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Sharing strategy unravels dyspraxia

I magine not being able to tie your shoelaces or ride a bicycle.

These are tasks that many of us learn and relish as children, then take for granted in adulthood. However, for many youngsters they are impossible.

Not being able to do such tasks is a symptom of the neurological disorder dyspraxia. Messages to and from the brain are not transmitted properly, which affects the planning of what we do and how we do it. It is associated with problems of perception, language and thought.

Up to 10 per cent of the population suffers from dyspraxia, according to the Dyspraxia Foundation, and men and boys are four times more likely to be affected than women and girls. Teachers can assume that in a class of 30 children, there will be at least one who has the condition.

Dyspraxia often co-exists with dyscalculia (difficulty in maths), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and Asperger's syndrome, and this overlap may make accurate diagnosis tricky. Also, children who have it do not necessarily share common symptoms; each child is affected in a slightly different way.

Although dyspraxia may be identified at any stage of life, increasing numbers of children are identified as having the condition. Symptoms are often evident from early on in a child's life. A mother, for example, may notice that her child has problems with crawling, learning to speak or co-ordinating eating and swallowing.

By three- to five-years-old, children with dyspraxia may also demonstrate a variety of behavioural problems. These may include very high levels of motor activity including feet swinging, hand clapping or twisting; high levels of excitability; constant bumping into objects and falling over; continued messy eating; limited creative play; language difficulties and limited concentration.

A parent who has concerns will often share them with an early years teacher before they approach anyone else. Knowing the symptoms can lead to early diagnosis.

Other signs to look out for include problems fastening shoelaces and buttons, tracing, copying and even holding a pen.

If dyspraxia is not identified early, problems can persist and affect the child's school life. As the child gets older, he or she may have difficulty adapting to a school routine, struggling with physical education lessons or handwriting, being slow at classwork or having trouble forming relationships with other children. This often leads to increased frustration and low self-esteem.

Christine Macintyre, of the University of Edinburgh, who specialises in working with children with dyspraxia, says that if the condition is identified early, children are less likely to have problems with their peers and their self-esteem.

"Early intervention allows children to retrace early movement learning steps in a carefully planned fun-to-do series of activities," she says.

"The children learn to carry out basic movements well, which lets them know they are improving."

She emphasises that although the difficulties may never disappear, there are many ways in which children can be helped.

"However, they must be based on understanding the combination of difficulties each child has," she says. "Parents and teachers need to work together to share strategies which work and to plan how best to relieve stress."

On a practical note, Dr Macintyre suggests letting children go out to the cloakroom a little early to relieve the stress of finding a coat and packing a bag in the clamour of excited children.

Teachers can colour code the clothes, books, pencils and other equipment the children need.

Using a large egg timer to show children how much time they have left to do some task can help, as "10 minutes more" can mean nothing or make a child panic.

"If the condition is not recognised, some determined children will find strategies to cope and succeed," Dr Macintyre says. "But to do this they have to work harder than anyone else and it takes its toll. Many more will withdraw or resort to behaving badly through frustration.

"Everyone must try to stay positive and value the things the children can do."

Christine Macintyre talks about The Importance of the Early Identification of Dyspraxia as part of the NASEN conference at 12pm, Nov 14

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