Navigating a parallel universe

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Rosanne Bartlett commends a teenage student's practical account of living with dyspraxia

Caged in Chaos: A dyspraxic guide to breaking free By Victoria Biggs Jessica Kingsley Publishers pound;12.95 or pound;11.95 inc PP to TES readers from JKP, 116 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9JB. Tel 020 7833 2307; fax 020 7837 2917; email Cheques made payable to Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd

"Like the sun coming out after a cold day of rain," is how Victoria Biggs describes her feelings after finally being diagnosed with dyspraxia at 15.

A year later, having written down her story, Victoria tells how struggling with her condition meant years of "a nagging belief that I could never be quite good enough". Her advice to other young people facing life with dyspraxia is this: "use the label, but don't be defined by it."

For Victoria, balance, movement and hand-eye co-ordination are only some of the difficulties she faces. Writing an essay, crossing the road, getting dressed, preparing a meal and socialising are among the daily activities that will cause her difficulties throughout her life. As she sees it, it is not her fault that her dyspraxia will not go away, but it is her responsibility to find strategies for coping. It is certainly our responsibility to read and share her strategies.

Her optimistic, upbeat attitude is summed up when she says, "I see no reason for us to allow the things that we cannot do to affect the things we can." Victoria is joined by several adolescent dyspraxics who add their insights. Many of these young people have been let down by mainstream schooling and, in Shawn's words, have received "a lack of understanding from the people around me, especially teachers". None of them attempt to hide the isolation and trauma that growing up with dyspraxia can bring.

As head of learning and curriculum support in a large comprehensive, I would like to think that the needs of the young people in the book would have been met, that they would all have received the support they needed as students. The evidence presented here suggests otherwise. Victoria's needs were first addressed only when she began attending boarding school as an adolescent.

Unfortunately, the fish oil supplements that may help to improve concentration, co-ordination and long-term memory in some children, did not work for Victoria. She believes this might be down to the subtle difference between developmental co-ordination disorder (one in 30 adolescents has DCD, according to the Dyspraxia Association) and dyspraxia, which is often defined as a specific difficulty with planning movements.

Her advice for teachers of dyspraxic or DCD students (she uses the terms interchangeably throughout the book because, as she argues, the impact on teenage lives is the same) is good advice for all of us who are involved in supporting students with individual learning and behavioural needs. Much of her advice will already have been disseminated in our day-to-day practice, but she still has much to tell us.

The section on "A Survival Guide to School" is relevant for all teachers; the sections on maths and science lessons also offer useful advice for both dyspraxic students and their teachers in those subjects: effective equipment, support of peers and ICT can alleviate some of the difficulties faced in a mainstream classroom.

The subsection "The Danger Zones" is particularly relevant for PE teachers and their students. Victoria challenges PE staff to a game of football. But first, she says, "Stuff in a pair of earplugs, don a pair of glasses that either magnify the world slightly or make everything appear further away, and try playing with only the hand and foot that you aren't used to. Add a crowd of people who continually scream, 'Come on! Don't just stand there! Get the ball!' and you're having a PE lesson from our perspective."

No wonder Tuesday morning was always a crisis point for one young man at my school; the thought of science followed by PE often led to inappropriate behaviour and avoidance tactics as he tried to cope with the embarrassment, sense of failure and verbal bullying he knew attending these lessons would bring.

Personal experience tells me that the "unflinching honesty" of dyspraxic adolescents is among the qualities that gets them into the most trouble. On several occasions I have been asked to intervene in an altercation with a member of staff who believes a student with dyspraxia has been "rude and insolent". So many young people with dyspraxia are misinterpreted as they have difficulty controlling the pitch, volume and tone of their voices, and their use of language can make them appear older than they are.

For younger students making the transition to secondary school, there is much advice for teachers and parents to overcome the "caged helplessness" experienced by Victoria. Nobody would disagree that secondary schools, without the right levels of support, can be places of "turbulent change", and a consistency of approach for all students, including those with individual needs, is essential.

Primary liaison co-ordinators need to be aware of the symptoms associated with dyspraxia and ask searching questions of Year 6 class teachers so that students like Victoria do not slip through the net. For students already identified as dyspraxic, the "Tips for Teachers" section contains excellent advice. All subject teachers should be given a summary of this section to remind them of the difficulties just attending school brings, let alone the additional pressures of homework and extra-curricular activities.

The section "Coping with Growing Up" offers practical advice on areas as diverse as cheating with school ties, health and hygiene, make-up and coping with anger. How many dyspraxic students get into trouble for not wearing their school tie after a PE lesson?

For students about to embark on their GCSE examinations, followed by college application forms and the dreaded interviews for jobs, college or university, her advice is invaluable. Many young people find the interview situation and using appropriate body language difficult.

Throughout the book, Victoria reminds us that dyspraxic people have "an original way of thinking that is very special"; Victoria herself has an original way of writing. Adults and students will find support in her engaging words. Those involved in special educational needs must ensure the support they provide meets the individual needs of all those students, with or without a diagnosis of dyspraxia, in helping them to cope with "lying diagonally in a parallel universe".

Rosanne Bartlett is assistant headteacher and head of learning and curriculum support at Earls high school, Halesowen, West Midlands

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