Big D's journey with dyspraxia

Do you know what a “banding” room is? Well, at least, in the primary school where Big D and Little D attend, it’s the room where all the “a little bit not normal” kids go to take their exams. And that’s where my Big D used to, and now my Little D go to sit for their papers when it’s exam time.

For this blog entry, let me focus on Big D and soon, in another blog entry, I’ll write about Little D’s own adventure in his separate journey.

Big D was diagnosed with moderate dyspraxia when he was in primary three. Before that, I had never heard of the term dyspraxia. But after a doctor acquaintance introduced me to the term, and having googled it, I realised that Big D did indeed exhibit many of the symptoms of dyspraxia. After a couple of visits to obtain a professional opinion from the Child Development Unit (CDU) of the National University Hospital Singapore, the diagnosis of dyspraxia was confirmed. Thereafter, I started him on occupational therapy for the next one and a half years.

So what is dyspraxia? In layman terms, it is described as the “clumsy boy” syndrome. Ah, you get it right away now, don’t you? These kids often knock into furniture, have the most atrocious handwriting, can’t skip, can’t handle a basketball, soccer ball and are extremely messy. Well, you may say, don’t most boys have terrible handwriting and messy desks? Well, you’re right, so can you imagine how much more clumsy Big D was than the average boy to have fallen into the spectrum where intervention was necessary to help them cope with daily living?

Big D was somewhat fortunate in that if he were living in a country with a strong sports culture (perhaps in the USA or in Australia?), he would have had a much more difficult time fitting in. He would have been the last one selected to join a sports team, or be the lone figure lurking along the side of the playgrounds with no playmates during recess time. However, being in the Singapore educational system, where PE and sports isn’t such a big thing in primary school, Big D’s clumsiness didn’t really affect his popularity in class.

Dyspraxia in Singapore is rather “hidden” in that you don’t really know a person has it until the person has to demonstrate his co-ordination skills. So well, it eventually did show up in the academic classroom. Being in a Chinese school, the kids are introduced to 毛笔 (Chinese brush painting) from as early as primary one. Vendors would be called in to teach毛笔 during art lessons. Big D always did badly and he always felt awful about it because the teacher had not given him the benefit of doubt and assumed instead that he never tried or put in the effort. He once told me that the teacher wrote his name out on the whiteboard and told the entire class that everyone had passed Art except for the student whose name was written on the board! Anyway, the point I’m making here is that often, teachers who do not spend sufficient time with the students may often misinterpret dyspraxia as bo chupness on the part of the kid. I once received a note from the PE teacher when Big D was in primary two, requesting that I buy a skipping and teach Big D how to skip at home. Now, this is how a responsible teacher should take action. She must have been trained to spot such outliers and provide the appropriate feedback to the kids’ parents in a much more tactful way.

The challenges a kid faces with dyspraxia also crops up in studies. Big D had tremendous difficulty making his handwriting legible. He would grip his pencil so hard that his hand got tired after a short period of time thus affecting his stamina, and the ability to focus beyond getting the words written out. Pencils grips did little to help him. I was grateful that the school (and later MOE for PSLE) gave him extra time to complete his Chinese papers. Big D was given 10 minutes extra for all his Chinese papers once he was diagnosed with dyspraxia. As for PSLE, MOE gave him between 10 to 20 minutes extra for his Chinese papers, depending on the papers he took.

To help Big D with his motor skills, we sent him to swim classes. Although he was very slow in figuring out the free style (front crawl is much tougher than breast stroke because the movements are not symmetrical, the hands have to alternate), he overcame the difficulties over the years and obtained his gold award by primary five. Today, Big D can ride a bicycle comfortably and the boys in his class let him play Frisbee and soccer with them during recess. He still gets yelled at whenever he misses the easy passes but he’s not as self conscious as he was when he was younger. There was this funny Frisbee session in school after PSLE last year when Big D had kept yelling to his buddies, “DON’T pass me the Frisbee!! And they boys kept hearing, “Pass me the Frisbee!” and they kept throwing it to him and he kept missing. That was one unpleasant game for him, but I was happy to hear of this incident from him because it showed how accepting his classmates had become with him.

A note of encouragement to parents whose young kids have dyspraxia: kids, being humans, are generally quite clever and over time, they pick up ways and adapt to their difficulties in motor coordination. They find ways to compensate. However, I doubt that this condition can ever completely go away. After all, dyspraxia is measured across a spectrum, it’s not a clear cut you have it or don’t have it. Although Big D has over the years learnt to compensate and cope, I note he still finds it very difficult to organise his desk. Up to today, no amount of cajoling, yelling, threatening, scolding etc. on my part can get him to organise his drawers, his school bag, his subject files etc. I never and often still can’t accept that he is unable to or finds it near impossible to organise his papers. This is the one skill which I think, being a “higher order” cognitive functioning skill, Big D still has not been able to overcome. So what I do to help him organise is that I get him to sit down with me every couple of months and sort through every piece of paper he has.

Big D is in secondary school now, and continues to show improvement over time. The biggest surprise Big D received this month was when his art teacher told him that he had scored highest in class for Art!! Okay okay, I know that Art is not even considered a “real” subject in school and that being in a boys’ school, it’s likely that none of his classmate put in any effort in Art. BUT, because Big D is my baby, I’m so proud of him! I begged him to grant me permission to post his still-life piece up on this blog and so….here it is! Nice hor?

big-ds-still-life-art

Where once Big D’s self esteem was valley low, he has since learnt to laugh at himself and not take his condition so seriously. Let me relate to you some of his funniest remarks:

Once recently, when I let him try a button up instead of zip pants, he took one look at the buttons and exclaimed, “Button up pants are my biggest nightmare!”

When I once showed him youtube clips of Michael Jordan’s famous dunks, Big D suggested that Jordan might have had some form of mild dyspraxia because why else would he stick out his tongue like that when he’s concentrating on a dunk?

Once after Sunbeam Church Service, he told me how frustrated he was during worship because “Mom, I can clap my hands and I can sing, but I can’t do both at the same time!”

He admits reluctantly that his younger brother, who is half his height, runs faster than he does.

Sadly, if not diagnosed and not handled with care, people with dyspraxia can suffer from severe low self esteem which in turn can lead to a host of other conditions such as depression. A friend posted this article up on here FB account recently and I think it’s a good read if you want to know how confusing, frustrating and depressing it can be for a person with dyspraxia from a first person perspective.

The doctor has warned me that dyspraxia might rear it’s ugly head again when Big D enters National Service. Several of her patients have returned to her when they entered BMT and struggled under stress having to assemble a gun from its parts in a few minutes flat. They feel lousy when they are unable to perform simple daily duties such as doing up their boot laces quickly. They would often end up holding up the entire platoon and getting the rest in trouble because of their seemingly slow and shabby ways. I hope these few years of being in a uniform group will help Big D learn some of these skills before he reaches the army. I need to boast one final boast and tell you how thrilled he was when he received his foot-drill badge! He thought he might fail (hey, not everybody passed okay??) because he confided in me that he’s always needed to yell out “where is LEFT and where is RIGHT?” at least once a week when they’re marching, in the hope of a kind soul clarifying it with him. I wonder if he should ever learn how to drive.