“There’s a lot of things that I can do better than someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia”
Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), is a specific learning difficulty that affects an individual’s movement, balance and spatial awareness. It does not affect intelligence. The range of intellectual ability is in line with the general population, but it can make day-to-day life activities more challenging. Dyspraxia can also impact people neurologically in the way they process information with regards to working memory.
This month we met up with Chris Allcock. Chris is an Executive Complaints Manager at RBS. When he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with dyspraxia. Chris tells us about his diagnosis; how his condition has affected his career and everyday life; and disclosure in the workplace.
“[…] for me it was vindication that I always knew I wasn’t just being lazy”
School prior to his diagnosis was very difficult. Teachers told Chris’s parents that he was a very clever boy, but he was lazy. “The description that my teachers would always give to my parents was that I was a very bright and capable lad, but I wasn’t prepared or willing to put work on paper”. Chris explains that this was very frustrating commenting, “in hindsight, I very much believed as a child that there was something wrong, that something wasn’t quite right”. Because of these experiences, the first few years of schooling were tough for Chris.
Chris was diagnosed at the age of 12. One of his teachers noticed certain difficulties and at a parents evening, suggested to his parents that he should have an assessment. “I was just quite lucky one of my teachers, her son had dyspraxia and she picked up on my symptoms”. Chris’s parents were put in touch with a child specialist and the results confirmed his teacher’s suspicions. “I think for me it was vindication that I always knew I wasn’t just being lazy. There was something deeper that I couldn’t put my finger on, so it was quite useful for me to know that there was something wrong and that there was at least some support that I could have to try and make things easier for me”.
Chris was never quite sure what he wanted to do as a career. “I’m not one of those people who had a very defined goal or career path that I wanted to go down”. When he was about 18 years old, he saw an advertisement for a temporary job at a bank. At the end of his temporary contract he was offered a permanent role and has since worked in several different roles within the bank. The turning point for Chris was approximately ten years ago. His manager at the time was moving into a different role and asked Chris if he would like to cover the team in her absence. Whilst covering her absence, Chris took a complaint call and managed to turn around the customer from being really angry to being happy. This was the point at which Chris decided on his career path. “It was the ability to handle that angry customer, so naturally, that really showed me where I should go”. Chris really wants to emphasise the importance of playing to your strengths. “[It’s about] knowing what you’re good at, there’ll be lots that your bad at and that’s the way it is but, the things that you’re good at, you’ll be really good at”.
Dealing with difficulties
“I’ve always tried to focus on other things that I can do well”
Asked how he manages any difficulties with his dyspraxia at work, Chris tells us that attention span is a big challenge. He finds it very difficult to concentrate and when he gets distracted from a task, it can take some time to refocus. Minimizing any distractions has been absolutely key.
The issue with attention has been the focus of research. A study by Dewey, Kaplan, Crawford and Wilson investigated problems of attention, learning and psychosocial adjustment in children. The results of the study showed that children with DCD performed significantly lower in attention and learning compared to neuro-typically developing children.
Chris’s way of dealing with his difficulties has been very pragmatic: “The key thing I’ve always taken from my struggles is that they’re never going to go away so I’ve always tried to focus on other things that I can do well”. Chris noticed that he can concentrate much better when he listens to music — Chris puts in his headphones to drown out the general office noise and any external influences. His work has supported him by supplying a phone that flashes rather than rings to make sure he can still take calls and not be distracted by the sound of ringing.
When asked how he returns his concentration to the task at hand once it has been disrupted, he says self-discipline is crucial. He admits that he himself lacks self-discipline and almost always allows himself to remain distracted. However, when he is under pressure at work, it forces him to regain his focus much quicker. Chris therefore generally asks for a much bigger workload than he actually needs, saying that he doesn’t get stressed like others. “I can handle pressure very easily. I almost need to have twice as much work as my colleagues before I start to feel the pressure”. Chris explains: “having a complex situation to try and sort out is nothing when you consider that at 30-odd years of age you still find it hard to do your shoe laces up”. Struggling to do simple tasks means that stresses in the workplace don’t really come anywhere near his day-to-day difficulties, which is why he quickly and easily approached the complaints environment at the bank. “I know for the rest of my life I’ve still got trouble organising myself and getting ready for work in the morning”.
