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Understanding Dyspraxia


Thursday 27th September 2007

In May 2007 I was approached by Kate Evans, the PR executive for Equazen, asking me if I would be willing to speak to the delegates at a the 2007 Learning Alliance Conference, which that year was dedicated to Dyspraxia. So on 27th September 2007 I found myself stood before 170 health and educational professionals, sharing my story.

Lazy. Stupid. Useless. Clumsy. Disruptive. Aggressive. Difficult.

My name is Matt, and those are all words that were used to describe me during my time at School.

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. I’m 17 years old, I’m currently studying a National Diploma in Media Course at my local college, and hope this will lead to me achieving my goal of a career in television editing. I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia when I was 10 years old.

I guess I had an idyllic childhood. My mum was a stay-at-home mum, and I remember that my life was happy. I didn’t think I was any different from other children my age.

Then I started at School, a time when children begin to become more aware, and start to notice things. Very quickly, I realised that I wasn’t like other children – against my peers, I seemed clumsy and less able to do things. I was always last to get my coat on when break time came, my pictures were never as good as other children’s, and I never finished my work on time. I was confused and felt lost – I began to feel isolated. I was different, and I knew it.

I think I exasperated my teachers, and it seemed I was always being told off. “Matthew, stop tripping over!” “Matthew, stop falling off your chair!” “Matthew, will you ever finish your work?!?” “Matthew, stop being so spiteful – bumping into people is nasty!” “Matthew, get changed faster!” I was always the boy who was last to finish, the boy who was always ending up in trouble, the boy who was clumsy.

At parent’s evenings, the teachers began to “voice concerns” to my parents. Not that I had a learning disability – but that my behaviour was poor, and I couldn’t be bothered. Their 10 minutes allotted time was filled with tales of my exploits and failings. And so my primary years at school passed, slowly, miserably, and I fell further and further behind.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything – in fact, my head was filled with ideas for stories, poems, and yes, I DID know the answers! If a question was put to me, I usually got it right. But I was let down by the fact I couldn’t get anything down on paper quickly enough. Because I had no reason for this other than the ones given by my teachers, I was angry with myself for being, “Lazy” and “Stupid”.

It wasn’t just my teachers who noticed my difficulties – it was the other children as well. Constant negative attention from my teachers in front of the other children almost gave them a green light to do the same thing. Throughout my time at school, I was bullied, mostly verbally, but in later years, physically as well. I spent my school years lonely, isolated and frustrated.

My diagnosis came after hours of gruelling assessments and tests. It wasn’t fun! The clearest memory I have of the whole process was feeling utterly ridiculous throughout! I couldn’t catch the ball; I couldn’t write in the speed test; I couldn’t hop; I wobbled off the straight line I was supposed be walking along; the whole day for me was a list of failures. I lay on a mat while the physiotherapist prodded and poked me, manipulating every joint in my body, while telling my parents lots of complicated stuff that I didn’t understand. I remember it being mentioned that my joints were hyper-mobile – I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but it sounded quite scary!

At the end of the day, it was confirmed that I had dyspraxia, and that this was why I was uncoordinated, and had so many other difficulties. I know there is debate about labelling children, and how doing isn’t necessarily a positive thing. But on that day, my label was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Now, I had a reason for why I was struggling at school, and I began to realise that I wasn’t “clumsy” and “stupid” – that the unofficial but continual labelling I’d been given by my teachers was undeserved. Maybe it was naive, but on that day, I felt a sense that things would get better for me – that now I had a reason for my difficulties, society, and more importantly, my teachers, would finally understand me. Right?

Wrong. Nothing changed at school, even though they were made fully aware of the diagnosis, and were furnished with endless pages of printouts from the internet about dyspraxia. Yes, they wrote me out an Individual Education Plan, with lots of strategies listed to help me; but they weren’t implemented, and my teacher at the time, who was also the school’s special needs coordinator, continued to be impatient with me.

