Warren Fried is on a mission to raise awareness about dyspraxia. Since 2005, he has been running Dyspraxia Foundation USA from Chicago, a city he picked mainly for its mass transit—his difficulty with coordination and spatial awareness make it unsafe for him to drive.
Here, Fried shares the trickiest part about using a washing machine, the cultural legacy of Theo Huxtable and the surprising upsides to being an adult with this brain-based issue.
1. Do you remember the first time you heard the word “dyspraxia”?
I was 17, at a summer camp where some staff were from the U.K., where there’s a much higher awareness of dyspraxia. I understood some of the challenges I’d been facing but not all of them. When I heard about dyspraxia, something clicked.
This led me to apply to college in the U.K. As soon as I got to the University of Chichester, the school officials looked at all of my documents and said, “Yeah, that’s dyspraxia.” They arranged for a psychologist who gave me a battery of tests and confirmed I have dyspraxia.
Finally, it felt like all the puzzle pieces fit. I got it. I had gone through all of elementary, middle and high school not knowing the complexity of the neurological disorder I was living with.
I had known that I couldn’t tie my shoes, but now I finally understood why. Yes, tying shoes is a fine motor task, but that’s not why I was getting it wrong. See, some people with dyspraxia also have something called ocular motor dysfunction.* My eyes don’t team together to have a sense of depth and space.
Everything looks two-dimensional to me. When I try to tie my shoes, I can’t tell when one lace is over the other. Try tying a picture of a shoe sometime—it’s pretty hard!
When I was growing up, schools thought I needed occupational therapy to address fine motor. But what I was actually struggling with was ocular motor and I needed a behavioral optometrist.
2. How would you describe dyspraxia to someone who has never heard of it?
Take a look at your modem. All the lights are blinking great except for connectivity. But that’s the light that matters most. Some days you might get a weaker signal or a stronger signal.
Inconsistency with the good and the bad days is very troubling for teachers. I also learned later as I got older that the memory concerns that made teachers think I was being lazy or not trying is actually the brain-wiring disorder I was living with.
Things for people with dyspraxia don’t come naturally. Everything has to be memorized and processed over and over again.
If you move me to the left or the right, I have to learn the whole situation all over again. If I take a train or a bus to meet my wife somewhere new, I have to memorize the whole process even though it’s only one street different.
In my apartment I have memorized how many steps it takes to get to the washing machine. The problem is I can’t memorize how much force I’m applying, so I rip the knobs off because I don’t know how far away the machine is.
Another analogy I use for dyspraxia is juggling. Some people make juggling look so easy. But imagine yourself trying to juggle five or six balls right now—and you’ve never juggled before.
That’s what it feels like for people with dyspraxia when they try to do things like tie their shoes or turn the knob on the washing machine. It feels like I’m being thrown into a new juggling act every day.
3. What did it feel like growing up without knowing why you were struggling in these ways?
It felt like you were going crazy and you couldn’t trust authority. The people you were supposed to look up to thought you were making it up.
You can get yourself into some struggles and situations you don’t even know are trouble until you’ve had the experience. You can be steered in the completely wrong direction because you want to be accepted so badly. It’s not that we’re bad kids. We’re frustrated.
4. Why do you think dyspraxia isn’t as widely discussed in the U.S. as, say, dyslexia?
In the 1980s everyone watched The Cosby Show, and everyone remembers the episode where Theo finds out he has dyslexia. That created a public profile where it was OK to talk about it.
It’s about bringing it to the masses and making it understandable.
I would like celebrities and politicians who have dyspraxia to open up about it. But this condition impacts all areas of development. Openness about dyspraxia is still not there yet in our society. Once it is, you’ll see a plethora of people willing to talk about it.
5. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d like to give to kids with dyspraxia?
Despite all the struggles, there are amazing, amazing abilities that can come with this condition, such as determination and empathy.
As a child [I was] told, “You’re too emotional. You’re too babyish. You’re too sensitive.” But these are the reasons why my wife married me! Because I am very emotional and sensitive, and I am dedicated to learning better.
It might take you longer to achieve what you set out to achieve, but once you get there, you become excellent at what you do because we’re obsessive. It’s about finding that skill set and working on that skill set to be the best that you can be.
*Editors’ note: Understood offers clear explanations and practical tips that will be helpful to families with many different kinds of dyspraxia, but doesn’t specifically cover ocular motor dysfunction.