Sunday 25 February 2018

'I found out that the children at school had created an I Hate Hannah Club'- Former Rose on the difficulties of living with dyspraxia

Occupational therapist and former Dublin Rose Hannah McDonnell, 30, who was diagnosed with severe dyspraxia and dyslexia as a child, on why she's dedicated her life to helping other children with the conditions

Hannah McDonnell, 30, works as an occupational therapist while living with dyspraxia. Photo: Andres Poveda
Hannah McDonnell, 30, works as an occupational therapist while living with dyspraxia. Photo: Andres Poveda

I remember when I was a three-year-old and wanting to go out and play in the garden and having to put my shoes and socks on first. I was starting to get a sense of being itchy and uncomfortable. Mum was helping me to put my sock on, but the sock was really hurting me. I told her it was the wrong sock for the foot; I believed socks were like shoes, and had a set side. She then swapped the sock and began to put it on the opposite, 'correct', side. The fabric brushed past my toenails, then the seam didn't line up correctly, and I was experiencing pain.

Suddenly I could take no more, and I just lost it. It was so intense and I became so distressed that every item of clothing I had on me needed to come off immediately. I was lying on my stomach, rolling around and crying as I discarded and flung every item of clothing from my body. All I wanted to do was go outside, but I couldn't cope with the fact that the sock was touching me.

Some people would have described me as being "fussy" or "dramatic". I tried to explain to them that I was just like the princess in The Princess and The Pea. For me, this is how I experienced these tactile sensations; it is as if there are hundreds of mattresses and only a real princess can feel that there is a pea underneath. As an occupational therapist and a sensory integration practitioner, I can now recognise this as 'tactile sensitivity' - which seems to be quite common to many people with dyspraxia.

Dyspraxia/DCD Ireland describes dyspraxia as a lifelong condition which is characterised by difficulty with thinking out, planning and carrying out sensory/motor tasks. A person with dyspraxia may have a combination of several problems in varying degrees; these include poor balance, poor fine and gross motor coordination, difficulties with vision, motor planning, perception problems and poor awareness of body position in space.

Former Dublin Rose Hannah McDonnell.
Former Dublin Rose Hannah McDonnell.

Children with dyspraxia may have a combination of problems in varying degrees, including poor balance and posture, speech problems, poor sense of direction, difficulty hopping, skipping or riding a bike, sensitivity to touch, difficulty with reading and writing, and intolerance of having hair or teeth brushed, and nails and hair cut.

My own diagnosis came about because my mother was concerned about my eyesight. She also thought I had flat feet since I was frequently losing my balance, falling, dropping stuff, and banging into things regularly. My mum thought it must be a problem with my sight; why else would I not be able to see that there was a door in my way, or a chair, or a step?

It was actually following a routine screening by a District Nurse that I was referred to a physiotherapist for an assessment of sorts, following which my mum was told my sight was fine, but I did have flat feet.

She was told that I also had dyspraxia, and that this condition meant that a child would have difficulty with balance and gross motor tasks. She explained that it was due to my dyspraxia that I was having difficulties with my balance and accidents.

Mum didn't know much about dyspraxia. This was pre-Google and dyspraxia wasn't as well understood. She did do a little bit of reading in books about it, which basically said that it was a gross motor difficulty and if you do horse riding and swimming a child, would learn to grow out of it. That was about as much as was commonly known back then.

There was little or no mention of my fine motor skills or handwriting, and the other difficulties that would accompany my new diagnosis.

Dublin Rose Hannah McDonnell on stage in 2008
Dublin Rose Hannah McDonnell on stage in 2008

Another common difficulty associated with having dyspraxia can be difficulties with social situations. When I was younger I really had to learn to understand peoples' boundaries. I would frequently get into trouble and I had a really strong sense of social justice, so I'd say exactly what I thought.

One day, I came into school and found out that the children had created an "I Hate Hannah Club". They would meet in an area in the schoolyard at the back of the shelters, and talk about all of the things that they hated about me. Having spent a lunch on my own, the following day I went to the group and was greeted with, "What are you doing here? This is an 'I Hate Hannah Club'," and I said "Well I hate Hannah too, so I should be able to join." They just laughed.

I've tried to never let dyspraxia and dyslexia constrain me or limit my ambitions. The thing you have to remember is that you're not wrong and you're not broken. You're just different in how you experience life.

I've learned to always keep trying, trying trying, even if you sometimes fail. I discovered drama at a young age and it has always been such a positive thing for me. It helped me to problem-solve, identify emotions, and improvise situations. I went on to access university through drama, doing my first degree in Performing Arts. Once I qualified, I started to work with Dyspraxia/DCD Ireland teaching drama and social skill workshops to children and young people with syspraxia. The joy and satisfaction I derived from this encouraged me to go back and train as an occupational therapist, and I am now qualified and experienced in the process of diagnosing dyspraxia.

As I've grown, I've learned how best to handle the daily challenges that come with dyspraxia. My family have been fantastic, and confidence comes when you have supportive people in your life and you believe in yourself. There will be times when the world is going to tell that you can't do something, so you need to be the first person to say that you can. And if you fall, you get back up again.

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