Dyspraxia has had a few different names over the years ranging from ‘clumsy child syndrome’ to its most recent name Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). When I was diagnosed in 1998 very little was known about dyspraxia. When people heard I was dyspraxic most common responses were ‘dys-what?’ and ‘Do you mean dyslexic?’.
As things turned out I was the first person in both my primary and secondary school to be confirmed as dyspraxic. This was a learning experience for everyone. To put it in simple terms dyspraxia is when someone has a difficulty with hand eye coordination or fine and gross motor skills. This can range from simple jobs such as tying your shoelaces or catching a ball to spatial awareness. Like most specified learning difficulties (SLD) how it affects you changes as you get older.
When younger, tasks such as tying your shoes or a tie have a big impact, then as you get older they will not be seen as important but suddenly tasks such as driving a car become an issue or how you adapt to social settings. For one, I drive an automatic car as a manual involves too many tasks at once for me to handle. Some tasks will follow you no matter what age you are, my handwriting is as illegible now as it was when I was 10. Similarly, my social skills are still dire. With me I like small groups of three or four people – anything bigger and I will get lost, especially as smaller pockets of groups will emerge. One thing my sisters always spoke about was my lack of a sense of danger. I had a habit of crossing the road when the cars where coming. How I never got knocked down is still a wonder to my family.
The Dyspraxia Association of Ireland annual conference in May 2006 was a seminal day for both the Association and me, because it was the first time they had someone with dyspraxia as one of the key note speakers. That day I spoke to a room of around 250 people ranging from occupational therapists teachers, lectures and parents.
I think it took this long for it to happen because people were still unsure about dyspraxia and the people with dyspraxia had confidence issues as a result. This meant they would not have been able to stand up and talk about it to a large crowd. I still remember a man from Cork asking about “giving his child the label of dyspraxia” or the person who asked “If dyspraxia affected my dating life”.
Since 2006 I am aware of at least three other people with dyspraxia who have spoken to the annual conference and I believe this to be a watershed for dyspraxia. I look forward to the day when someone is speaking as a life coach or giving a Tedx talk about life with dyspraxia. They will reveal that the tricks and hints that got them to the stage can help people with many conditions and people with none.
The reason I mention this is that one message came out from that day – parents believed that since their child was dyspraxic it was almost the end of the child’s life, the child would not amount to anything. Since that day I have given myself the aim of changing that mindset. I believe that I have done this and will keep doing so.
Roll forward to my time at the University of Limerick doing a Masters and coming across this strange concept called parkrun. Like most things in life it was a simple concept, a free 5k on a Saturday morning. At the time I could count on one hand how many venues parkrun Ireland had and it was very Dublincentric. But on 15 June 2014, Griffeen parkrun started so I planned to see what all the fuss was about. However, best laid plans and all that, work changed my hours the night before so I had to wait an extra week for my debut.
I enjoyed my first outing and went back the few rare Saturdays I was working late or had a Saturday off. But it was not till June 2015 I was really bitten by the parkrun bug. While living in Dundalk I decided to set up a parkrun, and as it turned out I was not alone in that thinking. After talking to Ireland country manager Matt Shields, it was decided to join forces with a woman named Carmel Drumgoole and work together to set up Dundalk parkrun. On 6 June 2016 Dundalk parkrun had it first event and they actually trusted me with the scanner! Even more shocking was that for events five to eight, I was the Run Director! But alas nothing drastic happened.
Shortly after that I moved away from Dundalk but not parkrun. I knew Castletown parkrun was in the works so I split myself between Griffeen and Waterstown parkruns till it launched. Once Castletown started I was given an opportunity to volunteer at all roles. After a little while I was invited onto the core team of the event. Since then I have progressed and grown with the event. I also seem to have installed myself as the go to guy for the results (I may be the proof that you cannot break parkrun). To continue my growth within parkrun I became Event Director of Castletown parkrun in September this year.
What has my journey with parkrun taught me? For one thing, anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Secondly, parkrun will allow people to grow at their own pace and will never push someone to do something they don’t want to do. It has allowed me to grow and nobody has ever said I can’t do something because I’m dyspraxic, but in the same way as other people they have asked am I comfortable doing it. They have provided the training to allow me to do the roles I enjoyed.
The benefit does not only show on a Saturday morning. Since joining parkrun I have come out of my shell a little bit. Prior to parkrun I don’t believe I would be able to speak to people whether in a group or on their own the way I can now. It has also given me the confidence to go for jobs I would not have considered myself good enough before. The reason is simple: parkrun has taught me I can do anything I want if I put my mind to it. For certain I would not have my current job working in tax for BDO Dublin had I not gained the confidence and support to grow within parkrun the way that I did.
The advice I would give to people with learning difficulties or disabilities is to go to your local parkrun and allow yourself to grow at your own pace. This may mean running or walking it until you feel confident enough to volunteer. It may be the case that when you start volunteering you only feel comfortable as a marshal or token sorter. And that’s fine – parkrun will allow you to grow at a pace that suits you. Going out the door for Griffeen parkrun event number two was one of the best decision I ever made, and a similar decision could be for you too.
Above I have spoken about how parents were at the conference in 2006 and the fear they felt. I think as we look 11 years later this fear is not as bad as it was. Parents have a better idea about what dyspraxia is and that it is not a life sentence. When we look at successful or famous people with dyspraxic we see Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Florence Welsh (Florence & The Machine) and Hannah McDonnell (Former Dublin Rose) to name a few. Having dyspraxia did not stop me, nor did it stop them. Look at Stephen Hawkins or Sinead Kane to see that disability won’t stop you unless you let it.
If I was asked to give two pieces of advice to parents of someone with a disability or long term health condition I would say:
•Remove the expression “We can’t” for “How can we?”. Look at like of James Casserly who has completed the last two Dublin Marathons in a wheelchair being pushed by Mark Lacey.
•Keep it positive. Your child can pick up body language more then we know. If they sense negativity around the condition they will develop a glass ceiling a lot lower than it should be.
parkrun has the ability to help you make friends, learn new skills, build confidence and get fit, all for an entry fee of nothing.
Photo thanks to Eavan Connolly