Misspraxic… going abroad for third year

Once again, I took a break from blogging since being at University for the second year of my degree. I naturally get very distracted, so although I started writing many blog posts many times, and had some great ideas, none of them actually made it to being published!

To update everyone, my second year of university has been another challenging year with ups and downs, but I have successfully completed the year.

Whilst I still may not be the most confident cook (I won’t go into details about the day I managed to set fire to the kitchen towel), my culinary skills have developed considerably since my first year, when I was in catered accommodated. It wasn’t always easy, but the self-catered accommodation in my second year really helped my organisational skills to flourish.

Most importantly, I feel another year wiser, more confident, and happier.

A big reason for the need to develop those aforementioned dreaded organisational skills, memory-processing, time-management, forward-planning, logical thinking etc. (all things that don’t, unfortunately, necessarily come with ease for the dyspraxic student) is my impending year abroad.

dyspraxia

For those who don’t know, I am required to spend a year out of the UK. As a student of French and German, I have to spend at least four months in a country where the respective language is spoken. On July 30th (yes, less than two weeks away now!) I will fly to Frankfurt, to spend seven months in Germany.

I intend to blog as regularly as possible from now on, as I will have more to talk about (and less time to worry about whether my posts are coherent or grammatically correct!) I hope that in blogging about the year abroad, and all the challenges/fun/learning experiences that go along with it, I can help provide some reassurance and motivation to fellow students with dyspraxia who may be contemplating a year abroad.

In the coming week or two, I want to update you all on the logistic/organisational challenges of planning a year abroad with dyspraxia, the emotions I feel before leaving, and details of my preparations.

Bis bald (“see you soon” in German)!

misspraxic

 

The Dyspraxic achievement paradox

I’m aware I haven’t written anything for a long time – too long, regrettably. For that I apologise… Much has happened (good things and not so good things). Good things: I have been planning an exciting year abroad next year, and have done well to receive a competitive scholarship to study abroad! Not so good things: After a series of less than satisfying results for some ‘academic’ University work, I have had a prompt to write about my experiences again in the hope I can react positively to these negative results.

I believe what I am experiencing with these continuous academic disappointments is a very common scenario among students with Dyspraxia, ADHD, Dyslexia and the like, but a difficult phenomenon to articulate. Many are aware of difficulties, but not everyone questions why? How? In my experience, lecturers are academics and though they may give up time to try to help, they tend to lack knowledge of coping with SpLds. Similarly, support staff like mentors/skills tutors may have a great understanding of my needs, but unfortunately don’t understand my subject enough to help with its academic context.

I imagine that many parents share the frustration – whether in GCSEs, A-Levels or other, children try so hard to overcome the difficulties with which they are faced, by putting in extra hours with tutors, mentors, their friends, doing extra reading… And yet none of these attempts seem to really help. The core ‘problems’ remain. People may say that Dyspraxia is a condition you can overcome. But the reality is sadly not so optimistic…

In some cases, the disappointment with academic achievements can lead to perhaps extreme thoughts like wanting to quit your degree and give up entirely on academic qualification because you feel utterly useless despite your best efforts. Often I wonder if lecturers (or teachers for that matter) truly consider the detrimental effect a comment like ‘your (insert subject here) needs work’ will have on said students’ well-being, especially when feedback of this nature fails to offer specific advice. I need to be told simply and explicitly in an accessible way: how do I actually improve? The jargon lecturers use, the accelerated pace at which they impart their knowledge, is simply too much for me to cope with.

What’s the paradox?

