A 19-year-old who can’t ride a bike. This may sound like a strange reason for people to praise a science-fiction show. But much of the buzz about the new season of Doctor Who is about its portrayal of a young adult with dyspraxia. The new season opens with Ryan Sinclair (played by Tosin Cole) falling off his bike again and again.
The second episode digs deeper into Ryan’s motor issues. He and his alien-fighting friends have been transported to a faraway planet full of hostile robots. To escape, he has to quickly climb a ladder. He’s anxious about this because of his dyspraxia. Yet in the next scene this same character is confident he can shoot a moving target.
Like a lot of teenagers, Ryan has spent many hours playing Call of Duty. “I’ve trained for this,” he says as he grabs a gun and blasts several robots.
This heroic moment confused some Doctor Who fans on Twitter, where the hit BBC show has more than 1.6 million followers. One commenter said Ryan being able to shoot all those robots while running looked like the “complete opposite of dyspraxia.”
Ryan’s skill in that scene may seem at odds with his trouble riding a bike. But this pairing made sense to a lot of people with dyspraxia. One IT professional tweeted:
Today’s #DoctorWho revealed that #dyspraxia hasn’t stopped Ryan being really good at Call Of Duty. That shows how dyspraxia affects different people in different ways. For example, I can ride a bike (with some difficulties) but I struggle a lot with timing in video games… — Nat themself (@quarridors) October 14, 2018
Understood expert Priscila Caçola agrees. “It’s true that DCD has different levels of severity,” says Caçola, who is an associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Developmental Motor Cognition Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s also true that individuals can get very good at what they do.”
Hear more from Caçola on Doctor Who’s portrayal of Ryan’s coordination difficulties.
Ryan’s abilities resonate with many parents, too. Sophie Kayani is one of them. She chairs the Dyspraxia Foundation, a British nonprofit that advised Doctor Who on how to portray Ryan.
Kayani’s son was diagnosed with dyspraxia when he was 6. “I was told that he would find it extremely difficult to ride a bike, that he would really struggle to tie shoelaces,” she says. But at 14, he’s playing ice hockey. “He can shoot pucks into the goal,” she says. “His passion for the sport helps with his perseverance.”
Kayani points to some quieter moments in the second episode that are also getting a lot of attention. After Ryan has to climb yet another ladder, he has a quick exchange with a supportive friend. “Thanks for waiting,” he says. “Always,” she replies.
One Twitter user said this of the scene:
After the ladder scene, the show’s main character says to Ryan: “Can I just say? You are amazing. Think of what you’ve gone through to be here and you’re still going. I’m proper impressed.”
It’s these little moments that can make a big difference. “Positive reinforcement and support can mean a lot, especially when people with dyspraxia may have anxiety too,” says Kayani.
Two episodes in, some have criticized the show for focusing so far only on a few gross motor skills. “Everyone with dyspraxia is different, especially because it co-occurs with so many other conditions,” says Kayani.
“But I’m happy there is a character with coordination difficulties on TV,” says Caçola. “I think about kids watching and finally having somebody to relate with. That’s so powerful.”
Kayani feels the same way. No matter how the season unfolds, she and other dyspraxia advocates are thrilled Doctor Who is shining a light on this issue. “Nine weeks of talking about dyspraxia can’t be a bad thing.”
Explore dyspraxia success stories, like Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe and Valerian’s Cara Delevingne. See how occupational therapists work with kids with motor skills issues. And find out the six things a mom wishes people knew about parenting a child with dyspraxia.
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Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.