QUESTION: Our seven-year-old son has recently been diagnosed with dyspraxia – this came as no surprise as he has always struggled with co-ordination and his social skills are poor. What I would like to know is how we should tell him about his condition or should we just wait until he’s older?
Up to this point he has been quite happy but recently he has become more aware that he is not quite like other children and we’ve also had a couple of recent incidents where other children of his own age have laughed at him because he couldn’t hit a hurling ball or his writing had been untidy.
We’ve tried to explain to him that everyone’s DNA is different and that different people are good at different things – for example, he’s fascinated with nature and has a fantastic knowledge of this subject.
Should we just bite the bullet and tell him outright what dyspraxia is and explain the effects it has on him?
When and how to talk to children about their specific special needs is a complicated issue for parents. This is especially the case with conditions such as dyspraxia when the diagnosis comes late and/or when the differences between the child and other children are more subtle and may not be immediately obvious.
A clear diagnosis for a child’s condition can bring many benefits in that it can provide a helpful, non-judgmental understanding of the child’s difficulties and in that it can help you access appropriate supports and resources.
Unfortunately, diagnoses can also bring problems in that there can be a stigma attached and they can cause a child (and others) to view himself in a more limited way.
The central issue is what the diagnosis means to the child and those close to them. In communicating a diagnosis to a child and others you want to do it in a way that emphasises the positive benefits of this name – clear understanding, access to good support – and in a way that discounts the negatives, in other words, it does not limit potential.
Telling your child step by step
At age seven, your child is probably ready to hear about dyspraxia. Like you, he is sure to wonder why he finds some tasks much harder than other children his own age and to hear these difficulties explained in terms of dyspraxia will probably be helpful to him.
It sounds like you have already started the process by explaining how each person has “different DNA” and different abilities. He will also be aware that he met someone for an assessment and will have some inkling what this is about.
When you think he is ready, sit down with him and tell him more information. A good starting point might be to refer to the assessment: “Remember you went to see N and she did some exercises with you . . . well, she thinks you have a condition called dyspraxia.”
Explain what this means in terms he understands like, “you know how you find it hard to tie your shoelaces and ride a bicycle – well, this is what dyspraxia means”, and make sure to focus on the positive benefits of naming the problem: “The good news is that there is a lot of special help you can get to learn most things.”
Tell him about some famous people he might know who have dyspraxia such as Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, as they can be role models for how people don’t let dyspraxia hold them back in any way.
An ongoing conversation
Remember, talking to a child about dyspraxia or other special needs is an ongoing conversation. Usually when first told, children feel a sense of relief but will also need other information at later points and at different life stages.
Check in with your son periodically as to whether he has any further questions. It might be helpful for the two of you to meet the professional who made the diagnosis and to encourage him to ask any questions he has then.
As he gets older, you might find it useful to seek out resources and books online that you can read together to understand the condition and the best way to respond.
In discussing dyspraxia with him, be careful not to make it too central in his life. Emphasise all the things he loves and is good at (such as his knowledge of nature) that have nothing to do with dyspraxia. Build his self-esteem and encourage him to participate in activities around these strengths and interests.
The diagnosis of a child’s difficulties should be revealed to people on a “need- to-know” basis. His teachers should be told as they need to make an appropriate educational plan for your child and to adapt the learning environment accordingly and it is important to tell childminders and close family members who care for your son so they will know how to respond to his needs.
Most people take their time to come to terms with a diagnosis before they tell others and you should do this only if and when you and your son are ready.
Help your son think of when and how he might explain dyspraxia to others in a positive and clear way but remember, he chooses who he tells and he can keep the information private if he wants.
There are great resources online for parents of and children with dyspraxia and many helpful books for parents and teachers. Dyspraxia Ireland has a great website, www.dyspraxia.ie which has a list of informational seminars and parent support groups throughout Ireland as well as details of special classes and extra curricular activities specifically for children with dyspraxia.
One of the advantages of getting a diagnosis is the access to a community of support and advice – you and your son are not alone and you can learn and get support from others.
Dr.John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2013. John writes for Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.