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Reflections on a Life with Dyspraxia- Changing The Narrative

By Joe Tanner

An orange tile covered in funky orange and white shapes has a polaroid style picture in the centre. The photo is off Joe, a 25 year old man sat smiling at a table in a restaurant. Underneath it reads “Reflections on a Life with Dyspraxia- Changing The Narrative By Joe Tanner”

Hi, my name is Joe, I’m a 25-year-old from Leeds, I live in Beijing and I’m dyspraxic. When asked to write a post about living my life with dyspraxia, I found it quite difficult to plan out what I was going to say. How can I write a post about being ‘different’ when it’s all I’ve ever known? I’ve been labelled as other when, in my mind, I’ve lived a normal life like everyone else- haven’t I? Whilst writing this article, I’ve found myself reflecting on my past experiences and questioning: how did I feel during different situations in my life when I’ve not been able to do simple things as easily as others? How have others around me reacted? What has helped me overcome these obstacles throughout the grand journey we call life?

According to the NHS, ‘Developmental Coordination Disorder’ (DCD), also known as ‘dyspraxia’, is a “condition affecting physical coordination It causes a person to perform less well than expected in daily activities for their age, and appear to move clumsily.” Medical News Today states that “Developmental dyspraxia is an immaturity of the organization of movement. The brain does not process information in a way that allows for a full transmission of neural messages.” For me, I’d say it’s just being Joe Tanner- however, I can relate with the immaturity part.

The first memory which comes to mind when I felt different due to my dyspraxia was in primary school. Picture the scene: The year is 2001. I am but a young boy, aged five, in the prime of his life. My teacher at the time was not the most pleasant woman. She had the resemblance to Ms. Trunchbull who could pick me up by my ears and launch me without a second’s notice, the hornets of Hades would cower before her, not even the dreaded Medusa would dare look her way. I elaborate… One day, the class were neatly lined up, silently walking (discipline and silence were key to a perfect line and as a teacher myself, I must agree) up the stairs to the library when, all of a sudden, the teacher halts the class and glares at me with her terrifying, soul penetrating eyes. She asks the rest of the class to silently traverse to the library and sends me back to the bottom of the stairs. As a five-year-old boy who tried to never step out of line (out of fear someone would tell his mother), this was THE worst thing that could happen. What did I do wrong? Did I talk to my line partner? Was I touching the displays? Good god what had I done wrong?! With a strict tone, the teacher asks me to walk up the stairs again. I comply with her instructions and walk up normally again,

“Wrong!” she screams, “again!” Again? Alas, who am I to question a teacher? I’m just a year one student who was itching to get to the library and read about Biff, Chip and Kipper. I go up the stairs again. “Wrong! Again!” This continues over and over. Eventually, the teacher walks up the stairs to show me what I was doing. Instead of moving one leg in front of another, I had been moving one leg to a step and having the other one join its fellow leg on that same step. The idea that I could move one leg after another onto a different step baffled me. How can something that simple be so difficult? And why is no one else struggling with this? Once this happened, I began feeling like my body was a broken tool. I simply expected it to not work properly and therefore my relationship with my body suddenly declined. It’s as if I had two different relationships with myself- my mental state and my physical one. I was aware that my body wouldn’t work properly and began to decline that area. As a child, I was then diagnosed with dyspraxia and was involved with a study at Leeds University. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of what this meant and just felt like it was an excuse for my body to not engage with other activities.

Throughout my journey in education, I found my relationship with sport… a turbulent one. As a child, I would play football across the road on a field with friends and usually find myself stressed as I wasn’t able to complete simple passes to my friends let alone score some Stevie G belters. I must admit that being a primary school teacher, I am able to score some belters now, but it doesn’t have the same effect scoring against seven-year olds then it does people my own age, or does it? My “PE” (football with a group of lads on a sleek new AstroTurf passed an hour nicely for the teacher) lessons would normally feature myself and friends walking around the school fields contemplating what was the point in this as opposed to joining in because I was never able to participate to the same standard as my peers, so why bother? Why embarrass myself unnecessarily in front of high school lads. I knew how high school worked- it’s brutal. Any form of weakness shown, then you’re asking for it. In addition to this, any attempt at an extra-curricular sport such as; badminton, tennis or hobbies outside never lasted long (30 seconds on a skateboard before breaking my elbow is a current record). To me, playing sport was pointless because I was rubbish at it and I knew it.

However, as the years went on and my interest in following sport increased, I decided to join my university’s rugby union team. Again, co-ordination was an issue and any hint of the ball being passed to me was terrifying as no one wants to embarrass themselves in front of their peers and if the ball was passed to me, there would be a greater chance of me dropping it then catching it. Why couldn’t I move my arms into the correct position at the right time? When playing simple games of catch with my friends, if I ever caught the ball I would find myself throwing it in the air screaming “CATCH IT!” at the top of my lungs as though I had just won the ashes. Although I knew I was dyspraxic, I didn’t fully understand what that meant and would still be punishing myself for being so clumsy and not being able to do a simple thing such as catch a ball being thrown to me. But nonetheless, I was welcomed into the team with open arms (and alcohol) and featured in their line ups regardless of my ability. The lads on the team didn’t care. They were welcoming and my anxiety on playing with them eased and I found myself, for the first time, enjoying playing sport- a gutting move in the eyes of my father, who being a massive sports fan, had dedicated a large proportion of my early childhood trying to get me into sport but soon realised I couldn’t give a stuff and just wanted to play with my dinosaurs instead (I was one of those kids).

Since moving to Beijing, I have found myself playing for an amateur league football team. Again, I found myself being clouded by a lack of confidence and anxiety around being passed the ball in case I messed up. Was this normal for a 24-year-old? Having a kick about with some mates and still beating themselves up? A piercing fear would run through my chest anytime someone would shout my name during a game through fear of messing up. But once again, through other teammates being patient and understanding, I find that glaring wall of anxiety dropping down and again, enjoying playing the great game.

After joining these clubs and playing games that I thoroughly enjoy, I realised that although you may not feel like you’re adequate enough to participate in activities which others can do without any difficulty, please do not let that stop you. It doesn’t matter if you’re able to pass a ball or throw one straight in front of you. It can get better! I was asked recently to play ultimate frisbee in the park by a friend. A few years ago, I would have screamed in their face, soiled my pants and curled into a corner- throwing and catching? No thanks. My actual reply was screaming in their face (with excitement) fetch my trainers on and then went on to have a ball. It doesn’t stop your ability to live your life and have fun and it shouldn’t. I will leap at any opportunity now which involves having fun.

Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

(Originally published 17/10/21)

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