Is dyspraxia a battle of the sexes?

New findings released Monday 12 October 2015 have revealed a significant gap in the diagnosis – and therefore, treatment – of dyspraxia, otherwise known as developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), amongst young women and girls.

The nationwide poll , commissioned by the Dyspraxia Foundation, reported that over half (53%) of all female respondents said that their primary school teachers were unaware of their difficulties (compared to just 39% of the males questioned). 47% of teenage girls reported the same situation in secondary school, as opposed to 32% of males.

Experts from the Dyspraxia Foundation – the only national charity in the UK dedicated to raising awareness of the condition – believe such findings may reflect teachers’ perceptions of dyspraxia as a largely “male” disorder, leaving girls often overlooked in the classroom. It may also be possible that girls with dyspraxia are simply better at masking their difficulties by putting in extra effort and recruiting the assistance of friends to help them cope.

Once cruelly and incorrectly referred to as ‘clumsy child’ syndrome, dyspraxia / DCD is a common disorder affecting fine and /or gross motor coordination, in both children and adults.

Many individuals may also experience difficulties with memory, perception and processing, along with poor planning, organisation and sequencing skills which can have a significant, negative impact on everyday activities. Dyspraxia can also affect articulation and speech.

The national survey questioned 1156 people (537 were individuals with dyspraxia; 619 were parents of someone with dyspraxia). Although the average age for diagnosis of dyspraxia / DCD is 7 to 8 years, this new research suggests that many people (both male and female) are not diagnosed until they are much older.

Of the 467 adults with dyspraxia who revealed their gender, 69% (320) were female and 31% (147) male. For the ‘child’ population the figures were almost exactly opposite (73% had sons, 28% had daughters), reinforcing the argument that dyspraxia/DCD is under-recognised in girls -  who will often have to wait until adulthood before being diagnosed.

The findings also indicate that the ratio of boys:girls who receive a positive diagnosis of dyspraxia / DCD in childhood is around 3:1 – whilst existing evidence (Lingham et al 2009) puts the ratio of males:females with severe motor co-ordination difficulties at 2:1.

Worryingly, this discrepancy is also leading health and education experts from the Dyspraxia Foundation to believe that many girls are clearly not being referred for diagnosis at a young age and are therefore unable to access the support they need in order to reach their potential.

Sally Payne, Paediatric Occupational Therapist and Trustee of the Dyspraxia Foundation comments:

This survey really has underlined a pattern we’ve observed for some time and whilst the results do reinforce a concerning trend of many girls sliding under the radar of relevant healthcare professionals, it does allow us to push on with plans for developing specific materials, tools and resources for girls and adolescents as well as for their parents and teachers.”

Sally continues, “In many ways, it is testament to the resilience, coping mechanisms and ‘emotional intelligence’ of females that they are seemingly able to disguise some of the difficulties that might be more obvious in boys. But sadly, as they get older, issues such as developing social skills, applying make up, choosing clothes and coping with personal hygiene and periods may become harder to cope with and will inevitably make situations such as starting college, leaving home or finding a job difficult and exhausting. Through our helpline and social media platforms, we have heard of many cases where anxiety, self-doubt and a severe lack of confidence can soon set in. However, this could so easily be avoided by early diagnosis and intervention.”

That’s why the Dyspraxia Foundation will be focusing on “the gender gap” for its 2015 Awareness Week during October. Thanks to a three-year £166,265 grant from the Big Lottery Fund, the charity has been able to re-launch its helpline and employ an Information Officer. Last year, a dedicated Youth Information Officer was also appointed and Awareness Week 2015 will now see the launch of a new ‘Advice for Girls” information pack as part of the annual campaign.

Sally Payne continues:

Whilst this comprehensive survey has flagged up some very real issues which must be addressed by schools, families and support services, it’s also vital that we are not too disheartened by some of the negative findings – and remember that the team at the Dyspraxia Foundation is always here to help both young men and women as they come to terms with a diagnosis! So many of them will go on to prove to everyone that dyspraxia is not going to stand in their way of achieving their goals!”

The average age of diagnosis for male respondents was 17 years, suggesting they were mostly diagnosed by ‘paediatric’ specialists. By contrast, the average age of diagnosis for adult females was 22 years. Poor service provision and unclear diagnostic pathways for adults with dyspraxia means that it is much harder to receive a diagnosis after the age of 18 years. It is likely therefore, that females with dyspraxia are missed across the age range.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP for South Shields is an ambassador for the Dyspraxia Foundation. She was diagnosed with the condition herself, aged 27 whilst studying for her Masters in Social Work and – despite being a hugely positive advocate of how dyspraxia must ‘never stop a young person’s dreams’ – she has also talked openly about the challenges she faced prior to her diagnosis.

Speaking in an interview, Emma once explained:

I can't wear eyeliner because you’ve got to have a steady hand. Every time I try, I end up with a big line down my face. If I got straighteners, you can guarantee I would burn myself. I was struggling but stuff like this wasn’t on the agenda when I was at school, so I often got dragged into misbehaving. Really it was a way of saying, ‘I can't do this and I don’t know why because no-one is helping.”


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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