Many people with Dyspraxia and other neurological deficits find interpreting the meaning of messages from what we see in the world around us a challenge. Of course some people without Dyspraxia sometimes experience these difficulties too, when trying to decode to us what seems like the impossible. I was inspired to write this next blog post by one of the most unlikely of sources, a friend posted a photo of a tap on Facebook, explaining his confusion when trying to understand the visual messages that the tap provided, so that he could operate it successfully. I understood the frustration of trying to interpret visual information and related it to being an obstacle that many people with Dyspraxia have to overcome. Visual perception and seeing the world in a different way is very rarely understood by society.
As a young child I loved to draw, partly because I was brought up by an artist and I had no choice. However I really struggled to incorporate proportion, shadow and depth into my drawings. Being able to process the visual cues from the object in front of me, to create a visually accurate drawing was almost impossible. The messages from the object I saw didn’t transmit to my brain in a way that would allow me to carry out this task with ease. As a result my drawings were unusual, described as immature and very rarely accurate- I simply didn’t have the visual perception to overcome this. Despite this obvious bewilderment as to why I didn’t see things like everyone else, I enjoyed art at school and I would rely on my imagination rather than the ability to draw a perfectly accurate still life. Today I try to avoid art because I still haven’t developed the ability to understand it, and I feel silly when everyone gets something straight away whereas I’m still walking around with a puzzled look on my face trying to work out what the painting actually means.
As you get older and become an adult, difficulties with visual perception and being able to process visual information in a way that will lead us to the right outcome or response, can be increasingly problematic and will often present us with more difficulties than simply being unable to keep up in an art lesson. Developing the ability to understand information that has only been offered to me in a visual way, causes constant confusion and often has me baffled as to which way to proceed. For example instructions that are just conveyed in pictures mean literally nothing to me. I prefer to see things written down or better still for someone to show me how to do something because the best way I can learn is by physically doing it. About a year ago I brought a new tablet with a keyboard to attach, this was all very exciting until I got home and looked at the instructions. The pictures about how to connect my tablet to the keyboard didn’t make sense to me, I couldn’t relate the flow diagram to the physical contraption that I had in front of me, and I wanted to work. Eventually I asked my sister for help, I soon realised that it was actually straightforward, and would have been possible to complete on my own if the information was presented in a way that I could understand.
My visual perceptual difficulties also affects my sense of direction and ability to get from A to B successfully. I have found that this impacts on simple things like getting to interviews and even travelling to work. As an adult we are expected to be given a map or postcode, and be able to work out where we have to go. I dream of a day when I will be able to walk out of the door, map in hand and turn up at a meeting on time. In reality I realise that I still have a long way to go before I can get there- but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever reach the finish line. As I have mentioned previously sometimes it just takes me longer to learn how to do things. At the moment I am unable to read a map or successfully tell left from right. This means that any visual information that we regularly share with each other in the form of directions means almost nothing to me. Recently I went out with my younger sister to a shopping centre that I have been to many times before, we were going to a cafe. As we were walking along she asked me “Is it left or right at the end of here?” I didn’t know. I knew how to get there but I couldn’t visualise the route. I had to wait until we were at the end of the corridor and I could see the shops that we have to pass, to know which direction we should take. My response was ‘this way’ when we got to the end rather than left or right, because that’s the way I see things. This is why reading a map is so difficult- I can’t visualise the steps in a set of directions and I lack the spatial awareness needed to crack the code of a map. Dyspraxics often experience difficulties with judging speed and distance- meaning that working out how far a car is away from you and how fast it is travelling can be an absolute nightmare. This also relates to my confusion and often panic when I have to board an escalator or go down the stairs- to me it feels like the escalator is going at 100 miles per hour and at times can be quite scary. Deciding how far the stairs are away from me can be like solving a sudoku puzzle- an equally daunting prospect. I also struggle with giving directions as much as I do receiving them- I know where I live but I will be unable to tell you how to get there. Dyapraxia can also affect how I respond to and interpret the concept of time, I take longer to do things; something that takes you half an hour may take me up to an hour. I am unable to judge how long it will take me to get somewhere, so I often misjudge how long i’ll need to get ready and the time it will take to travel. To overcome this I always give myself more time than necessary to get from A to B. My lack of awareness of time means that despite making extra efforts to be on time, I am often seen rushing around at the last minute and turning up late.
