Throughout this blog I’ve made reference to ways to compensate and overcome difficulties, but I haven’t gone into great detail about what strategies I’ve used that have made growing up with a specific learning difficulty much more easier for me. Finding ways to cope with the challenges, ups and downs of Dyspraxia will be different for everyone because we all learn to deal with things in very different ways, but I’d like to talk about the strategies I’ve used to help me and the various ways I’ve accessed support so that I feel less alone. I feel very strongly that we as a society should focus more on what we can do and less on what we can’t, I am guilty of this too and those of you who know me well will have noticed that I can sometimes get into the habit of being quite negative about myself and the world around me, yes there are perhaps more struggles when you have an invisible disability but there are also many ways to overcome them and breakdown the barriers. With the benefit of hindsight, I have realised that thinking differently and seeing the world in a unique way can be an incredibly positive and valuable attribute. If only someone had told my younger self that.
I have described previously in this blog that my differences have made me feel like the outsider looking in on the crowd, with a massive wall between me and the rest of the world. As the years have gone by I am slowly working my way through this invisible wall with my invisible bulldozer, I guess I am about two thirds of the way there now. It has been difficult breaking down a wall that no one else can see but I have come to realise that there are more people out there who actually ‘get it’ and really understand me than I first imagined. To break down this invisible wall I have had to accept who I am whilst also working on my strengths and abilities,
I have always loved music, particularly Folk and traditional music- I didn’t realise until recently that music has been a kind of therapy for me. I started playing the fiddle when I was seven years old, after much objection from my school about me even starting music lessons. I didn’t give up and as a young child I was so proud to be given this opportunity after fighting to get there. Playing the violin really started to improve my coordination, fine motor skills and hand eye coordination. I even finally learned to tie my own shoelaces for the first time shortly after I took up music lessons! As I grew up I joined the school ceilidh band and the local youth orchestra in secondary school. The orchestra gave me amazing opportunities to travel abroad and visit places in Europe that I had never been to before. My first time out of the country was on an orchestra trip and enabled me to develop independence and resilience, so that I could go onto achieve more wonderful things.
Joining the ceilidh band, as I think I have mentioned in another blog post was one of the best things I’ve ever done. During my teenage years, I started to experience the first serious signs of low mood and anxiety. To deal with this I turned to music, coming home from school to learn a new tune or listen to a new band that I had discovered. This process of dealing with everything that at the time seemed to be falling apart around me acted as a great comfort and gave me the ability to believe in myself that I had never experienced before. When I was sixteen I developed the confidence to enrol on a week long youth summer school ran by an organisation called Folkworks. The weeks running up to summer school filled me with fear, I wanted this experience to be positive, to be accepted and to have a place to continue my interest that in many ways saved my life, or at least without learning to play the fiddle when I did I wouldn’t have the life that I have now. Looking back I didn’t have anything to worry about and now some of my best friends are those that I made all those years ago at Folkworks Summer school. It turned out to be such a supportive, understanding environment where I felt incredibly valued and part of something. I had never felt that I belonged to anything as much as I felt part of the summer school.
I’d really recommend to anyone struggling with a diagnosis or understanding who they are to learn to play a musical instrument. It can open so many new doors. Music really helped me to compensate for the difficulties I faced emotionally and gave me an environment where for the first time in my life, I wasn’t bullied or singled out for being different. A magical time that will stay with me for years to come.
When I was around fifteen I discovered volunteering, I had always been interested in politics, fighting for issues that I believed in and making my voice heard. I felt really strongly about standing up for myself, still in denial about who I was disability wise but very much aware of the stigma, misunderstandings and injustice I had faced throughout my whole time at school. I can’t recall exactly how I found out about Gateshead Youth Assembly because it’s over ten years ago now, but somehow I found this fantastic organisation that has literally changed my life and gave me a focus during some of my darkest moments. Gateshead Youth Assembly, represents young people from every secondary school in the local authority, giving them a voice and opportunities to meet with local councillors and those in positions of power. I decided to put myself forward for election and wrote a speech to be read out to each year group about why I was the best candidate. I ended up being successful and was elected onto the Youth Assembly to represent my school. The start of a whole new Youth Assembly family that I became part of and accepted for being me- I didn’t have to change to feel included. Getting through this election was a massive achievement but also lifted my confidence and made me believe in myself once more.
