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
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.
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.’