We compensate for the areas in which we lack, time and time again. I have good reasoning skills, great spelling ability, and top vocabulary knowledge (91 percentile would you believe!) Even the psychologist confirmed it: intellectually I fall within the ‘average’ range, and I managed to get into a top university, and succeed in gaining internships/places on trips abroad. Despite this, I struggle to put together an essay, which seems to be what’s important nowadays – coherent planning, building up a solid argument, incorporating the perfect amount of secondary criticism…

It all might sound manageable but for a dyspraxic student, getting your thoughts together is tough. Even doing all the necessary reading takes hours if you have Meares Irlen/Visual Stress – words jump about on the page. Concentrating on something for longer than half an hour, and getting the right end of the stick when interpreting an idiomatic literary passage are just some of the challenges humanities students with SpLds face. And there isn’t enough awareness of these, particularly among academics, who frequently ask me to help them to help me.

How does Dyspraxia affect a student academically?

In my case, my ‘Dyspraxic difficulties’ predominantly relate to a significantly low auditory processing speed. My capacity for mental manipulation of auditory material is significantly weaker than my verbal knowledge and reasoning skills.

In reality, being at a top university with a condition like Dyspraxia can make life very challenging in so many ways. It isn’t as simple as ‘not worrying’ or thinking positively. When something goes wrong – such as getting a ‘bad’ mark – and particularly when you know you’ve tried your best, spent several hours working on it in the library, followed by hours meticulously proof-reading and peer-reviewing – it’s unsurprising to be flooded with incontrollable feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

As I write this post, I’m trying not to feel demoralised – I’m trying very hard to “look on the bright side” as my wise friends keep telling me.

“It’s not the end of the world”, “it’s just one bad mark”, and I suppose they are right.

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Is there a solution?

This is something I have been considering for some time. At times like this it can be necessary to take a step back and gain some objectivity. I’d love to shout yes, “you can overcome your difficulties if you try hard enough”. It’s only now that I’m learning: trying isn’t enough. Acceptance seems to be the only comfort.

Surround yourself by people and things that do make you happy, and remember that you can’t enjoy all parts of the degree/be good at everything all the time – being perfect would be unnatural, and just because you’re taking exams/doing an academic course doesn’t mean you’ve sold your soul to it. The discomfort and dissatisfaction is so hard to process but it is a temporary state – look to your friends and family for support and reassurance because chances are, they will think you’re doing much better than you feel you are.

I ask professionals, academics, parents, and teachers – if you don’t understand the way a child/student’s mind is working, try asking them how you can help. Show an interest in how others learn and be patient with them – reward a child’s determination to learn. With the right amount of support and guidance, they may just get the hang of what you’re trying to explain to them. Think about any particular strengths the pupil might have, and whether you could get around a problem/make the child feel better about themselves by focusing on those!

And… don’t lose sight of the most important thing in learning: enjoyment. Avoid letting yourself become so obsessed by marks and grading and expectations in an already pressurising world – please don’t put someone off their interest.

misspraxic

Dyspraxia Awareness Week 2015: Being at Univeristy with Dyspraxia and how you can support a friend

“Dys-what? Do you mean Dyslexia?”

A handful of my friends have admitted that they struggle to understand me, and how hidden conditions or specific learning difficulties can affect me in day-to-day situations. This article is for the kind and well meaning friends of Dyspraxic students – I hope it helps to explain from first-hand experience what it is like to manage and overcome an invisible set of struggles in the university setting.


It’s 6.45am, Monday. Time to get ready for a busy day at university. For breakfast, she takes out a bowl from the kitchen cupboard, and then a carton of apple juice from the fridge. Both the bowl and the apple juice somehow accompany her to the cutlery draw, where she takes out a spoon. She walks to the sink, then changes her mind and goes to the table, trying to remember what on earth she was intending to do with that carton of juice. She’s aware of a voice, her flatmate’s trying to start a conversation with her. Noise of traffic outside distracts her. What’s the time again? Before she can locate the answer in her jumbled mind, she senses the box of cereal now in her hand drop to the floor – crispy flakes go everywhere. Oops-a-daisy!