At the start of my Youth Assembly journey I was a shy, timid and very confused girl. I went along to meetings and met people from different schools, who all shared a common aim to make people listen to what young people have to say. Eventually after some months of constant encouragement from the youth workers, I appeared from my bubble and began to speak more and engage with people around me. For one of the the first times in my life I wasn’t scared to be around people, I was happy and confident to stand up in a room full of people to take the lead. The one thing I would look forward to every week was our weekly meetings and being in an environment where instead of judging you, people would accept you. The Youth Assembly gave me amazing opportunities that I would have never gained anywhere else. I wrote an essay for a competition, that enabled me to travel to Slovakia with four local councillors and my youth worker to meet with young people from across Europe. I also went inside 10 Downing street to attend a reception hosted by Sarah Brown and whilst in London we had a tour of the houses of Parliament from our local MP. Moments like this will stay with me forever and I am so grateful that I was able to channel many negative experiences into something extremely positive.
Being part of the Youth Assembly enabled me to go on to study both of my degrees, I developed a love for politics so ended up doing a History and Politics BA. I then finally went onto achieve my dream of becoming a Youth worker, and gaining my masters in Youth and Community Work. I am very much inspired by the support and encouragement I had from my youth workers when I was at a stage in my life when I was very unsure of myself and how I could fit into this world, I learned so much about myself but also so many strategies to overcome what seemed like the impossible. I’ll always be grateful for the impact the Youth Assembly has had on my life. For many young people school isn’t necessarily the right place to find where you feel included and comfortable, sometimes it’s that place outside the school environment that will spark the initial burst of passion and enthusiasm- I definitely found that this was the case for me.
Navigating the obstacles in the academic and work environment has been particularly challenging, but with the right support it is possible. One of my best strategies in a work situation and now social situations is to let people know about my difficulties, to be honest and open with people so that they can start gaining an understanding right from the start. I understand that as a young person it can be harder to admit that you find certain things difficult or to even see it, I know I didn’t recognise how I might struggle until many years after school, with the pressure to fit in and be ‘normal.’ I think in this situation time is all that’s needed to gain this understanding, and a special educational needs system that is designed to help people fit in and not stand out. I still find many issues related to Dyspraxia and my past school experience difficult to talk about but I know now that there isn’t anything wrong with your brain being wired in a different way and it definitely wasn’t my fault- I wasn’t the problem. I know, like many people with specific learning difficulties I thrive on having a structure and routine. I explain that I need everything written down or explained to me in a way that will be easy for me to process the information. I am a great believer that lists make my mind more organised, and being able to physically tick items off when I have done them is a great achievement. I also make sure people understand specific difficulties that can be quite overwhelming and anxiety provoking for me. For example I have great problems with sense of direction and getting lost because of my lack of spatial awareness. To overcome this people have been incredibly understanding by offering lifts or a solution when I am able to meet someone to get the bus with if I am travelling to somewhere new. People have to be aware of your difficulties to make the invisible wall seem less of an obstacle, this goes far beyond the work environment too, if my friends weren’t aware of how some things can be more difficult for me and that sometimes I might need a bit more time to carry out tasks, I don’t think they’d be as understanding or supportive as they have been. Writing this blog has also been a powerful mechanism for me to raise awareness of Dyspraxia but also to develop an understanding of me for those I am close to. I’ve found writing has been a useful tool to cultivate many important conversations. It is vital to work out a plan that suits you, but also to understand your strengths as well as your difficulties. This has enabled me to devise a number of coping strategies and ways to compensate for my multiple diagnoses.
Thank you to all those who have contributed to my journey of understanding who I am and where I belong- finding people who believe I can do it means the world to me. Gradually the invisible wall seems less of a barrier and more of a goal that will be possible to achieve. I love the saying ‘life’s not a race, its a journey’ It may take us longer to get there but we will reach the finish line eventually.