Dyspraxia is more than just ‘clumsy child syndrome’ – it can cause emotional distress and anxiety throughout life

 Developmental coordination disorder has only recently been recognised for what it is 

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The Conversation Compared to other specific learning difficulties, major research into dyspraxia – or developmental coordination disorder (DCD) as it is more formally known – has only begun fairly recently.

DCD is the term used to diagnose children who have motor skills substantially below what is expected for their age. They are not lazy, clumsy or unintelligent – in fact, their intellectual ability is in line with the general population – but they do struggle with everyday tasks that require coordination.

Take a typical boy with DCD: he is a bright and capable 10-year-old boy, but he struggles to tie his shoe laces and needs help to fasten the buttons on his school shirt. He can’t ride a bike and no one passes him the ball when he plays sports. His teacher has told his parents that while he is a clever and very able student, his handwriting is slow and difficult to read. He finds it hard to keep up in class or to complete his homework – and his performance at school is deteriorating.

DCD affects around 5–6 per cent of children – which roughly equates to one child in every classroom – and tends to be more prevalent in boys than girls. At home, children have difficulties getting ready and taking care of themselves. In the classroom, handwriting is significantly affected and can be slow, hard to read and sometimes painful to produce. On the playground, a child with DCD may have trouble with throwing, catching, running and jumping. In many cases it is a child’s difficulties with handwriting that triggers a referral to healthcare services, following parent and teacher concerns.

Unfortunately for many children, DCD does not act alone: it commonly presents alongside other developmental disorders such as dyslexia, specific language impairment and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children with DCD have been found to be generally slower than their peers to hit early movement milestones such as crawling and walking.

Though its symptoms may appear to be mostly physical, new research based on teacher reports has found that those with DCD actually have much higher levels of emotional distress than their peers and are frequently anxious and downhearted.

In addition, the study from Goldsmiths University found that children aged between seven and ten with DCD have lower social skills than others of the same age. Previous studies have identified a link between poorer recognition of facial emotions and DCD, which may contribute to children with the condition having these social problems.

Growing up with DCD

DCD is a lifelong disorder that cannot be explained by a general medical condition; there is no definitive answer as to what causes it at present. However, it is known that DCD is not due to brain damage, like some learning difficulties.

Although children presenting with the symptoms of DCD have long been recognised, formal diagnosis has only become prevalent recently – compared to some other conditions such as dyslexia – as awareness of it grows. This may be partly because movement difficulties were not previously recognised in themselves as needing attention.

For a long time it was assumed that children would “grow out of” their movement difficulties. But we now have evidence that in many children the motor difficulties persist into adulthood and are commonly associated with a range of socio-emotional problems later on.

Adults with DCD still bump into objects and continue to struggle with handwriting. They may also have trouble with timekeeping and planning ahead, meaning they may be frequently late to work and social events. Self-care is also a problem, but rather than fastening clothes it turns into struggling to keep a home tidy. Tasks such as preparing a meal from scratch and ironing clothes can also be troublesome. DCD adults can also have issues with learning a new skill that requires speed and accuracy – so it can be difficult for them to learn to drive a car.

Research into adults with DCD is still in its early stages. This means that many adults with DCD may still be undiagnosed, or have spent their childhood wondering what was “wrong” with them, before being diagnosed relatively late in life.

But academic research is increasing – and there is more information out there for employers, as well as family and friends, to support those with DCD. The next step for researchers is to look at doing a long-term study, following the lives of specific participants with DCD. Only then can we really begin to understand the condition.

This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com). Mellissa Prunty is a lecturer in occupational therapy, at Brunel University London

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