The elephant, the wellies and me

In this issue’s health and wellness column, Caoimhe Brennan writes about how she came to embrace her dyspraxia and dyslexia

Credit: Sarah Morel


“I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 15 and it came as a massive relief. I finally had a way of understanding why some things, like telling left from right or spelling anything that wasn’t phonetic, was impossible to me.”

My life would change forever when, at the age of four, my parents bought me a trampoline and put it up in my front room. From then on, I would spend hours and hours a day bouncing on it inside, unaffected by the weather. Much to my parent’s dismay, I insisted on doing my homework on it, bouncing between questions. I refused to practice any reading or spelling while not on the trampoline.

My mum worried that this was distracting me and was the reason I was struggling to read and spell, so we compromised. I would do my spelling the traditional way, sitting and writing down, and then I would get to do them on the trampoline. Fortunately, this turned out to be a saving grace. Trampoline is the number one exercise to do if you suffer from dyspraxia. The thousands of hours bouncing (seriously, I bounced for over 5 hours a day) helped me to learn how to read, write, and spell.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 15 and it came as a massive relief. I finally had a way of understanding why some things, like telling left from right or spelling anything that wasn’t phonetic, was impossible to me. My diagnosis of dyspraxia, however, came as a shock. Everything I looked up about it, referenced how it used to be known as ‘clumsy child syndrome’, with people sharing their stories of dyspraxia and how it affected their social skills. I did not feel like a clumsy child and reading about its affects on people’s social skills made me feel isolated and inept.

Having played hockey for three years in school, and having always loved gymnastics, being diagnosed with dyspraxia was a blow. It certainly explained why I was at times incredibly bad at hand-eye coordination and balance. It did provide a brilliant excuse to be permanently exempt from PE — which was torture for me due to my inability to catch a ball, explaining why I switched from camogie to hockey after the age of 10.

The average person doesn’t really know what dyspraxia is, which is probably how I managed to get out of PE. There are two kinds of dyspraxia, affecting fine or gross motor movements. I was very lucky when my parents decided to buy a trampoline, because the hours I spent on it definitely helped in improving my motor skills. I do notice, however, that because I am not trampolining (or horse riding) anymore that this has gotten worse. Interestingly enough, I find gaming a way of keeping up with this and improving my fine motor ability. Spending hours on an xbox might be detrimental to some, but I notice that my handwriting, balance and shaky fingers improve when I am gaming.

Dyspraxia may mean that I am constantly covered in bruises, but I no longer feel any embarrassment when my spatial awareness causes me to take up the whole pavement while walking beside someone, or walk into a table. It can be especially embarrassing when I am working out. For years, I let it hold me back by deliberately avoiding things and situations that required grace or balance, such as yoga. This negatively affected my self image; I felt like I would never be able to do things because my brain was broken. I looked at my sisters, who are both ballet dancers, and felt like next to them I must look like an elephant in wellies trying to clomp around a china shop.

The moment it clicked with me that I was the only person holding myself back, and not dyspraxia, was at an audition for a drama school. At the time, it was my dream to study acting. I was in an audition with 50 other people, and we were told that part of the audition would be learning a dance and then performing it in groups. When I heard this, I felt so anxious I thought I was going to be sick. But for the first time, the advice of my drama teacher hit home. People only look bad doing things if they don’t give it their all. If I danced like I was embarrassed about how I was dancing, I would look embarrassing. The only people whose judgement mattered about my dancing was the people holding the audition, and they wouldn’t care as long as I looked like I was trying. So, I tried. I managed it, mostly- I will never be the next Margot Fonteyn. But I did it, and it wasn’t bad. I don’t think anyone would even have guessed that I had dyspraxia.

I like to think that since then, I have applied that philosophy to everything I should not be able to do with dyspraxia. I might spend most of my Pilates classes toppling over. I might also spend half of Zumba turning the wrong way. I may have to politely decline attending samba classes with my friends because I know that it isn’t worth the stress. Yet I manage to do everything I want, with or despite my dyspraxia.

Accepting my diagnosis of dyspraxia helped me to stop putting pressure on myself to do things that were difficult for me and that I didn’t want to do, but it also helped me to do things that are difficult. Being diagnosed with anything, be it a learning difficulty/disability, mental or physical illness doesn’t have to stop you from doing things. It might make some things impossible, but there is usually a way around it. I might not be a typical athlete or the most graceful person in yoga class, but I can guarantee that everyone else is too busy worrying about themselves and not you. So give it your best effort and refuse to apologise for finding things more difficult. If you end up being the worst at yoga, or cricket, or whatever you chose to do, you can only improve, after all.