What is Dyspraxia? And how to help children with dyspraxia

Dyspraxia used to be known as ‘Clumsy Child Syndrome’ and it some countries it is referred to as ‘Developmental Coordination Disorder’. The signs that a child is struggling with dyspraxia can be seen in various aspects of their behaviour and motor control.

There are three recognized types of dyspraxia: verbal, oral and motor.

Verbal dyspraxia refers to difficulty in producing clear and understandable speech; oral dyspraxia refers to difficulty in controlling the vocal tract ( lips, tongue, palate, larynx) in the absence of speech, and motor dyspraxia refers to difficulties with gross and fine motor skills.

So what causes dyspraxia?

For the majority of cases, there is no known direct cause for dyspraxia. However, it has been noted that it is a common comorbidity in people who have ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) or a family history of dyspraxia.

What is very intersting is that brain scans can now show the different areas of the brain that light up when a person with dyspraxia performs the same action as someone without dyspraxia.

According to the American Academy of Peadiatrics, children with dyspraxia showed greater activation in the areas of the brain that are to do with visuospatial processing, whereas children without dyspraxia relied more on areas to do with spatial processing, motor control, and error processing.

Brain Activation of Children With Developmental Coordination Disorder is Different Than Peers

Author: Jill G. Zwicker, Cheryl Missiuna, Susan R. Harris, Lara A. Boyd

Publication: Pediatrics

Publisher: American Academy of Pediatrics

Date: Sep 1, 2010

Copyright © 2010, Copyright © 2010 by the American Academy of Pediatrics

But what does that mean for my child?

It means that there will be some things they will find tricky, or certain actions may take a lot more practice for them to master. eg. doing up a tie for school, tying their laces. But it has been seen that children with dyspraxia tend to have very good visuospatial processing, and can be creative, hard-working problems solvers; they’ve had to learn to think outside the box and this can lend itself to their becoming unique and empathetic thinkers.

Who diagnoses dyspraxia?

If you are based in the UK, then usually your GP, SENCO or health visitor will refer you to another healthcare professional for the assessment. This could be a pediatric occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a pediatrician or an education psychologist. They will refer to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 and ICD11 in order to make an official diagnosis.

How can I help my child?

These are some of the most effective ways of helping a child with dyspraxia:

  1. Encourage individual sports rather than team sports. They may feel clumsy and awkward when playing team sports and this can affect their confidence. But it’s still very important for our children to be healthy. Therefore, encouraging team sports such as swimming or Pilates can help to improve their tone and coordination.
  2. Teach one-to-one or in small groups so we can see the areas of difficulty the child has and we can tailor our approach to them.
  3. ‘How To Use’ labels on machines such as the dishwasher or washing machine. Children with dyspraxia often struggle to organize their thoughts and may get muddled up with processes.
  4. Self-esteem work. Many children with dyspraxia have low self-esteem and feel they are the ‘odd one out’. Cater to their strengths and celebrate their achievements. Just because someone has dyspraxia doesn’t mean they are stupid or incapable: it just means the messages aren’t getting from the brain to their muscles in the way they would like.
  5. Orienteering practice. Children with dyspraxia tend to have a bad sense of direction and may get overwhelmed especially when they have to learn a new route or routine. Help them by practicing it over and over again. As they get older, send them out with Google maps and a local destination- they will learn to strengthen their orienteering skills and sense of direction.
  6. Emotional expression. Due to the fact that their body sometimes won’t do what they want it to, children with dyspraxia can get really frustrated with themselves. Make sure they have an outlet for their emotions, such as a journal, sketchbook or other emotional literacy resources.
  7. Good diet, sleep and exercise. As we saw in the article on ADHD, neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers in our brain) need a good balance of vitamins and minerals in order to function correctly and to be balanced. Have a look here for a more in-depth discussion of the role of diet and neurophysiology.
  8. Task-oriented approach. This is used by occupational therapists to help children improve a specific task such as eating with cutlery (Caring cutlery helps too!), climbing stairs or tying shoes. A task-oriented approach has been found to be very effective for children with dyspraxia.
  9. Process-oriented approach. This approach is slightly different in that it encourages the all-round development of the child’s gross motor skills, which in turn leads to improvements in other areas.
  10. Prioritise. Figure out what the priority is for you and your child, then work on that. Whether it be table manners, hand writing, football practice, riding a bike…find what’s going to make the most difference to you and your child and start there. Don’t get overwhelmed with goals and tasks; just one goal at a time.

What about coordination?

Well, one of things a child with dyspraxia will struggle with, is being able to coordinate their actions and do more than one thing at a time. eg. they may struggle to hold a jar of peanut butter still while they turn the lid. There are lots of day-to-day activities that can be incorporated into their daily routine at home and can help build their confidence in coordinated actions and also build up ‘muscle memory’.

What about handwriting?

This is by far the most common question I am asked about dyspraxia. “How can I help my child to improve their handwriting? I can’t understand what they’ve written, what should I do?” Here are some tips that may help:

Start off with warm up exercises and pencil control skills, practice other fine motor skills which will strengthen the muscles and coordination in the hands and wrists. Get them to write about things they like, and in a manner that they find comfortable. Speak to the school SENCO about extra time in exams and also about the possibility of a ‘scribe’; a member of staff who can write down their answers to questions but in a far more legible manner.

There’s some videos of the warm-up exercises to follow shortly!

And over to you…

Do you or your child have dyspraxia? What techniques and strategies have helped you? I’d love to hear in the comments.

P x

Helpful Links:

Dyspraxia Foundation

Medical News Today article re: dyspraxia


British Dyslexia Society, post about dyspraxia

Patient. Info article about dyspraxia