Gina on Dyspraxia: "It's the Least Known Out of All the Neurodivergent Conditions." [ND@Work]

Alison Eveleigh  |  15/12/2020

Sydney-based freelance journalist Gina Flaxman discovered her dyspraxia at the age of 38. She explains her struggle in finding answers and how she focuses on her strengths.

Gina always questioned why, as a child, she couldn’t tie her shoelaces, and why, as an adult, she had difficulty with driving. It wasn’t until she was 38 that she found the answer - she has dyspraxia. She spoke to NeuroWork about her career in journalism, focusing on her strengths and the confidence she gained after her (not quite official) diagnosis.

NeuroWork: How did you find out that you had dyspraxia?

I don't actually have an official diagnosis. But that's one of the things with dyspraxia, it's very hard to get an official diagnosis and they don't really do official ones as an adult. 

When I was about 10 or 11, I went for a full day OT [occupational therapy] assessment. They just said “we have never seen anything like this before and we've never seen such a disparity of ability. We don't know what to tell you”. My spatial skills were so bad, they were off the charts, below, but my verbal was the other way. That was South Africa in the 80s where I grew up. I don’t think they knew what dyspraxia was. 

I couldn't even find anyone that would see me as an adult for ages. There's nothing for adults in Australia. There's no treatment. There's no support. There's nothing.

I found an OT who normally sees kids and she was happy to see me. She's said she's seen a few other adults. She said “we don't really do a formal test for adults, it's more like going through your background.” She said to me “look, you've definitely got it and if you need me to write an official letter for you I'm happy to do it” but I don’t have an official diagnosis. I guess I didn't ask for the letter partly because I didn't really need it for anything. The diagnosis was just for me. 

I spoke to an OT in Melbourne and she said very few OT’s are actually trained in administering this particular test, as it’s a very specific test to officially, formally diagnose someone with dyspraxia and also you have to really prove that it severely impacts on your life, that you really, really need the diagnosis.

NeuroWork: Have you been a journalist for your entire career?

Yes. I guess you're lucky if you're neurodiverse in some ways, because I couldn't do anything else. Because I was either really good at some things and so awful at others. It was very clear what I was going to do.

It was a very conscious decision. I knew I couldn't do anything else. It was one of the few careers you can do with writing. I was like “Okay, well, what can I do, where I can use my writing skills and my editing skills."

NeuroWork: Has your dyspraxia affected your career?

There are probably times when it has. But it's weird because I didn’t even know what it was. I knew I had something, I always knew that my brain works differently. I always knew there were things I struggled with that other people didn't seem to. But I only found that there was actually a name for it, and what it was, when I was 38. So you look back in retrospect. 

I guess it sometimes did. I really struggle with driving. There haven’t often been jobs where I had to drive. When I look back, I think I was quite shy, and I wasn't very confident. I think a lot of it was, in retrospect, because of the dyspraxia. I didn't used to be very confident with interviewing people. 

Because you always know growing up, there's lots of things you have to hide. I struggled with fine and gross motor coordination and spatial skills. If I ever had jobs where occasionally there’s something mathematical, I can't do it at all. I think I’ve probably got dyscalculia. [I read an interesting blog post] about why dyspraxics struggle with a lot of mathematical concepts and it explained that it relates back to the spatial stuff.

Before I discovered I had dyspraxia, I'd never linked my fine motor coordination issues with the spatial issues. It seems so obvious now. But I never linked it. I never linked the fact that I couldn't tie my shoelaces and I also couldn't find my classroom. I never realised the two were actually related. 

By the time you've gone to work and university, you've learned to compensate and you've learned to hide or avoid the things that you're bad at. And to focus on your strengths. So by the time I was working, that's what I did. I just gravitated towards the things I knew that I could do, and I knew that I was good at.

NeuroWork: Do you think there is overlap between dyspraxia and other neurodivergent conditions?

Both the people I interviewed for an article that I wrote for the Saturday Paper said that's partly the reason why dyspraxia has been so underdiagnosed, because there's so much overlap with our condition and others. So often it will get misdiagnosed. I'm really surprised that they never thought I was autistic. I'm surprised that I wasn't diagnosed with that, because they knew there was something they just never knew what it was. 

I think I’ve pretty much only got dyspraxia, but often people have dyspraxia and dyslexia or dyspraxia and ADHD or autism, so the dyspraxic part tends to go under the radar and that's partly why it's never received as much recognition.

NeuroWork: You’ve worked both for organisations and as a freelance journalist. How did you manage your condition, given you didn’t have a word for it for most of your career?

I’ve known about it since I've moved back to Sydney. We moved back 5 years ago. I've never disclosed it to an employer. Partly because it hasn't really come up and it doesn't affect what I do. I wonder if I would if something came up. Like, if they made me drive somewhere, and I had to say “look, I can't, I've got dyspraxia and this is not something I can do”. Or if they wanted me to go on a biking tour! I probably would [disclose the dyspraxia] if it came to something like that. It's not something I hide, but equally, it's not something I advertise. That's also partly because nobody knows about it. But if it came up now, I think I'd be a lot more confident in disclosing it.

NeuroWork: Do you think there needs more work to be done to educate people about dyspraxia?

It's the least known out of all the neurodivergent conditions. I'd never heard of it in Australia or South Africa. It was only when I went to the UK because there's a lot more awareness of it there. I don't know if I ever would have even come across the term if I'd stayed here [in Australia] and not moved over there.

NeuroWork: Do you think Australia is behind the rest of the world?

Very behind. There's hardly anything. There is a little bit for kids such as Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) Australia.

NeuroWork: Would you have found the support offered by Developmental Coordination Disorder Australia helpful as a child? 

Definitely. IUt has definitely made me feel better about myself, being diagnosed. There was this amazing sense of relief, because number one, I wasn't alone. There were other people that had it. That's the most important thing. Because you think it's just you. The other thing is that it wasn't my fault. I just thought “I’m not trying hard enough, everyone else can do it and why can’t I?”  This is reinforced by other people, because other people are like “why can't you use a skipping rope? Everyone else in the class can”. Which goes back to self-esteem.

NeuroWork: What would be your top career tips for someone with dyspraxia?

Focus on your strengths. I think that it's the strength of neurodiverse people. Often you have this huge disparity of abilities. So there's some things you’re amazingly bad at, but also some things that you're amazingly good at, much better than other people. Concentrate on those.

I’m very fast and I'm very efficient and I think that could be a dyspraxic thing because I'm quite good, especially with the editing. I can do it really quickly. It's partly because I started off in hard news editing. 

I also think it's one of my dyspraxic things. I am able to concentrate and hone in quite well and do that quite quickly. I can imagine people that are on the autism spectrum can also often do similar things like that. I also think [having dyspraxia] makes you a lot more empathetic. You’ve struggled and you know what that's like. I think that's actually a great skill that employers should probably tap into more than they do.

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