Special report: Dyspraxia a ‘hidden disability’ in the UAE

Despite effecting a child’s ability to write, play sports and even articulate thoughts, dyspraxia has been generally overlooked by schools in the UAE.

Adam Griffin, occupational therapist at Camali Clinic, in Dubai Healthcare Clinic, says dyspraxia is often overlooked but there are telltale signs that parents and teachers can pick up. Sarah Dea / The National
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Dyspraxia is a lifelong learning disability that causes problems with coordination and movement. Despite affecting a child’s ability to write, play sports and even articulate thoughts, the disability has been generally overlooked by schools in the UAE. Children with the condition are often dismissed as disruptive or lazy, say health professionals, and the condition can be difficult to recognise. One mother in Dubai found that schools were ill equipped to deal with her daughter’s dyspraxia and discouraged her highlighting the differences in her daughter’s behaviour for fear of stigma.


1- A child in each class may have dyspraxia, UAE doctors say

2- Case study: Mother in Dubai tells of invisible disability


1- A child in each class may have dyspraxia, UAE doctors say

ABU DHABI // Children who have the hidden handicap of dyspraxia may be unfairly dismissed as disruptive or lazy, health professionals say.

The lifelong learning disability causes problems with movement and coordination, meaning children often have difficulty writing or playing sports, planning, organising, carrying out movements in the right order and articulating their thoughts.

Adam Griffin, occupational therapist at Camali Clinic, Dubai Healthcare City, estimates that at least one child in every classroom may have the condition, which is also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), but many parents and teachers are unaware.

“They [the children] can seem demotivated,” said Mr Griffin.

“They may seem like they are disruptive because actually copying from the board and paying attention can be a real difficulty with these kids.”

Those with DCD are often equally as bright or more intellectual than the average child, and the disorder is often overlooked, he said, because learning disabilities can often wrongly be identified as underachievement.

“Butter-fingers”, difficulty in paying attention in class or having “two left feet” in sport are red flags to the disability, he said.

“A good way to imagine it is the old name for DCD – the Clumsy Child Syndrome – which is outdated but telling,” he said.

“A lot of advocacy groups do still cling to it because they say it does explain it well. These children are slightly more clumsy, slightly more uncoordinated.

“A telltale thing sometimes is that they have bumps and bruises and scrapes quite a lot more than other kids.”

Nannette Wicker-Essick, occupational therapist and executive director/founder of kidsFirst in Dubai, agrees that children with dyspraxia are misunderstood.

“Teachers may feel the child is not meeting their potential in the classroom,” said Ms Wicker-Essick. “Parents can become frustrated when they aren’t moving fast enough or following instructions.

“Children with dyspraxia can be labelled or misdiagnosed as slow learners, dyslexic, having attention deficit disorder, and others, as their symptoms may look similar to a person unaware of dyspraxia or motor learning difficulties.

“They can also be labelled as not trying, when in fact they are trying very hard but it may just take them a bit longer to process and complete the activity.

“Because their IQ is normal it is very frustrating for them to feel this way.”

Being slow to complete school work is just one aspect, she said. Those with dyspraxia are typically disorganised. They may struggle with emotions and can get easily upset or frustrated. Creative and imaginative play can be difficult. This can impact on school performance and friendships, said Ms Wicker-Essick.

“They are sensitive children who are keenly aware of their differences, who want to fit in. They are able to be an active part of a team or group as long as they are given a bit of extra time to practise lessons and activities.”

Dr Madeleine Portwood, a specialist in educational psychology who works with Ebdaah in Dubai, estimates the prevalence of dyspraxia in the population is between 6 to 10 per cent. While children with the disability are typically thought of as being uncoordinated, there are other issues such as sensory problems.

Children may be sensitive to touch, and even a tag in the clothes or a change in washing powder can cause a distraction. Sensitivity to noise can also cause distress. The longer it goes undiagnosed, the more probability of problematic outcomes, she said.

When children enter adolescence, those with hidden dyspraxia are more likely to suffer mental health problems such as depression, while girls can also develop eating disorders.

“So it is crucial that people at the coalface – that is parents and educationalists – are aware of the signs and know what to do with them.”


2- Case study: Mother in Dubai tells of invisible disability

DUBAI // Julia’s 8-year-old daughter is solving maths puzzles years beyond her age but struggles with simple, everyday tasks.

Before she was diagnosed with dyspraxia this year, many teachers often dismissed the Grade 3 pupil as disruptive because of her blank stare when she was asked to do something. Her mother aid even she pondered whether her daughter was just being naughty.

But after observations by an occupational therapist and psychological evaluations, Julia, an American living in Dubai, said the diagnosis was a “huge relief”.

“If you do have a diagnosis you can say to the teacher, ‘This is what this is’. Here is the strategy. The goal is not just to label the child and say, ‘Oh now we understand it’.

“It is about a strategy to bring out the best in the child.”

Julia said she began noticing some markers when her child was aged five – around the time the family moved to the UAE.

“We saw some differences we could never really put a finger on,” she said. “Often there are some mile markers or developments where you can say to a child, ‘Pick up your clothes, put your shoes on and wash your face”, and by a certain age group they should be able to follow these steps.

“What happens with children with dyspraxia is, they are not able to follow. They lose you.

“They will look at you with a blank stare on their face and they are trying as hard as they can. This is one of the first signs: here is this bright, happy child but in this area, you are thinking, is it bad behaviour? Or is something not quite right?”

Julia said at the time – four years ago – there were limited resources available in schools for her daughter.

She was discouraged from highlighting the differences in her daughter’s behaviour.

“I was told by one teacher, ‘I think there may be something wrong, but don’t tell anyone’. Because there was that stigma if people find out. It was shocking.”

Julia said this made her family find their own way, until the school figured out a means to teach her daughter the curriculum in a way she could grasp.

While the system is heading in the right direction, Julia said teachers and administrators often have no understanding of invisible disabilities such as dyspraxia.

“They look at these kids as having behavioural problems, as being disruptive. There is always that element.

“I have walked into administration offices and they don’t know what dyspraxia is and that is very disconcerting. As a parent you are entrusting them with your child.”

Julia would like to see administrators and teachers embrace all the different types of disabilities and learning styles.

“That is the key to seeing a successful integration of these children into the school system,” she said.

Julia said the important thing for parents was to keep their child’s self-esteem high.

“A child who believes in their own abilities will succeed. Parents need to focus and build on their child’s strength – don’t focus on their weakness. Become your child’s ambassador.”