Dyspraxia Is More Than Just a Word for My Son

Dyspraxia. The first time I ever heard the word dyspraxia, it was just a word. I had no idea what it would mean for my son Robert, his education or our family.

All I knew was that my little boy had difficulty pronouncing words, holding a crayon and zipping up his clothes. At 3, he was behind other kids in these areas, but I thought he would catch up.

That’s when a speech therapist told me that his speech and motor skills issues were more than just a developmental delay. I remember her sympathetic eyes looking at me as she said “dyspraxia,” as though I was supposed to know what that meant.

At that point in my life, I was working as a travel agent, so I was an expert at booking fabulous vacations for my clients. I was also an expert at creating fun birthday parties for my kids and reading tons of parenting books to help me become a super mom. But I didn’t know much about child development.

My only understanding was from raising my daughter, who was four years older than Robert. She had none of the motor skills difficulties Robert had, and my son wasn’t able to do many of the things that came naturally for her.

When the speech therapist left my house, I immediately looked online for information about dyspraxia. This was the 1990s, and it turned out there wasn’t very much. The online articles I did find described dyspraxia as the “clumsy child syndrome” that affects balance, speech and coordination and that can lead to weak muscle tone.

Searching more, I found a book called Developmental Dyspraxia, written by a U.K. author named Madeleine Portwood. (There seems to be more awareness about dyspraxia in the U.K. than here in the United States.) The book helped me understand the importance of getting Robert early help to improve his speech and fine motor skills.

Strengthening Robert’s muscle tone became a family priority. We had an occupational therapist come to the house every week. I had Robert work with play-dough or Silly Putty every day because I heard that would help. We bought a trampoline for our home, which provided hours of fun and laughter while improving Robert’s strength and balance. And we enrolled him in a gymnastics class for very young kids.

In gymnastics, Robert couldn’t even hold himself up on the uneven parallel bars. Nor did he have the coordination to walk across the balance beam by himself. The instructor held him up or held his hand for every activity.

It was hard to watch the other kids do these things with ease, while Robert struggled. But for us the purpose of gymnastics wasn’t to compete or even get good at it. It was to improve his motor skills and have fun.

At the time, I had no idea if the gymnastics or trampoline, or any of the other things we did, would make a difference or not. I can tell you now that they did!

The small amount of occupational therapy provided through insurance only scratched the surface of his issues. Over time, we realized he needed to work on his motor skills every day, several times a day to improve.

At age 6, Robert transitioned from gymnastics over to more mainstream sports, like football and basketball. Through years of intervention, exercise, physical activity and hard work, Robert was able to manage most of his motor skills issues. He eventually was able to play sports competitively, becoming the captain of his high school football team and receiving an all-conference football honor.

That wasn’t the end of my son’s struggles with dyspraxia. He continued with speech therapy for many years. And it turns out he also would struggle with reading, writing and learning in school. But he ended up tackling those challenges in the same way he faced his motor skills issues—with courage and grace.

Our family motto has always been to never give up.

Today, my once “clumsy” child is a strong, smart, sensitive young man who continues to work out at the gym and strives to overcome his learning differences. Today, dyspraxia is not just a word anymore. I know what dyspraxia is and everything it means. But I also understand that a single word will never define my son.

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About the author

About the author

Mary Muolo manages donor relations and stewardship at Susquehanna University. She has an adult son with dyspraxia.