Jumping for joy

27th September 1996 at 01:00
This year Ben Woodcock won the sack race at his school sports day. It's a remarkable achievement for a seven-year-old diagnosed a year ago as dyspraxic. Catherine Ormell follows his path to success in County Durham. Pictures: Tom Finnie.

Frosterley county primary is deep in the sticks. From the school hall there's a spectacular Pennine view and the headteacher says cheerily that for sex education, "we can hang the children over the wall to see sheep giving birth". Local families happily spend their lives in this sleepy valley of Weardale, only occasionally venturing the 20 miles to Durham.

Rural idyll it may be, but at the village school (roll:55) a remarkable innovation is taking place. Here, a seven-year-old boy with dyspraxia has been "cured". This is curious, because according to the medical experts, dyspraxia, aka developmental co-ordination disorder (old-fashioned "clumsiness"), doesn't have a cure.

The orthodox view is that a dyspraxic child is doomed to find motor skills hard to learn and difficult to retain. Such a child (80 per cent of them are boys) is destined to have a poor understanding of sensory messages and difficulty relating those messages to actions. He will inevitably have difficulty planning and organising thoughts.

Ben Woodcock is lucky. His parents, Leanda and Peter, both antiques dealers, stumbled on Frosterley. They wanted their son to have a country childhood and felt uneasy about his progress in a reception class of more than 30 in an urban primary school.

They thought Ben, then aged six, might do better in a small school. Had they scoured the country they could not have made a better choice. Frosterley had had a recent case of dyspraxia, and Ben's teacher was on to him immediately.

What were the signs? Well, Ben wandered round the classroom, while the others sat still. He collided with furniture and children. He couldn't grasp the rules of games or kick a ball. His concentration was erratic - if the teacher was talking and a tractor went past, he looked at the tractor. In class the cry would go up "Ben's not doing it properly!" A neuro-psychological and motor skills assessment was arranged with the school's senior educational psychologist, Madeleine Portwood, who confirmed his dyspraxia. While the Woodcocks were relieved to have a diagnosis, they worried about the future.

But it just so happened that Madeleine Portwood was especially interested in dyspraxia and had been researching remedial exercise programmes in schools on her patch in County Durham.

So from last September, Ben went out of class every morning for 20 minutes to be "exercised" by a teaching auxiliary. She set him repetitive tasks such as walking between two lines; walking heel-to-toe along a line and holding a ball to stop his hands turning outwards. He did balancing exercises, worked with finger puppets and started old-fashioned cotton reel knitting to improve his dexterity. Using hoops laid out on the hall floor, he and his assistant worked on his sense of direction and physical co-ordination.

By June, Ben was distinguishing himself in school, winning both the sack and the egg-and-spoon races on sports day.

His teacher, Lawrence Sayers, has been astonished by his progress: "When he arrived he was operating at pre-school level in terms of writing and gross motor skills. His concentration was less than five minutes. Now he's caught up with his peers, he's more co-operative in class, can concentrate for longer. "

The Woodcocks agree he's changed, a more confident child, sought out by others.

But the most remarkable evidence is the improvement in his handwriting. Before the exercises started, it staggered wildly over the page, the letters a jumble of cases, many letters reversed and oversize. But this term's work hovers neatly on the lines, the letters small and regular.

Madeleine Portwood is proud of her cure. Could it be that Ben is just a late developer? "No," she says firmly, "because even with late developers their abilities are still within the average range, in the case of dyspraxic youngsters there are large gaps in their development which will never recover unless you put in specific programmes."

Could it be that he's just a spectacular one-off? "No, I believe it is a cure, because we've done pilot studies in other schools and we've got other formerly dyspraxic children to come into the average range." Mrs Portwood's work is based on the theory of Gerald Edelman who won the Nobel Prize for biology. Part of his research suggested that as an infant consolidates motor movements, the links between the nerve cells are formed in the brain. (Previously it had been thought that the brain just matures and the infant is able to do more.) She explains: "You see in some eight-month babies that when they reach and grasp for an item, instead of one hand reaching to grasp, the legs go and the other arm goes. That's telling you that in the brain the messages are not going along the right neural pathways, they are going all over - an indication of future problems.

"The idea of the exercises is to form the neural pathways that previously had been absent...the cortex of the brain becomes more highly-developed.

"Take jumping. Dyspraxics don't just jump from their knees, their arms go as well. When the child is jumping we give them weights to hold, which brings the arms down without them thinking about it. After a fortnight of daily exercises, you can put the weights down and the arms no longer flap. The crucial bit is to remove the associated movements to ensure the messages are going along the correct neural pathways."

