Spreading the power of positivity
* Caged in Chaos - A Dyspraxia Guide To Breaking Free is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and costs pound;12.95. To order a copy visit www.jkp.com
Children who flick pencils in class can drive teachers up the wall, but Victoria Biggs has to flick pencils otherwise she can't concentrate on what people are saying, neither can she look them in the eye without losing her train of thought. Far from being shifty, however, she is disconcertingly honest. Once, when she was yawning in class a teacher asked sarcastically if she was bored. "Yes" she answered, taking the question at face value.
Social awareness is not a strong point, neither is her ability to co-ordinate her long limbs, which have a tendency to knock things flying or trip her over. But Victoria Biggs is very forthright about her "hidden handicap". Indeed, she writes with wit and eloquence about her dyspraxia, a condition she describes as "lying diagonally in a parallel universe".
In her book Caged in Chaos - A Dyspraxic Guide to Breaking Free, which has won the NasenTES Children's Book Award, she describes with great humour "her unusual perspective on life (literally, as I have a close working relationship with the floor)". In its account of her struggles with schooling and social relationships the book demonstrates that dyspraxia is so much more than the commonly perceived difficulties related to balance, movement and hand-eye co-ordination.
Victoria wrote the book when she was 16, an age when she still couldn't use a tin opener, sit on a stool without falling, pour a drink without spilling, or walk upstairs without hanging on to something. However, in addition to her "love-affair with the floor" she also had a strong aversion to "tastes, texture, sound or smells." Itchy wool "or lace and the feel of mashed potato or lumpy sauces in my mouth would drive my senses mad. People who crowd me get rude and abrupt responses I I also like to rock back and forth on my knees or stalk up and down in a straight line. The motion is incredibly comforting and I can do it for hours after a difficult day."
Pencil flicking prevents her thoughts from being "whipped into an incredible tornado".
While she describes a life beset by clumsiness, disorganisation, poor concentration and social awkwardness, all is not gloom. The book is full of tips for fellow adolescent sufferers on negotiating the social maze, and it also shows how the condition lends individuality, an original and colourful take on life. Like some, but by no means all dyspraxics she also experiences synaesthesia when the five senses blur into one another: "Taste and sense are all one with me I I can physically taste the words in my mouth." This has given her an acute sensibility and ability with language.
She may have real difficulty picking up social nuances and interacting with everyday chat, often taking what people say literally, but she is blessed with extraordinary ability with the written word, is a voracious and eclectic reader and can engage in articulate and reasoned discourse.
Victoria, now aged 18, is an English undergraduate at Selwyn College, Cambridge, having gained the highest score nationally in English language A-level and within the top five for English literature. Her topsy-turvy view of the world has made her into an original and fearless critic, although the mechanics of applying to the college were almost beyond her.
She says: "I lost half the forms and then sent them in late, and after I'd sent them in found another four pages skulking under my bed. I also got lost in Cambridge trying to find the college and arrived feeling and looking really frazzled."
Friends and teachers have some reservations about her reading English at Selwyn. Though the college has the advantage for Victoria of being outside the confusing and disconcerting hurly-burly of the city centre, and being next to the English faculty and the library, thereby reducing the chances of getting lost, they fear she will lose touch with reality and become utterly absorbed in literary reveries. Once, at her school, Kirkham Grammar, near Preston, she read through a fire alarm. She was so gripped by the book that she didn't even hear it. "I often get so wrapped up in pages that I forget where the story ends and real life begins."
Victoria's parents Maggie and Charlie had always accepted that she was "different" and never imagined that her clumsiness and eccentricities constituted special needs. She was brought up in an ex-patriate community in Saudi Arabia where her father works as a logistics manager for British Aerospace and her mother works as a midwife. They sent her to board at Kirkham grammar after she was bullied at her Saudi school, but never considered this was due to her specific difficulties. Charlie says:
"Margaret and I are not stupid, but we'd never come across anybody as clever and different as Victoria. We just thought that was the way she was."
In the end, Victoria diagnosed herself as dyspraxic and then sought outside confirmation of this. Her condition, she says, means that she has made odd friends in odd places, with "people who accept you as you are". For example, she recently visited a 78-year-old friend in Amsterdam who is "a holocaust survivor who knew Anne Frank, whom I have corresponded with for five years, and who I got to know because of my obsession with the holocaust".
Victoria, who helps to run a forum for dyspraxic teenagers on the web, wrote the book as a way of supporting fellow sufferers with a positive outlook, and with practical tips. On the subject of flirting, for example, she advises: "When you meet the person, try and get a casual compliment in.
I say 'casual' because if you start spouting Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' their reaction will probably be to run to Timbuktu."
Since publishing the book she has had many letters from teenage dyspraxics, relieved to realise that they are not alone in their experiences, including one from a girl recovering from a suicide attempt. She says: "Bad as the bullying was for me I cannot imagine wanting to kill myself. I am glad the book is serving a purpose."