MEMORY; COORDINATION: A dyspraxic student might struggle with remembering lots of information or lists – we tend to get very easily distracted! This can lead to stressful situations in the university context, such as forgetting appointments, mixing up our diary or timetable. We also have to put extra effort into cooking, where concentration and multi-tasking are very important, but don’t always come naturally. Though I have learned to cook reasonably well (albeit rather slowly!) it does take a lot of effort to coordinate my movements, and focus on one task. It can be an even greater challenge when we’re stressed, or if our mind is wandering onto other matters.simpsons 2


It’s now 7.03. She’s missed the bus she was going to catch to campus. She anxiously waits for the next one, which is packed and standing. She wobbles about and feels unstable; rushed off the train by all the people around her. It’s now tipping it down, so she starts jogging. Her raincoat: she KNEW she had forgotten something. She slips in a puddle. Panic overwhelms her; her body feels drawn to danger like there’s some form of inbuilt magnetism in her body.

GROSS-MOTOR CONTROL; BALANCE; SPATIAL AWARENESS: Dyspraxics are said to have a “clumsy gait”. The condition can significantly affect balance and gross motor movements. I’m very heavy-handed and seem to be “accident prone” – I once broke a washing machine simply by opening the door! People with dyspraxia may also mix up their left and right (last week I had a jig with someone in the corridor because I couldn’t figure out how to dodge around them). I struggle to map-read, due to poor sense of direction and spatial awareness (sense of ourselves in relation to our surroundings). At home or far, dyspraxics can feel lost, so the Google Maps app is a must-have.


By the time she eventually gets to the first lecture (after bumping into a bunch of baffled students) she is exhausted. Coughing, whispering, and moving: she simply can’t follow the monotonous voice of the lecturer due to all the background stimuli.

AUDITORY PROCESSING: Students with dyspraxia may have slow auditory processing (so listening in lectures can be hard, we hear words but often miss a LOT of key info.) Try to be patient if you know your friend struggles to process info – perhaps give them one instruction/piece of info at a time so they have time to think about it. Chances are they care very much about what you have to say, but might also get carried away talking about something they are passionate about, and struggle with speech cues.


The tutor picks on her and asks a question. Because of all the sensory stimulation surrounding her though, she can’t form the words to respond. In group discussions she doesn’t always time her contributions properly, so by the time she’s thought of something good to add, the conversation has moved on!

LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION: Dyspraxia affects the way we process language. At times I find it hard to express myself properly and select the right words, despite knowing what I want to say. We want to keep up with and understand the pace of human communication, but sometimes we are significantly slower to follow conversations and can misread subtleties (notably sarcasm and irony). Group conversations are most challenging as there is more to focus on. [Some people have Verbal Dyspraxia/Apraxia, which affects speech and pronunciation of words].Simpsons


She tries to write down everything she hears in the class, really wants to get all the good ideas down, but she can scarcely read back her own handwriting (it’s a unique scrawly style). How is she going to manage to write her essay if she has no notes to work from?

FINE-MOTOR CONTROL: As well as struggling with gross motor movements, fine motor skills (coordination of muscles and bones in small movements) can be tough too. Writing can pose a problem for many dyspraxics. I have poor pen grip, and it hurts to write for hours at a time. Students with dyspraxia often have extra time in their exams to compensate for this difficulty, and the use of a computer to type makes a huge difference. Note taking is a challenge, but sitting at the front of the lecture theatre and using a voice recorder can help alleviate this stress.


In the evening she is peer-pressured into meeting with her friends; she never was terribly assertive. Trouble is, they’re meeting at a bar, and the noise and lights and business overwhelm her before she’s even attempted to order a drink! She can’t tell them that from fear of embarrassment. She has a Dyspraxic Moment and trips in the bar, without even having taken a sip of alcohol. It’s all too much, she just wants to get home.

OVERWHELM IN SOCIAL SITUATIONS: Social situations can be emotionally exhausting. It’s hard to suppress the fear of committing another Dyspraxic Disaster and have a good time. ‘Social awkwardness’ seems to follow me around. It may seem like a dyspraxic student is in their own world, but it’s important to consider that, chances are, they are really trying to listen and concentrate on what you’re telling them.


