Our daughter, Elizabeth, was 2½ when she was first diagnosed with dyspraxia. I have to admit that at the time, I couldn’t have told you very much about what that meant — or even what dyspraxia is.
But since then, we’ve lived 19 years with our beautiful daughter, and we’ve learned so much. We’ve gone to therapy, we’ve partnered with her teachers at school, and we’ve worked with her at home. We’ve watched her grow and make wonderful gains in her life. With these years of experiences under our belts, I wish I could somehow reach out to my younger me and teach her what I know now.
That’s not possible, of course. But what I can do is share with other parents what our family has learned.
Here are six things I wish I’d known sooner about parenting a child with dyspraxia.
- Some dyspraxia symptoms are obvious, but others are hidden. Dyspraxia has a lot of signs you can see, like poor handwriting or trouble cutting with scissors. You may see a child with dyspraxia struggle to throw and catch a ball. Maybe this child struggles to talk clearly. Therapy, practice, and repetition helped my daughter learn many of these skills. It took time and patience, but I saw these issues right away and got help. It’s the hidden effects of dyspraxia that took more time to learn about and address. For instance, my daughter’s brain can mix up the steps needed to do a task. She may not remember what to do first, and she may either do the task wrong or freeze and do nothing at all. She also has short-term memory issues. Sometimes she can’t remember our plans for the day, even if I tell her several times.
- A child with dyspraxia doesn’t do things “wrong” on purpose. It’s easy to get frustrated with a child who has dyspraxia. One of the things I had to work hardest to understand about Elizabeth was that she didn’t do things on purpose. She didn’t break that toy on purpose. She didn’t forget how to add numbers on purpose. She wasn’t trying to set the house on fire when she microwaved a biscuit for 15 minutes instead of 15 seconds. None of these things was done on purpose. They were symptoms of her dyspraxia, not choices. If I had understood this critical fact earlier, I would have had more peace of mind.
- Bad habits can form quickly. When Elizabeth was learning to write, she drew the letter k so badly that it looked like an h. She’d done this at school, but no one flagged it. By the time I noticed and tried to correct her, it was very difficult to change. She simply couldn’t process how to write k correctly, even if I stood over her and corrected her every time she wrote the letter. With professional help, she finally got the letter right, but it wasn’t fun for her or me. That’s when I realized how important it was to learn how to do things correctly from the start. It might be how to say a word, how to hang a shirt or, in our case, how to write a letter. With dyspraxic kids, it’s important to take the time to show them the right way to do something.
- One day can be great, and the next day terrible. I’ve seen Elizabeth’s ups and downs firsthand. One day, she’ll be completely organized. She’ll dress herself quickly, make her own breakfast while chatting, do her dishes, and be ready for anything. But the next day, she’ll put her shirt on backwards and struggle to figure out how to use the stove. When kids have dyspraxia, many things can affect their ability to be organized and settled. A little stress, fatigue, or anxiety can throw them off, and it’s frustrating and heart-wrenching to see. The key is to take things day by day — and know that you can help. Talk to your child, write down routines, be patient and keep a sense of humor.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. When we first started treatment, I was so gung-ho to do everything right now. I wanted to make it better, like yesterday. Let’s fix this thing! Our very first therapist talked to us about the road we were facing. She set us straight, telling us point blank that dyspraxia doesn’t go away. As kids grow, their needs and challenges change in both shape and number. So take it slow and steady, no sprinting allowed. Do what needs to be done today. And enjoy your successes along the way.
- Dyspraxia affects kids in different ways, and it doesn’t need to be “fixed.” The way dyspraxia affects Elizabeth is different from the way it affects other kids with dyspraxia. What might be true for my daughter might not be true for your child. That’s why it’s so important to observe your child. The more I understood Elizabeth’s issues, the more I could give her teachers and therapists specific examples of how she was struggling. Learning about Elizabeth also revealed an important truth to me. It’s something that our first therapist also told us: Elizabeth isn’t broken and doesn’t need to be “fixed.” She is simply wired differently and needs our support and love every day.