Guffaws filled the air as I ‘face-planted’ on the high-school verandah after attempting to walk up several steps on crutches. I had broken my ankle (tibia) after ‘rolling it’ while playing soccer during Physical Education class. Falling with style was never my forte and I guess my face-plant looked comical to teenagers who hadn’t yet mastered the art of empathy.
Over the years, I had laughed off my consistently poor performances in aerobics classes and team sports because people could often relate, albeit in a less affected way, and would laugh with me.
Although I may refer to myself as clumsy, I still insist (when challenged by others) that I am coordinated because sometimes I am. Although, in team sports I often performed poorly (too many variables and sensory overload), I have often fared better in sports like swimming and ‘fun runs’. As a child, I enjoyed playing catch and kicking footballs to and fro with my brother, shooting baskets with a basketball and having a hit of tennis to pass the time; practice that has paid off.
I can catch a ball. I remember watching the movie ‘The boy who could fly’ (as a child) and retrospectively thinking (as an adult) that it could be me catching that baseball before it hit my friends head. I might drop things everyday objects regularly but I often catch them before they hit the ground.
Regardless, I have not invested my self-worth heavily in my physical abilities, perhaps by necessity. Of course, now I have passed on those ‘clumsy genes’ to my sons and the pressure of physical prowess is much greater among boys in our culture. How will they fair?
Jeremy is probably the most affected by clumsiness out of my two sons. Like me, Jeremy has great reflexes (evident when it comes to iPad games that rely on them) and like me he falls often and spectacularly. He provides us with much entertainment at taekwondo. Fortunately, he hasn’t invested his self-worth heavily in physical ability either. He just picks himself up off the padded training mats after attempting a maneuver and laughs out loud, making it impossible for us not to as well.
Taekwondo however has been a challenge for all of us. When we enrolled our boys in taekwondo, Jeremy exclaimed he was so happy that he could cry (my boys had always had an interest in ‘rough and tumble’ play and fighting)*. Jeremy and Damian were always noisily enthusiastic. Nobody calls out the taekwondo cry of ‘Kihap’ as loud as my boys who often followed it up with ‘I am so strong’, ‘This is so easy’ or ‘I am so good at this’.
As much as my boys loved taekwondo it presented many physical challenges and the way my boys coped with it was to wiggle and whinge and flop down on the floor and basically just ‘do their own thing’.
The taekwondo master was extraordinarily patient; more so than me. He told me that they would ‘grow out of it’ (although I doubted it) and he often laughed at their more humorous antics and comments. As their mother though, I’m ashamed to say, I was embarrassed because they weren’t obeying the master and that reflected on me (my parenting).
So, I created a social story in BoardmakerPlus with pictures and YouTube videos of kids and experts doing taekwondo. My narration on the social story explained the levels of taekwondo and other facts that would be interesting to my boys and then covered the ‘rules’ of taekwondo like bowing and showing respect by listening to the instructors.
I then offered my boys the opportunity to earn tokens, for their token charts, as incentives for showing desirable behaviours. Up to three tokens could be earned per session and I reiterated three specific behaviours I wanted to see before each session for the tokens to be earned, which sometimes varied depending on their behaviour the week before. The tokens worked well for Jeremy but not so well for Damian straight away.
An important requirement in taekwondo is to perform a set routine of stances, strikes, kicks, punches and blocks, called a ‘form’, which varies in combinations and difficulty at each level. Even to me, as an onlooker, these forms looked incredibly confusing. How on earth does a child memorise 20 different steps, in the correct order, with such little instruction?
They were expected to memorise their form by practising it at home, but practising it at home meant you had to retain some knowledge of it from practising as a group and when practising as a group my boys tended to get very muddled (not unlike I would become in an aerobics class). It was clear to me that my boys certainly weren’t going to be able to do it on their own at that stage or age. Something had to be done because their frustration levels were high and I did not want ‘forms’ to put them off taekwondo.
So I requested permission to video record the instructors completing each form. I analysed the video at home and mapped it out with pencil on a piece of paper in a shorthand way only I could understand. It wasn’t easy for me but once I learnt to perform it myself, I could teach my boys, one-on-one. I use this method with each new form; however I can skip the mapping part now that I have a basic knowledge of the patterns involved. My boys derive much confidence from their ability to complete their forms, which reflects in their behaviour.
The other day, I received a big surprise. Damian had just gone up a level, to the level that Jeremy was previously on and I hadn’t yet taught him his new form (Jeremy’s old form). The instructor didn’t know that Damian was new to the level (they have a large group of students and it’s hard to keep track) and asked the small group (at that level) if they knew their form. Damian thought that the instructor was referring to his old form so he told her proudly that he knew all the steps. She took him on his word and started the form assuming that he knew it.
Well, didn’t Damian blow me away; he must have been watching Jeremy practise (while playing with his action figures in the same room). He was able to copy it brilliantly for a first attempt, even perfecting a move that he had never done himself before. I raced up to the instructor to tell her that it was the first time he had even attempted that form and her jaw dropped instantly. Like me she praised him for doing so well for a first attempt, knowing that it was quite a victory.
Along with this victory, Damian’s performance of individual motor skills and his form has improved with carry-on effects to his behaviour. The last month or so Damian has been consistently receiving his three tokens at taekwondo (after a year or so of only averaging one token).
In this situation, it was pretty clear that if you improve a child’s ability to participate successfully, in something that they value, then you are likely to find that their behaviour improves too. Behaviour is a logical extension of the difficulties they faced in the first place.
And now for some facts on ‘clumsiness’ in autism:
Clumsiness has a scientific name when it is expressed at a diagnostic level. It is called dyspraxia. In the case of children, developmental dyspraxia can be defined as ‘impairments in the execution of skilled, purposeful or co-ordinated motor activity that are out of proportion to any underlying motor deficits’ (Steinman 2010).
Dyspraxia is more common among children with autism (Miller 2014). The presentation of dyspraxia is varied among children with autism and presents along a spectrum in much the same way that other autistic traits do (Miller 2014).
Daniel Radcliffe (actor, who played the lead role in the Harry Potter film series) writes about his experiences with dyspraxia here, which is an interesting and brief personal account for anyone interested in dyspraxia.
For more facts on dyspraxia (including treatment) refer here.
Steinman, K. Mostofsky, S. Denckla, M. Toward a narrower, more pragmatic view of developmental dyspraxia. Journal of Child Neurology 2010; 25:71-81
Miller, M. Chukoskie, L. Zinni, M. Townsend, J. Trauner, D. Dyspraxia, motor function and visual-motor integration in autism. Behavioural Brain Research 2014; 269:95-102
* Jeremy and Damian’s ‘rough and tumble play’ developed and became quite vigorous when Jeremy had just turned 4 and Damian was 2.5yrs old. Fortunately, I was seeing a child psychologist (K) for Jeremy, at the time, so I asked her if I should be concerned about it and what I should do about it.
K asked me how I felt about it and what I had done about it already (I guess because there is no ‘right’ answer and it depends on how the behaviour fits in your own family). K told me that rough play is developmentally typical for approximately 60-70% of boys (I have not looked for a journal reference for that) and that it is a good idea for me to continue to monitor, set boundaries and always supervise it.
Our general rules were ‘no fists’ or ‘open hands’ and ‘no hitting near the head’.