She already has class work to do when she gets home. She is determined to find the answers to her assignment questions, though it takes her a long time to scan through the sea of text to find the relevant information – comprehension never was easy.

VISUAL PERCEPTION; READING: Dyspraxic students may take considerably longer to read, or plan/structure an essay – that’s because we have so many great ideas in our brains (did I mention how creative dyspraxics can be!?), but sometimes aren’t very efficient in sorting through them. [Some people might also have Visual Stress/Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (a condition I will write more about in a future post) and use coloured filters or glasses to help them read faster.]


After much perseverance the words start to jump around, so she puts the book to one side, and tries to relax. It takes her a long time to fall asleep – her mind running through the events of the day.

STRUGGLING TO RELAX; EMOTIONAL DIFFICULTIES: Relaxing and falling asleep can be difficult due to the sheer quantity of information to process and think about. The amalgamation of several things going wrong in one day can result in anxious feelings building up very quickly – we tend to get easily tired because of the overload to our sensitive system, so we do need to take breaks and spend some time alone, perhaps a little more often than non-dyspraxic students. If your friend needs extra support to help them cope, this isn’t a weakness.


The above isn’t merely a bad day – similar logistical nightmares are a regular reality for many dyspraxic students who struggle on in silence.

The condition can affect a student profoundly and threaten to impact upon their wellbeing, so it’s useful to have at least a basic awareness of general difficulties faced.

• Try to be reassuring in overwhelming situations and respect your friend’s wishes in social situations (going out for example) – dyspraxics don’t cope well when over-stimulated
• Listen and be thoughtful instead of coming across as critical
• Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something – this will mean a lot to your friend, and show how much you care
• Try to be patient and try not to take something personally
• Separate the person from their condition and love their quirks too if you can, because dyspraxics can be very caring, compassionate, and creative people too!

[Note: please do not take this blog as a stereotypical depiction of dyspraxia. Not all dyspraxics share the same traits – I am sharing my personal experience with a view to helping others gain a better understanding of some aspects of dyspraxia, though this blog is by no means an exhaustive/comprehensive list of traits.]

This Dyspraxia Awareness Week (11th-17th October), I challenge you not to judge but to listen, and not assume a hidden condition defines who your friend is as a person – there is so much more to a person than their difficulties, and as their friend, you can help to bring out their best qualities.

– misspraxic

Tips for settling into University as a dyspraxic student

Starting at university, moving to a new place, meeting new people – it’s a daunting transition for anyone, but can seem even more of a struggle when you’re also managing a hidden condition like Dyspraxia. To have worked hard to get into university is an incredible achievement, so well done!

Before I started my course at university, I was very apprehensive – especially about how I would socialise and make friends, how many times I would get lost, and how I would manage practical things like cooking. I really could have done with some reassurance that I could do it, and some advice for managing the first few weeks.


It’s OK not to participate in everything in Freshers’ week or in the first term

Don’t feel you have to take part in absolutely everything that’s happening in Freshers’ week, or that you have to read every advertising flyer thrown at you. There will be so much packed into the week – so many different kinds of events on offer, ranging from society fairs to introductions in your academic department.

During my Freshers’ week, I felt rather overwhelmed on numerous occasions. It’s OK to feel tired and emotional and full of information, this is completely normal. Often I would need to go back to my room and have an hour’s break from people and events, just to recharge.

I would say that it’s very important to pace yourself; whilst you want to make a good first impression, you also want to survive the first term without burning out! You have the whole three/four years of the course to try things, so don’t feel you have to fit it all into a week.


Staying organised (as much as possible!)

After each lecture, try to get into the habit of filing your notes in a sensible place in your folder – I colour-code my folders (a different coloured folder for each term) and use dividers (a different section for each module).

If you record lectures using a voice-recorder, try to get into the habit of connecting the recorder to your computer and saving files, so you don’t risk losing something important! Create folders (and folders within folders within folders if this helps you) on your computer, and create desktop shortcuts so that you can easily locate work you need to access regularly.