I met similar difficulties in maths lessons at school, my visual perception and processing speeds often made understanding symmetry, shapes, graphs or any mathematical concept impossible. I remember a time when we had to use a mirror to draw a symmetrical shape- this didn’t and has never made sense to me. Even when the teacher tried to explain it to me, I was at a loss because I didn’t see things like everyone else did. I have also never learnt to read an analogue clock- that I am sure is related to my visual perception. Being unable to tell the time as an adult causes embarrassment more than anything because it is another skill that we are expected to have acquired at a young age. These challenges have never stopped me trying and more than anything Dyspraxics have an innate sense of resilience and determination that sees us through, and in many ways is the key to our success. It is so important to understand how people see things differently, society in many ways is only geared up to one way people might process visual information and discounts a large proportion of the population. Being expected to conform to societal norms can be very frustrating for Dyspraxic adults and can make us seem very isolated from those around us.
As a society we are under constant pressure to look good and take care with our appearance. However as a young woman with this pressure that I know so many of us feel, men and women alike, sometimes I lack the ability to see if I look okay or even if I am wearing the right clothes for the weather. This isn’t necessarily because I lack awareness, because I really do understand that it’s important to make an effort, but sometimes I find that navigating this visual information is like cracking a code that has been designed never to be cracked. I rely a lot on the opinion of my sister to make sure that my hair is brushed properly and that the clothes that I am wearing match. I also have to take people with me clothes shopping because sometimes I literally have no idea what looks good, and I’m often clueless about what I should buy. I also rarely wear make up partly because I find the coordination and fine motor skills required to apply make up a challenge but also as I lack the visual perception to produce something that won’t resemble a clown. It is embarrassing as a 26 year old woman to admit this, because being able to manage your own appearance is something that society just expects us to be able to do. There is so much publicity in the media and pictures representing what we should look like, that in many ways is beyond me. I have learnt loads from my sixteen year old sister and I’m sure I still have much more to understand.
As well as Dyspraxia, I am also diagnosed with non verbal learning difficulty (NVLD) and like Dyspraxia this can cause difficulties with visual perception and specifically interpreting non verbal communication. As with many neurological conditions, many symptoms overlap and are comorbid with one another. I regularly struggle to decode body language, sarcasm and gestures from others, this makes it difficult to know how and when to react. I struggle to understand or follow TV programs and films, understanding the visual messages on the television screen is like trying to get out of a maze. I’m rarely able follow what is going on in a plot and prefer to watch documentaries or avoid watching TV altogether. Recently I have noticed that I struggle to read emotions, and I will misinterpret a lot of visual information from those around me. This can often lead to embarrassing or confusing situations, especially in a work environment- I find that the majority of my friends just accept me for being me although not everyone understands how my lack of ability to decode visual information affects my interaction with the outside world. I find that I will also take things to heart or believe that I have really upset somebody- I often get accused of overreacting because of this. I am sometimes not aware of my body language and people regularly misinterpret my own non verbal cues. A few weeks ago I was at work and I had my arms crossed, people interpreted that as me being angry and pissed off, when I was actually perfectly happy. As soon as I realised what I was doing I adjusted my body language to reflect my current emotions. Constantly trying to work out non verbal signals makes me feel very self concious and anxious in social situations as most of the time I don’t know how to respond. The only exception is if you know me well, as I have discovered over time I am able to recognise specific peoples body language or humour so that I am able to read them almost as well as I can read a book. This takes time though and as with everything has been a gradual process to accomplish.
I felt that is was important for me to write this blog as the way we visually interpret information is often never discussed, we are expected to conform to the norm and if we don’t, we are labelled as a bit of a weirdo or odd. I can’t deny that the way I see things compared to the rest of the world is a challenge- because it is and it has caused most of the difficulties I’ve experienced in social situations and my constant struggle to fit in. However I have abilities others don’t and I’m truly grateful for that, I may not be able to express myself in a visual way through art or drama but I am able to express myself through writing and sometimes music, and I find that this is wonderful. My visual perceptual difficulties are partly due to my dyspraxia but also partly contributes to who I am and this makes me proud. I can see things differently, offer a different perspective, see the bigger picture, be creative, have a greater sense of empathy and think outside the box. I wanted to highlight the difficulties that societies way of thinking and doing things has had for me, adapting to how people learn will make many of us feel included and accepted. There’s a great quote: “If a child can’t learn in the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn” This obviously applies to adults too. If our brains all worked in the same way I’m sure the world wouldn’t be as exciting. Don’t you agree?