Chris informs that his difficulties relating to his dyspraxia have also helped him develop strong problem-solving skills. “I think because we have issues doing basic human tasks and things that we struggle with, we have to find a different way of doing quite a lot of things […] we’re kind of naturally suited to looking at any issue from a different perspective and a different point of view because we’re used to doing that in everyday life”. A number of his colleagues have asked him to look at something because they appreciate his ability to immediately see something from a different point of view.
“You’ve got to make a lot of bust ups until you find the success of something that works”
To help him stay organized at work, Chris writes a lot of to do lists and reminders, as if it hasn’t been written down, it might as well not exist. List writing is one of his biggest coping strategies. One of the first bits of advice he was given on diagnosis was to buy a diary. The nature of his work dictates that certain work items have to be touched on every ten working days, so Chris’s first task of the day always involves him writing fifty days worth of ten day working day prompts, to make sure no deadline is ever missed. “It’s just, organisation, organisation, organisation really. Making sure that everything is documented”.
An explanation for the need of lists might be that individuals with dyspraxia have reduced ability with their working memory, meaning that they can be very forgetful. Chris confirms this by saying that his short-term memory is “really bad”. Surprisingly, though, he says that his long-term memory is vastly superior to someone who doesn’t have the condition. Numerous studies by Tracy Alloway have shown that individuals with DCD perform lower on working memory tasks. In one such study, Alloway compared children with dyspraxia by looking at measures of memory and learning. Results showed that children with dyspraxia were impaired in their memory function.
Finding the right approach to organization and time management at work has involved a lot of trial and error. “It’s learning the hard way really, but, I think if you can get something that works for you early, then that’s great really”. He emphasizes that no two individuals with dyspraxia will be the same. Although they have the same condition, it will affect them in very different ways. Learning what works best for oneself will possibly result in more failures than successes, until the right strategy is found. “You’ve got to make a lot of bust ups until you find the success of something that works”.
“It’s a double-edged sword”
Day-to-day life has its very own challenges. Chris says that his wife is the biggest support because she makes sure that he can go through his daily routine of getting ready for work with minimal disruption. “I’m very lucky to have a very understanding wife”. If his routine is interrupted at any point, he has to start again, as he cannot process mentally where he was in his routine. “It’s quite ridiculous really, but […]if I feel like I’ve not properly prepared myself, it really does set me up for a bad day”. Time management altogether is very important for Chris. He has to make sure that he has adequate amount of time and that he won’t be interrupted because if he rushes, he will get it wrong.
Life with dyspraxia has its pros and cons. “It’s a double-edged sword really”, as Chris puts it. He explains that on the one hand, the task of tying “your shoe laces properly and do[ing] them right the first time” is a challenge. However, on the other side of the coin, it makes many other aspects of life abundantly easier. He talks of colleagues who have suffered badly with work related stress and because Chris doesn’t get stressed he feels very lucky in this regard.
Disclosure at the workplace
“There’s a lot of things that I can do better than someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia”
We asked how Chris how he has disclosed his dyspraxia at the workplace. Chris told us that in the 15 years he has worked at RBS, he has only disclosed it two or three times. Chris acknowledges that he now feels comfortable enough to talk about it but still thinks that there is a stigma around disclosing because “it almost feels like you’re making an excuse for yourself before you even need to”. It has only been in the last five or six years that he has started to mention it because of the seniority and complexity of the roles he works in. They dictate that he needs to be on top of his game every day, which is why he felt it necessary to mention it.
