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A Little Clumsy

Ryan studies his shoelaces carefully as he makes two loops and then considers the next step. The final knot laboriously completed, he runs outside to his bike. He mounts his bike, and rides off slowly with the typical wobbles of someone who has recently acquired this skill. Ryan has been doing the usual job of a child in learning these complex new skills. Sound familiar? Maybe, or maybe Ryan's story has an important difference.

Ryan is nine-years-old (with normal intelligence), and has just mastered these skills after three years of hard work. Ryan is a child who could be described as 'clumsy' or 'awkward', depending on which term you prefer. Researchers and professionals have begun using the term 'Developmental Coordination Disorder' (DCD) to describe these children.

It is currently estimated that at least five per cent of the population have this disorder. These children have motor coordination difficulties which result in them being unable to do many things which other children their age can do. These can include being unable to do buttons or zippers on clothing, or to cut food with a knife, or to print or write neatly, or to organize their materials at their desk, or to succeed at sports or playground activities.

These difficulties can result in other problems, such as not being accepted socially, being subjected to teasing, frustration, and low self-esteem. Children with DCD have been recognized by professionals for only about the past 18 years. While parents are often informed that their children are just 'clumsy' and will probably grow out of this, we now know that this is not necessarily the case.

DCD can occur in children who have other difficulties such as attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities, while some children only have motor difficulties. Researchers are currently investigating the possibility of a genetic predisposition, with a neurological basis.

If your child fits the description for DCD, you are most likely wondering what can be done to reduce your child's frustration and discouragement, as well as your own. Professionals such as occupational therapists and physical therapists work to assist these children in developing the skills that are important to them and their parents.

Children are first assessed to fully understand their motor difficulties. Activities are provided to develop such skills as planning movements, improving balance, or coordinating the use of both sides of the body. Complex movements are broken down into small parts which are mastered before the movements are strung together.

Children also learn such strategies as thinking about and planning their movements, talking themselves through movements, and/or visualizing themselves performing a specific movement. Tasks are simplified when necessary, and suggestions may be offered to parents and teachers on ways to compensate for the child's motor difficulties (e.g. provide more time for printing) or to simplify tasks (e.g. provide elastic shoelaces).

Parents and children need not face a lifetime of discouragement and frustration with motor activities which occur naturally in a child's day. Understanding that DCD is a legitimate disorder is the first step. Understanding that the child can be more successful by approaching activities differently can be very helpful to the child and family, as well as to teachers and coaches. Getting help from professionals is another positive step towards understanding and alleviating the difficulties involved with Developmental Coordination Disorder.

Susan is an occupational therapist in private practice with MacKenzie and Associates. For more information on how she can assist your child with coordination problems, please call 244-1263.

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