As the weeks and months passed, I became more and more unhappy, more frustrated, and the bullying became even worse. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that at my lowest, I really did consider whether living was an option any more. I know now that at the time, my thoughts were black. My unhappiness began to affect all parts of my life. I was constantly tearful, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I began to push away my family - the people who mattered to me more than anything else.

I was consumed with my failings – it seemed that there was nothing I could do. I got praise and encouragement from my parents, but that wasn’t enough – I needed praise from my teachers, I needed approval from my peers. But it never came.

It was the Easter Holidays, 2001. I was staying with my Nan for a week; it was a trip away that was supposed to relax me before returning to school to face my year 6 SATS. Instead, I was filled with dread – I had a special week, but as much as I tried to put it out of my mind, the worries of school were constantly haunting me. I would speak with my Mum and Dad every evening, and tell them about what we’d done that day. On one evening though, the conversation was different.

We talked about School and how unhappy I was. And then, my parents gave me an option – what if I didn’t have to go back to school? What if my parents took on the responsibility of educating me at home?

That was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. That was the end of my school career, and I never looked back. Instead, what followed was five years of Home Education. It was a voyage of discovery, not just academically, but a discovery of myself, and a re-discovery of my family. My mum took on the role of my main educator, and my education became very different. The pressure of time-limits and curriculum targets was lifted, and without those, the constraints of the classroom environment, and the criticisms of others, I excelled. With the aid of a computer, I produced work of an infinitely higher quality then anything I’d been able to achieve at school. I had a folder full of finished work - work that I was proud of.

By the age of 14, with my parent’s patience, support and encouragement, I had studied all of my main subjects to GCSE level, and I was studying as one of the few underage students with the Open University. Over the course of the next three years, I completed and passed with high marks, six Open University Science Short Courses.

At the beginning, even though I was becoming more and more academically confident, I was still haunted by my past. I was emotionally vulnerable and tormented by what had happened to me. The bullies still tried to victimise me when they saw me in the street. I needed some way to release the emotional baggage, and the idea of a personal website was born – Matt’s Hideout. And that’s what it was. A place for me to write my innermost feelings, to describe what had happened to me. A place to offload all of my worries and concerns. I never believed anyone would actually read it. I didn’t care if they did, but I didn’t expect anyone to be interested in me or my life story.

Actually, what happened was quite unexpected! People not only found and read my website, but they contacted me to congratulate me! I didn’t know it at the time, but what I’d actually done was a first – there were websites about children with dyspraxia run by professionals, and support groups, and there were websites written by parents of children who had dyspraxia. But Matt’s Hideout was the first website written by a child with dyspraxia, sharing what it was really like to live with it. It was dyspraxia, through a child’s eyes, by a child who actually knew first hand what life was like.

The e-mails of congratulations and support continued, but alongside those came e-mails asking for help. Up until now, I’d thought my experiences were unique, that I was just the unlucky one. But in these e-mails came stories which were very familiar to me; children struggling in school without the support and understanding they deserved. This made me think – the website wasn’t just my hideout – it was a hideout for all children with my difficulties. It needed to become a support group – it needed to raise awareness of dyspraxia and the difficulties associated with it.

So Matt’s Hideout evolved, and grew. It became an online haven for kids just like me, who believed that they were alone, but now knew that they weren’t.

Over this time, I was encouraged by the increasing number of e-mails that I received from teaching professionals, especially those involved in Special Educational Needs. They were asking for more information about dyspraxia, so that they could gain better understanding and learn to recognise and help students like me. Standing here today, I am encouraged knowing that so many of you are in the teaching profession and hope you find what you have learnt about dyspraxia today valuable.

As time passed, my website began to attract the attention of the media – interviews for magazines, radio and television followed. People were listening to me, and dyspraxia was being talked about, only on a small scale, yes, but the general public were starting to hear the word.