I found using post-it notes really useful, especially in a range of colours to differentiate between social events, academic commitments, volunteering etc.

Carrying around a small notebook in your pocket to jot down times and details of events can be a life-saver.
Make the most of your noticeboard – stick up a calendar and your post-it notes so you have a visual reminder of what is happening, and when.


Planning ahead

If you’re as indecisive as I am, getting ready for events in Freshers’ week can be rather stressful. I would keep changing my mind about what I was going to wear, and consequently end up arriving somewhere late or rushing. Pack your bag and lay clothes out the evening before, so you have less to think about and decide in the morning.

I don’t have a reliable sense of time, so time can go by quickly without my knowing. One thing that does help me, though, is considering time as a visual concept – I have to physically draw out my timeframe for the week on my calendar, and before booking appointments, I work backwards in time. This way I can make sure I have more than enough time to get ready, and to walk to the location of the lecture without panicking. If you can, plan in an hour’s extra time to compensate for any possible lateness.


Cooking

If cooking is something you are really worried about, you can buy ready meals very cheaply from supermarkets. Don’t attempt anything too complicated or time-consuming – this could be stressful if something goes wrong and you don’t have much time. Try to move around the kitchen slowly – coordinating food preparation can be a challenge, but I find that the most accidents happen when I’m rushing.

I find that the thought of cooking can easily overwhelm me if I don’t write down what I’m planning to cook for the week. In my notebook I plan which meal I’m going to have each day – you could write a few notes to remind yourself what you need to take out of the fridge/freezer, what extra ingredients you might need to buy, and how long it could take you to prepare the meal.

I also recommend preparing a packed lunch the evening before uni, so you can make sure everything is in your bag for the next morning.


Try to be assertive

It’s important not to let yourself feel pressured into doing things you don’t feel comfortable doing, particularly in Freshers’ week. Don’t feel pressured to go to the Freshers’ ball or clubs if you don’t want to – if it is something you would like to try, you could wait until you have found like-minded people, friends that you trust, so you feel more comfortable and safer going out with them. If drinking or going out isn’t your scene at all, don’t give up on the social side of university. Your Students’ Union might also be running more chilled events such as film nights, so check that out.

Definitely make the most of society fairs, but don’t sign up to everything (can be an information overload!) Have a think about your interests and what would suit you as a person. If you’re into the outdoors, for example, it’s likely there will be a hill-walking society that will run trips at weekends – this could be a good opportunity to get away from campus.

Ask about the volunteering projects available at your university – not only will this look impressive on your CV, but can be very rewarding. I took part in a weekly volunteering project last year, and felt very good about myself as I was helping someone.

If you isolate yourself and don’t make an effort to connect with fellow students, it could be a problem later in the year. I promise there will be a student community to suit your interests, and who knows, you might even meet your best friends there. 🙂


Don’t be afraid to seek support when you need it

There’s so much happening in the first week, but it’s definitely worth working out where the disability support services are located on campus – (see if you can walk there on Google maps street view if you’re worried about finding it, or you can even email/phone them). You should make an appointment with a disability advisor in your first term, so that you can get to know what support is available to you. They should already have received your records from school, and be able to advise on DSA (Disability Support Allowance) as well as accessing help in exams (this could be use of a computer for typing exams, or extra time.)

If you have any problems during the week, it’s good to know you have someone you can go to – this could be a mentor or a student welfare representative. Please don’t be afraid to talk to someone, as it isn’t a sign of weakness. Freshers’ week can feel a very lonely time, but if you are struggling, know that it will soon be over.

Try not to feel disheartened if you don’t seem to fit in straight away. In my Freshers’ week I was very self-conscious of not drinking excessively, and I admit that I spent a lot of the week by myself. Weeks later, though, I found my group of friends. Your peers may all seem ultra-confident and to be having a great time, but remember that this might not be the case. Not everyone will be finding it easy to adjust to university life.

Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!

misspraxic