Many people have never heard of dyspraxia so when Chris has, on occasion, disclosed it, he has had to educate and inform others of what the condition is. Chris stated that he is still not absolutely comfortable with disclosing. “I think that’s a big issue for lots of people especially teenagers who are finishing education and easing in to the workplace”
However, Chris likes to take a positive view on the dyspraxia. He recommends thinking about what it is you do best and concentrating on that. “Paint the picture of, yes, there are things I have issues with but, there’s a lot of things that I can do better than someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia and those are my strengths […] and it won’t impact negatively on my ability to do my job. […] All I’m asking for is perhaps a little bit of support in these areas to make sure that I can perform as well or even better than some of my colleagues”. Personally, for Chris, disclosing can be an uncomfortable conversation. But these feelings are just short-term while the benefits are long-term, and his employer has been very supportive. Disclosure will ultimately result in receiving the required level of support.
“[…] striving to get the word out about the condition as a whole […]”
Chris believes that much more needs to be done with regards to increasing awareness about dyspraxia. Prevalence for dyspraxia is very similar to that for dyslexia in that approximately six to ten percent of the population are affected. In comparison, ten percent of the population have dyslexia. Yet dyspraxia has had a very low profile in people’s awareness and the media, which is why Chris thinks people need to be educated about it. The more people know about it, the more they will understand, and it will be easier for those affected to receive the right kind of support. Raising awareness is therefore so important, especially at the workplace.
Chris’s employer, RBS, is considerably active in that aspect. It has different kinds of networks for groups of people who feel passionate about certain topics. For example, there is an Armed Forces Network and a disability network, called ‘Enable’.
Chris was inspired to help when he read an article on their internal website about an employee who has Asperger’s and dyspraxia. The article was about the individual’s career journey and how he has managed to secure a role that is perfect for his needs. Chris read the article and found it quite touching, which is why he registered to participate. Soon after, a member of the board got in touch with Chris and said they are thinking about doing an audio seminar about dyspraxia, asking whether Chris might be interested in being involved. This involvement turned into him being one of the speakers in the seminar.
Chris has benefited a lot from his involvement. “I was just expecting to go on there to help other people understand and learn but I learned a great deal”. He tells us that many colleagues he works with, some of them for over ten years, have gotten in touch and told Chris they have dyspraxia but have never disclosed to anyone before. After hearing Chris’s story, they now felt inspired to disclose.
Chris does anticipate for it to become more widely known though because since the audio seminar, he has been asked to be part of a career development group. For this group Chris will talk about his career journey, how it has shaped his condition, and how he has used his strengths to his advantage. “I think as a consequence of me striving to get the word out about the condition as a whole, eventually it’s going to reflect back on me, which I’m comfortable with”.
Advice for individuals who have dyspraxia
Throughout the interview, Chris has given lots of tips and advice for what he thinks to be important if you have or think you might have dyspraxia. Here they are summarised:
- Get tested. “You’re not going to lose anything but you might gain a whole lot”.
- Disclose it. It may be uncomfortable, but once it is out, it is off your chest so there is no need to hide behind it any longer. “Most importantly tell people that, yes it might mean I’m different, but it also means I’ve got these key strengths that are more developed in me then they will be in 9 out of the other 10 people […]”.
- Be self-disciplined — “If you can be very disciplined as an individual you’re already starting to win the battle”.
- Ask your employer for quiet spaces in the office or, if possible, to work from home. If your work allows it, listen to music. If that’s not possible, see if you can find somewhere quieter to reduce the risk of distraction.
- “Figure out what it is you do best and concentrate on it”.
- Write to do lists and be organized; they’re the key things really. “Always, always, always write it down. That’s probably the one key piece of advice I’d give to anyone”. There will be a lot of tools available through apps, technology is a big benefit.
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 Dewey, D., Kaplan, B. J., Crawford, S. G., & Wilson, B. N. (2002). Developmental coordination disorder: Associated problems in attention, learning, and psychosocial adjustment. Human Movement Science, 21 (5-6), 905-918.
 Alloway, T. P. & Archibald, L. (2008). Working Memory and Learning in Children With Developmental Coordination Disorder and Specific Language Impairment, Journal of Learning Disabilities‚ 41 (3), 251-262.
 Gibbs, J. Appleton, J. & Appleton, R. (2007). Dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder? Unravelling the enigma. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 92 (6), 534-539. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2066137/