As the people who first came to the website as children began to enter their teenage years, they wanted somewhere that was specifically for teenagers – a place to share their own experiences, and offer support to others. So Matt’s Hideouts sister site was developed. Dyspraxic Teens – a forum based website which is run by teenagers, for teenagers.

Matt’s Hideout has undergone several re-designs, but the content will always remain the same. Today, I don’t need Matt’s Hideout any more, but I know that there are people out there who do. The words that I wrote when I was 11 and 12 remain, unchanged, and are as relevant now as they were then. They give a child’s insight, and give an important message that children with Dyspraxia are not alone. I also like to think my website offers hope, because people read my story, and see that they can and will achieve whatever they strive for.

So what am I doing today? As I said at the beginning of my talk today, I am about to enter my second year of studying at my local college. It was a terrifying prospect for me to return to a structured learning environment, where I had to learn alongside my peers. Life at college hasn’t been without its struggles, but the support I have received from all my tutors and other members of staff has been unfaltering. They have given encouragement and praise and shown me nothing but understanding throughout. Their professionalism has paid off, because I have achieved high merits and distinctions in the majority of my assignments, and I have never missed a deadline. It’s been a challenge, but one which I have relished.

I was asked to talk to you today about positive things that dyspraxia can bring. I couldn’t come up with a list, because it’s much more complex than that. Dyspraxia makes the individual the person that they are. It’s an intricate part of their personality, their aspirations, and dreams.

Having dyspraxia clearly affects the way a person sees the world and themselves within it. I know that without dyspraxia, I wouldn’t be the person I am, and I wouldn’t have achieved the things I have. I wouldn’t have the drive and commitment that I have now – it’s not simply a matter of wanting to better myself, it’s a need to prove those who doubted me wrong.

I know that there are young people here today, some of whom know, and have maybe even benefitted from my websites. My message to you would be to stay positive. Reach for your dreams and aspirations, and always believe in yourselves. You can achieve anything you want to. Never be too proud to ask for support, and never be too proud to tell people you have dyspraxia. Don’t look upon it as a negative thing – see it as something that makes you the person that you are.

I was also asked today to come up with some tips for professionals who work with children. Again, this is something I have really struggled to do – I am not an expert. The professionals in dyspraxia are out there – they can tell you all better than me. But what I would say is this. Next time you’re walking through your local shopping centre and a child bumps into you… Next time you’re in your classroom teaching and one child is struggling more than the rest… Next time you take your own children to the park, and see another child looking awkward and uncoordinated… remember one thing. They are trying their best, and you cannot ask more than that. People with dyspraxia need patience, encouragement, understanding and compassion. Every day is a challenge for them. I know that as I move towards adult-hood, many new challenges lay before me. Life would be so much easier if society was more accepting.

Thank you for listening.

Quote from Learning Alliance Conference Review

Final guest speaker Matt Alden Farrow reached the summit of his mountain- and then kept on climbing. After being bullied at school because of the ignorance surrounding dyspraxia, Matt turned his attentions to a project aptly titled ‘Matt’s Hideout’. This website became a place for children with dyspraxia written by a child living with the condition every day- his struggles, his encouragement, his good times and his bad, all documented on one website which he later realised would go on to unite many children all over the world who wanted to share stories- and swap advice. The success of Matt’s Hideout later led Matt to develop a sister site ‘Dyspraxic Teens’ which has seen similar and unprecedented success.

Delegate feedback forms revealed that guests found Matt extremely inspirational, moving and encouraging. His message to young people coping with dyspraxia is sure to be delivered by guests to children and teens like Matt after this conference: ‘Dyspraxia makes the individual the person they are. It’s an intricate part of their personality, their aspirations, and dreams. Having dyspraxia clearly affects the way a person sees the world and themselves within it. I know that without dyspraxia, I wouldn’t be the person I am, and I wouldn’t have achieved the things I have. I wouldn’t have the drive and commitment that I have now – it’s not simply a matter of wanting to better myself, it’s a need to prove those who doubted me wrong.’