“I’d knock first,” said my neighbor.
I‘d been riding my bike in the street when I mounted the curb ending up almost inside someone’s front door. I always was a clumsy child. It seems I couldn't even play properly.
If someone threw a ball towards me I’d duck, rather than try to catch it. I couldn’t run or jump or do anything quickly. People couldn't understand that shouting at me wouldn't make any difference to the way I performed. If you beat a slow donkey, you can't make it go any faster; you just make it more miserable.
If I tried to swim, I could stay afloat, but I would splash about on the spot never moving forward. I once had to be hauled out of the ocean as the tide gradually carried me away while I continued my bobbing-up-and-down swim.
From an early age I was conscious of being “different”; of not fitting in with other children. They thought I was strange.
“Isn't she funny!” they'd say as if I wasn't there.
Although I had no obvious speech problems, I found it difficult to communicate one-to-one. It was as though there was a glass barrier between me and the other person. I was easily frustrated and quite often my frustration would present itself as anger.
One of my earliest memories was of flying into a rage because I couldn't bring myself to say two simple words. I could have been no more than three years old when I saw my father standing in the doorway when I wanted to pass. Young as I was, I knew the form was to say “excuse me”. But I couldn't, for the life of me, get the words out. Instead, I launched myself at my father and kicked him hard from behind.
Startled, my dad swung round and smacked me on the arm. My mother, seeing he’d left a red mark, shouted at him then slapped his face. Shocked by the chain of events I’d set in motion, I simply howled.
Just one or two years later I was out with my father when we ran into one of his workmates. At around four or five, I probably looked as cute as any child of that age.
“Is this your daughter, Tom?”
Dad proudly acknowledged me. But I absolutely could not return a polite greeting to that poor, bewildered man.
“Don't you ever make a fool of me like that again!” said my angry dad afterwards.
My short-term memory and concentration were poor. When I started infant school, the teacher would begin lessons by setting a task. As soon as she’d finished speaking, I would invariably wail: “I don’t know what to do....”
My very first school photograph showed me with my coat wrongly buttoned and my hair a bunch of knots and tangles. I couldn’t look neat to save my life.
I could read quite well even before I started school, but handwriting was a major problem. My brain knew how to form letters but my fingers didn't. I would grip the pen or pencil so tightly I grew calluses. And I'd get hot and irritable with the sheer effort of committing words to paper. Having made several attempts to form a letter, I'd fill in the loops in the hope that it would be more easily recognized. In fact it was a mess. My infant class teacher told my parents I “painted-in” letters. She seemed to regard it as an artistic foible.
Some years later, my junior school headmaster announced: “Untidy writing means an untidy mind.”
I’ll never forget the spiteful smirk my form teacher turned on me. But I suspect the real reason for her dislike was that my general knowledge was broader than hers. At nine years old I didn’t have the tact to conceal my superior knowledge.
Although I was academically bright, I couldn’t retain facts. Subjects requiring logic were a mystery. But I was good at anything needing creative thought and I always got top marks for my essays.
Sewing lessons were problematical. I would stick the needle in the fabric but it seldom came out where I expected it to. I spent a whole term sewing and unpicking a cookery apron while my classmates created entire wardrobes.I couldn't follow a knitting pattern or knit in the conventional way. But by devising my own stitches and working to my own designs, I made original clothes that were much admired.
I could do any number of things if I was allowed to develop my own techniques. I found I could even write passably neatly by devising my own system of loops and whorls. Like Frank Sinatra, (cue for song) “I did it my way”.
I could never understand why people took my clumsiness personally. It usually caused me more inconvenience than it did them. On one occasion, I broke a piece of my mother's favorite tea service, whereupon she smashed the rest of it in the fireplace, moaning: “I'll never have anything nice....”
I left school with few qualifications. For a girl in 1950s England the only serious career options were nursing, teaching or secretarial work. I couldn't see myself doing any of those things as my people skills were non-existent. Although I had a tendency to drop and break things, I was happier dealing with objects than with people, so my first job was as a lab assistant in a milk testing laboratory.
I was dangerous! I accounted for more breakages than the rest of my colleagues put together. And I still bear the scars from glass cuts and the occasional acid burn to this day.
I discovered I was better suited to jobs where I could work on my own. Outdoor jobs were preferable as I could commune with nature. The natural world didn't judge me or find me weird.
I wasn't particularly good at dating. Eventually I met and married a regular guy who, luckily for me, positively embraced my peculiarities. In time I learned to turn my shortcomings into advantages.
It's often said that people who are disadvantaged in some way gain an extra sense. In my case it was a sense of humor. The ability to laugh at my own clumsiness earned me respect if not popularity.
Creative writing was a walk in the park for me and I began writing for publication. What started out as a hobby gradually became a career. Before I mastered the keyboard, I'd often had difficulty reading my handwritten notes. On one occasion I couldn't understand why I'd written “urine sample” until I remembered the words were meant to be “divine smile”.
I took a job as an editorial assistant on a regional newspaper. That was fine as I liked playing with words. Problems arose when I was promoted to the post of reporter which meant I had to interact with members of the public. But I took courage from the fact that it was my job to ask personal questions. For the first time in my life I found it relatively easy to open conversations.
I was well into middle age, yet it never occurred to me that I had a recognized condition. I'd simply resigned myself to the idea that I was awkward and socially inept.
I can’t remember when I first heard the term “dyspraxia” applied to a clumsy child. It sounds like a beautiful flower, doesn’t it? But, like bindweed, it had kept me in a stranglehold throughout my life.
I began researching the condition on the Internet. I found it had no single clear cause, though it can sometimes result from brain damage in the early stages of a baby’s development. I ticked nearly all the boxes when it came to symptoms: difficulty forming relationships, poor balance, difficulty riding a bicycle.... cooking.... driving....
I visited web-sites offering treatment to manage dyspraxia. I was too old to undergo brain-training, as I discovered when I tackled an on-line questionnaire. It was going well until I had to fill in “age of child”. “Sixty-five” didn’t look quite right somehow!
I sometimes wonder if my life would have been easier if I’d been diagnosed when young, but I doubt it. I think giving a problem a name hands sufferers a ready-made excuse for their failings. Often people who are poor at spelling claim to be “dyslexic” while some self-centered people like to think they’re “autistic”.
I've found ways around my problems by developing skills that compensate for my shortcomings. I’m still not much of a conversationalist but I’m a great listener. You can trust me with your most intimate secrets, knowing that I’ll forget them as soon as you’ve finished speaking.
I'm still not very neat. I usually look like a bag lady having a bad-hair day. My kitchen is a perennial disaster zone.
Finding I have a recognized syndrome has at last given me some sort of closure. You never grow out of dyspraxia but I’ve finally grown into it. Now the “clumsy child” is a senior citizen, people rush to help me when I fumble with my bags or trip over the curb, putting it down to my advancing years. It seems this clumsy child has come of age.