for the self esteem.
If you’ve got dyspraxic colleagues, you might notice difficulties in the workplace you want to raise. I would again suggest being solution focused, but first, think “do I really need to say that?” Whether they’re dyspraxic or not, if somebody in their 30s has messy handwriting I can guarantee they already know and you will not be the first person to point it out. If you don’t have a good reason to, just don’t. Their messy handwriting is interfering with their job? Better to approach it as “I’ve noticed your handwriting is making it difficult to take orders down…why don’t we have you take orders on an iPad?” Or “why don’t we change your duties so you’re doing something else instead of taking orders in person?”. If you come across as trying to make someone’s life at work easier, that’s a lot less anxiety provoking than just pointing out their flaws.
Now, onto what you can do if you’re a dyspraxic adult experiencing anxiety
Firstly, I can’t recommend enough networking with other dyspraxic adults. If your experiences with dyspraxia affect your confidence and self image there’s nothing more reassuring than connecting with other people who’ve experienced the same. I’ve had so many profoundly moving moments of seeing somebody say “is it just me or..?” about something I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about in the past. This won’t cure anxiety, but might make you feel more validated in that some of the things that knock your confidence come from dyspraxia, and you’re not the only one.
Lots of dyspraxic adults have told me how much it helps to channel your negative experiences into something positive. UK-Craigie, a dyspraxic hip-hop artist, explained that having overcome challenges in his life helps him relate to the disadvantaged young people he works with. Craig has a particular impact with young people who’ve got their own disabilities or who’ve struggled socially, and once they’re talking to him they’re thinking, yeah, this is someone who gets it. This gives him the chance to be a role model to youths going through tough times- especially effective because most of them think it’s the coolest thing in the world to be friends with a rap/hip hop artist. Craig also channels his experiences into his music, writing about mental health in many of his songs in a way that helps people who hear them realise they’re not the only one. Personally I can relate to Craig’s experiences- working as a young people’s occupational therapist, I often find myself able to form a connection with kids who feel insecure or sidelined because of their condition, or whose schools aren’t taking them seriously, and I always feel grateful to have the perspective I need to do my job well. (This isn’t to say you need to turn your struggles into a positive- you don’t owe the world anything just because you’re disabled. But for some of us, it helps alleviate some of the anxiety and low self esteem we might feel).
If you’re feeling brave, try listing your positive qualities. It’s surprisingly difficult at first, but you can ask your friends or family what they like about you for some ideas, or think of a time you were really proud of yourself, and ask yourself why. Once you’ve got a good list, put it somewhere safe and take a couple of minutes to look at it every day and think “which of my good qualities did I show off today?”. For example, my list might include “brave” and “optimistic”. I might look at it and think, actually “I stood up for a friend in a tricky situation and used my bravery today”, or “I made a mistake and looked at it as an opportunity to learn, and that demonstrates optimism”. Over time, this can help you to build a more positive impression of yourself.
When I’m about to criticise myself for something, I often think “what would I say to a friend if they were in my situation?”. This is especially poignant having a dyspraxic partner, because if I’m about to berate myself for something to do with dyspraxia I have to think “would I really say the same thing if it were Milo?”. And if the answer is no, I shouldn’t be saying it to myself. This is a good way to start to reframe the negative self talk that some of us dyspraxics can be really prone to.
I’ve also found it helpful to keep track of the things that make me anxious, and notice if a particular worry is coming up a lot. If I’m worrying about the same things week after week, I try and think ”is this something I can change?”. For example, I found I was always getting more and more anxious about how messy the house would be when I got home from work and whether or not we’d done the recycling or hoovering. I thought I was okay with having a house in fluctuating amounts of chaos, but when I realised it was bothering me I made a timetable of jobs to to each day, no more than 30 mins daily. I don’t always stick to it 100%, but now that I feel a bit more on top of the house I feel a bit less anxious. And I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to pay attention to the things that were bothering me. For some people, it helps to set a time each day to jot down what you’re worrying about so that you can be consistent about it, and start to look out for any repetitive themes.
Very importantly, try to surround yourself with people who are respectful and don’t have a habit of criticising things you can’t change about yourself. The older I get, the less time I give myself to spend on relationships that make me feel lesser or othered, and the less time I use for that, the more I have to invest in relationships that build me up.
And finally (because again, I’m not a professional at this kind of thing), if you’re really struggling with anxiety it’s absolutely okay to search for professional help. CAMHS (children and adolescent mental health services), IAPT (improving access to psychological therapies) and private counselling via work have all been life savers for me. The first point of call would normally be your GP, but if you’re a student then your uni might well have a student wellbeing service that can help you access counselling more quickly, and if you have anxiety relating to your workplace then your employer may be able to refer you through occupational health. These days more and more IAPT services have a self referral option, so google “IAPT” and the county you live in and they might be able to offer you something without going through your GP. If dyspraxia is impacting your ability to do your job, look into “Access to Work” and they are great at liaising with your workplace to validate your concerns and ensure you have all the adjustments you need. If you’re in a mental health crisis, call 999.
I wanted to finish by saying how grateful I am to all the fantastic dyspraxics who shared their stories, experiences and ideas with me to support these articles- shoutout to Loren, Ian, Maxine, Milo, UK-Craigey, and the rest of our anonymous contributors. Also to people who shared their adorable pictures (especially Pete- who doesn’t love those glasses!). If you haven’t already, please read part one to see what they had to say and how it relates to the ideas I’m sharing here. I don’t certainly don’t have all the answers about how we can execute the things we’ve considered, but starting these conversations is an important first step. If you’re in a position to, you could think about having the brave conversations with your friends and family, or even with your workplaces, schools and healthcare providers.