Mrs Portwood's specific exercises were devised to fill in the dyspraxic child's "gaps" in normal development. So as dyspraxics don't normally crawl (because it's hard for them to co-ordinate two limbs, let alone four), she's devised crawling games. They move on, as in the normal course of events, to practise walking, jumping and hopping skills. "Because motor-sensory skills form the foundations for the later development of abstract and verbal thought, if the motor-sensory systems can be improved, other higher brain functions should follow."

For Ben himself, it's not so much his improved skills that have transformed his experience of school-life, as the greater understanding of his difficulties and willingness of his classmates to befriend him. He's stopped feeling lonely.

Dr Woody Caan, head of Research Lifespan Community Trust in Cambridge, who is currently researching treatments for children with severe dyspraxia is impressed by the work in County Durham. "Madeleine has been quite scrupulous in describing her successes in increasing what the kids can do."

However, he hestitates to call the treatment a "cure". "I prefer the term 'emancipatory change'. The danger with the word cure is that parents may think the problem will just go away and neurologically we just don't know.

"Dyspraxia may just represent a symptom, part of some quite deep developmental problems in the brain that won't go away. You can do an awful lot of good, and the kids may do things that surprise themselves, surprise their teachers and parents, but the problems in the wiring of the brain machinery may still be there."

Typically, the longer a dyspraxic child goes before being spotted, the more he fails, the more he's chastised, and his self-esteem crumbles. Such children develop coping strategies, avoiding PE or playing with younger children.

By secondary school, the teenage dyspraxic will be ostracised by his peer group, deeply frustrated, unable to satisfy the demands for written work.

Madeleine Portwood carried out a study of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, and made a startling discovery - 77 per cent exhibited symptoms of dyspraxia. She is now carrying out research for the BBC into rates of dyspraxia among juvenile offenders and predicts that the results will be dramatic. A television documentary will be broadcast in the new year.

Although dyspraxia is more prevalent than dyslexia (6 per cent of the population compared to 4) it is still widely undiagnosed.

Portwood believes the earlier it can be picked up the better the child's chances of recovery, and of preventing subsequent behavioural difficulties. For schools, early intervention is a very cost effective way of reducing disruptive behaviour.

She recognises that in an ideal world every dyspraxic child would have daily access to specialists. As that's impossible, she has written a practical manual for teachers and parents called Developmental Dyspraxia, which sets out the exercises.

Within County Durham there are now more than 30 schools running her programmes. In the rest of the country such provision is unheard of (see Danny's story on page 4).

Meanwhile, Frosterly has started another dyspraxic, four-year-old Max Lampett, on the exercises. His teachers and parents are hoping the "cure" can be repeated.

* Madeleine Portwood will speak at a one-day conference organised by the Dyspraxia Foundation at Newcastle University on October 5. Contact Jan Long: 0191 258 1466.

* Developmental Dyspraxia is published by Durham County Council. Pounds 12.95 plus Pounds 3 pp. Available from: Educational Psychology Service, Greencroft Building, Nevilles Cross College, Darlington Road, Durham DH1 4UH * The Dyspraxia Trust, a charity which supports children and their families, this month changed its name to the Dyspraxia Foundation. 8 West Alley, Hitchin, Herts SG5 1EG. Tel: 01462 454986

The Hidden Handicap

Dyspraxia has no known cause, although it is thought to arise due to an immaturity in neurone development in the brain. It becomes apparent as the child grows up - it's not acquired through accident or infection. Dyspraxics look normal, are usually of average or above-average intelligence but are often behaviourally immature. The following may be signs of the condition: In the pre-school child * history of lateness reaching milestones such as sitting, walking and speaking * may not yet be able to run, hop or jump * poor at dressing * slow and hesitant in most actions * poor pencil grip * cannot do jigsaw or shape-sorting games * artwork very immature * has no understanding of the concepts inon behind , etc * unable to catch or kick a ball * commonly anxious and distractable * finds it difficult to keep friends or judge how to behave in company In the school-age child * all of the pre-school problems may still be present with little or no improvement * PE is avoided * child does badly in class but significantly better on a one-to-one basis * poor attention span and reacts to a stimuli without discrimination * may have trouble with maths and reading * great difficulty may be experienced in copying from the blackboard * writing is laborious and immature * unable to remember andor to follow instructions * generally poorly organised.

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