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What is dyspraxia and how does it affect day-to-day life?

·7 min read
Photo credit: Maryna Terletska - Getty Images
Photo credit: Maryna Terletska - Getty Images

Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia, is a brain disorder that affects coordination and motor skills. It’s a lifelong condition, with signs often beginning in early childhood, and there is currently no cure. However, a number of therapies are available to help manage and improve symptoms in both children and adults. The earlier a diagnosis can be made, the better supported a child or young adult will be, in school and beyond, as they grow and develop.

We spoke to Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, about dyspraxia symptoms, causes, treatment and the therapies and support available:

Dyspraxia symptoms

Dyspraxia can lead to a wide range of symptoms, not all of which will be displayed by every individual affected.

‘Dyspraxia is a condition that differs from person to person,’ says Abdeh. ‘It can occur in both adults and children, and produces a range of different symptoms depending on your age. These symptoms can also change over time.’

🔹 Dyspraxia symptoms in babies

Signs of dyspraxia are often evident from an early age. One of the most common signs of dyspraxia in babies is a delay in reaching normal developmental milestones. This means your baby might be later than expected in doing activities such as:

  • Lifting their head independently

  • Rolling over

  • Sitting up unaided

  • Crawling

Other signs and symptoms of dyspraxia in infants can include:

  • Holding unusual body positions

  • Difficulty playing with toys that require hand-eye coordination, such as stacking cups or building blocks

  • Sensitivity to noise

  • Irritability

  • Sleep problems

  • Feeding problems (sometimes significant)

🔹 Dyspraxia symptoms in children

While dyspraxia can be diagnosed at any stage of life, more and more children are now being identified as having dyspraxia. Diagnosis in early childhood means that your child will be able to access support, which can help them as they progress through school. Signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Delays in milestones, such as potty training and walking

  • Frequent tantrums

  • Difficulty with fine motor skills (making writing, drawing and puzzles problematic)

  • Fidgeting

  • Eating and drinking messily

  • Coordination problems, making ball games, hopping and skipping tricky

  • Avoidance of physical activity

‘Severity of symptoms can differ from child to child,’ says Abdeh. ‘Underdeveloped skills in certain areas may not be noticeable for years and some children are not diagnosed with dyspraxia until they are at least five years old.’

As well as symptoms involving coordination and motor control, dyspraxia can also lead to mental health problems as it can impact self-confidence. ‘Dyspraxia can make it harder for children to learn and make friends, due to issues such as having difficulty remembering instructions, learning new skills and having low self-esteem,’ says Abdeh.

However, Abdeh is keen to point out that dyspraxia is absolutely not a sign that you are of below-average intelligence. ‘In fact, people with this condition may have additional strength in areas such as creativity,’ adds Abdeh.

🔹 Dyspraxia symptoms in adults

Dyspraxia in adults can manifest by producing symptoms including:

  • Poor hand-eye coordination

  • Difficulty using a keyboard

  • Difficulty writing with a pen

  • Abnormal posture

  • Organisational problems

  • Finding it hard to carry out basic daily chores

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty learning new skills

  • Abnormal posture

  • Low self-esteem

Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images
Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images

Dyspraxia causes

At the moment, the cause of dyspraxia is unknown. ‘So far, dyspraxia research has not been able to identify the exact cause of this condition,’ says Abdeh. ‘However, it is believed that it may be a result of variations of how neurons develop in the brain, impacting the way in which the brain sends messages to the rest of the body.’

There are, however, certain risk factors that may be at play in the development of dyspraxia. These include:

  • Premature birth (being born before the 37th week of pregnancy)

  • Low birth weight

  • Alcohol/drug use during pregnancy

While a ‘dyspraxia gene’ has not been identified, dyspraxia does seem to run in families, and it is also more common in boys than in girls. The Dyspraxia Foundation states that sometimes, during the course of a diagnostic assessment, fathers realise they too have experienced symptoms, and a 2009 study, published in the IOSR Journal of Pharmacy, concluded that there is a hereditary risk factor with coordination difficulties.

Dyspraxia diagnosis

If you think you or your child is displaying some (or many) of the symptoms of dyspraxia, it’s important to visit your GP to discuss your concerns and take the necessary steps towards a formal diagnosis.

‘People who display symptoms of dyspraxia may not necessarily be suffering from this condition,’ says Abdeh. ‘If you think you or your child may have dyspraxia, you should go to the doctor, who will carry out a proper evaluation. There aren’t any tests to specifically diagnose dyspraxia. The doctor will look at you or your child’s medical history, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and mental abilities. If the motor skills are below average for the age group, and other conditions with similar symptoms have been diagnosed or ruled out, a diagnosis of dyspraxia may be the answer.’

If your GP thinks an assessment is needed, your child will be referred to a specialist, such as a paediatrician, often alongside an occupational therapist.

Following assessment, a diagnosis of dyspraxia may be made based on evidence that:

  • Motor skills are significantly below the expected level.

  • Poor motor skills significantly affect day-to-day life, including the ability to perform at school.

  • Their symptoms developed at an early age.

  • Their symptoms cannot be explained by the presence of other disorders, for example, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.

Abdeh is keen to point out that it is also important to seek professional medical advice in order to rule out potentially more serious conditions. ’More serious conditions, such as a stroke or cerebral palsy, can cause physical symptoms that are very similar to those of dyspraxia,’ he says. ‘It’s vital that anyone exhibiting any dyspraxia symptoms speaks to a doctor as soon as possible. This will ensure the diagnosis is right, so that the correct treatment can be recommended.’

It’s also important to note that, while you may suspect your baby or pre-school child may have dyspraxia due to the symptoms they are displaying, it is often not possible to make a formal diagnosis before the age of five.

Dyspraxia related conditions

It is not uncommon for children with dyspraxia to have additional, related conditions. ‘Children who have dyspraxia may also have other conditions with similar symptoms,’ confirms Abdeh. ‘These conditions can include the likes of dyslexia, ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.’

Some of the symptoms of these conditions will overlap. For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may display related behaviours, such as inattentiveness and an inability to keep still. However, these conditions would not explain poor motor skills, so a separate diagnosis of dyspraxia may be required.

Living with dyspraxia: therapies and support

There is currently no cure for dyspraxia, but if symptoms are mild they can sometimes alleviate over time (although this is rare). More often than not, a range of therapies tailored to your child’s particular requirements will be offered to support them.

‘Various therapies can help sufferers to cope with the condition,’ says Abdeh. ‘Treatments differ for everyone, because all people who have dyspraxia have different struggles and symptoms to deal with.’

The healthcare specialists who may be on hand to help include:

  • Occupational therapists

  • Physical therapists

  • Speech and language therapists

  • Psychologists

Together, they will develop a programme of support that will work to strengthen any areas of weakness.

If your child is at school, it may be important to work closely with the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), who will be able to offer ideas to support your child while they are learning. This can include requesting the services of an occupational therapist to assist with handwriting difficulties, or applying for extra time during exams.

Dyspraxia support for families and carers

Whether you suspect you or your child has dyspraxia, or you have already received a formal diagnosis, you may wish to connect with others for support, guidance and advice. The Dyspraxia Foundation offers information and advice, as well as an Adult Support Group and a list of local groups to help you find support in your area.

Last updated: 10-05-2021

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