Clumsiness in children 'a medical condition': Parents urged to seek help

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AS MANY as three children in every class suffer from clumsiness so severe that it can prevent them from reaching their academic potential and cause social and behavioural problems.

The condition, also called dyspraxia or developmental movement disorder, affects between 5 and 10 per cent of children, experts said yesterday. It was only recognised as a condition in its own right by the World Health Organisation five years ago.

Yesterday, the charity Action Research launched a campaign for recognition of the condition and a leaflet advising parents to get professional help if they suspect their child suffers from clumsiness.

Dyspraxia may become the new dyslexia, with which it overlaps. Clumsy children are frequently bright but often find themselves in a 'can't or shan't' dilemma, accused of refusing to carry out a task at school, when, in reality, they are unable to do it.

Classic symptoms include problems with learning to write and place numbers correctly on a page; difficulties with physical education because of their poor balance and co-ordination; problems using scissors and tying laces. The children are more likely to be bullied and ridiculed. Frequently, they are over-active.

In the past, doctors thought children grew out of it, but Dr Sheila Henderson, of London University, said recent evidence showed the condition was 'not so benign' and tended to get worse rather than better.

Dr Henderson, an educational psychologist, said: 'This condition is very distressing both for the children and for the family and is associated with a rather high incidence of behaviour and social problems as well as frequent school failure.

'We used to think that children grew out of this condition and it was not uncommon for paediatricians to say - don't worry, let's just leave it alone.'

She said the higher up the school a child goes, the more noticeable the condition becomes. The child is increasingly ostracised and gains a reputation for being difficult.

There has been little research into the condition and consequently it is not understood why some children are exceptionally clumsy and cannot be 'cured'.

Some will never learn to write and would be better helped by being taught to use a word-processor, she said.

Dr Lily Dubowitz, of the department of paediatrics at Hammersmith Hospital, said it was difficult to establish treatment programmes until more was known about the condition.

In one case, a 15-year-old who had an IQ of 130 at the age of five failed to pass a single subject in GCSE.

'Awareness among teachers is improving but we still have quite a long way to go,' Dr Henderson said.

One difficulty, she said, has been the fashion not to teach writing formally for fear of suppressing a child's creative talents.

'Teachers are not very well equipped to teach handwriting. Five or six years ago it was in vogue not to teach handwriting in a rigid way.' But she said requirements of the national curriculum might improve this, although schools had wide choice in what type of writing was taught.

Both researchers agree that recognising the condition early, before behaviour problems set in, is important.

'There is no major cure for the condition. But support and careful systematic teaching, in very, very small steps is useful,' Dr Henderson said.

'It is important that the child sees success or it becomes very demoralising and they lose self confidence.'