A week ago today, I arrived in Birmingham for the Dyspraxia Foundation Adult Conference. I’d been looking forward to it for months, but even so, it surpassed my expectations.
First things first though, after getting off the train I had to get lost trying to find my hotel in the rain! I had planned to join a few people meeting up the evening before the conference, but gave in to tiredness and got an early night instead (I feel like I’m getting old now!). It sounds like those who did make it had a great evening, so it’s a shame I missed out. Lesson learned for next time!
The morning of the conference was just as grey and wet as the day before, but this time I managed not to get lost (although I still nearly walked straight past the venue as I was so focused on dodging people and puddles!).
There was a friendly welcome at the reception area and guidance up to the first floor to register, and lots of signs to help point the way.
On registering, I was given my conference pack, which I’d requested on pastel-coloured paper. This was ready and passed to me with no reminders needed, making this the first conference or training event in the past year where I didn’t have to ask again for it or watch someone scurry awkwardly around trying to find what they’d done with it! So thank you to the Dyspraxia Foundation for making it an easy and comfortable experience requesting this adjustment, it made a big difference to my day.
Glad to be out of the rain, I took the opportunity to catch up with a few people, make some new friends and get onto the wi-fi as I waited for the conference to start.
National Survey Results
Following a warm welcome, the conference kicked off with the results of the Dyspraxia Foundation survey, which had been launched at their AGM earlier in the year. Sally Payne introduced a few (impromtu?) mascots before sharing the key findings.
Sally outlined the key findings clearly and succinctly, and used quotes from survey respondents to put them neatly into context. I suspect the findings were not terribly surprising to most of those in the room, but hopefully they can be useful in pushing for better pathways to diagnosis and support. I won’t repeat them here as you can read about them on the Dyspraxia Foundation website here and, if you’re a member of the Foundation, I think Sally’s slides are or will be made available in the members’ area of the website.
Some questions were raised regarding the lack of NICE guidelines for dyspraxia/DCD and I think it’s important that this complex issue continues to be discussed. I know access to diagnosis is something the Dyspraxia Foundation cares deeply about, and also that progress on this requires a broad range of people and organisations working for change.
Diagnosis was always going to be an emotive topic, so hearing about dyspraxia and mental wellbeing was a timely next session.
Mental Health, Anxiety and Wellbeing
Dr Emma Tremaine’s presentation, covering the link between dyspraxia and anxiety (and also depression), was one of my favourite sessions of the day.
I really appreciated Emma’s approachable, down-to-earth presentation style and the way she integrated her own experience as well as her medical knowledge. Everything was well-paced, clear and easy to follow.
Emma highlighted the importance of self-care and shared lots of practical tips that people could start to apply in their lives. I especially heard lots of people talking about spoons later in the day, following Emma’s discussion about spoons as a metaphor for energy – with tasks that need more energy ‘costing’ more spoons and only a certain number of spoons being available in a given day. I like to imagine the spoons in the dishwasher overnight while I’m sleeping, ready to start over in the morning – but if I’ve had a bad day they might not all make it into the dishwasher, so I’m down a spoon the following day.
When talking about mental health, it’s common for people to ask questions about their own experience, and I found the way Emma handled these very compassionate. She took time to thank people for sharing their experience and to recognise that they were likely helping others by doing so, and gave thoughtful and considered answers.
We were getting quite behind the planned time by this point, but I’d been so caught up in the sessions that I hadn’t even realised until I looked at my watch. The conference organisers handled this well and with humour – and through some magic, managed to still give us plenty of break time to mingle, visit the information stands and, later, get lunch.
Supporting Students with Dyspraxia
After the break, Kerry Pace from Diverse Learners took to the stage for one of the most energetic presentations of the day. She breezed through lots of information to help get the day back on track, time-wise, without it feeling overly rushed. She took time to give concrete examples of points she was making, and it was clearly evident that she is very passionate about people being able to meet their own individual needs – from the range of fiddles she handed round for people to try, to sharing non-learning specific things she had found helpful (I need to track down an electric blanket like the one she mentioned that allows different setting for your feet and the rest of your body!).
Kerry’s presentation was great at normalising lots of needs and strategies that I’ve sometimes felt embarrassed about or thought I shouldn’t need. I loved that Kerry said ‘this is what helps me, this is why’ and just did it (shoes off, fan going) – I think that’s a brilliant example. I’m not sure she does it to set an example, but it serves as one just the same!
Again, this was a great, down-to-earth session. I loved the mentions of specific software with images on the slides (the one where you can separate audio recording into chunks that go with each presentation slide particularly comes to mind). “Just keep swimming” is a motto I’m sure lots of us can relate to!
Dyspraxia in the Workplace
Next up we had Laurence Turner talking about dyspraxia at work. Some of the statistics around discrimination always make me sad, but I really appreciated the practical approach to ‘this is what the law says, these are options that could help.’ Stressing that a diagnosis is not required for Access to Work was one point that I think was really key, especially following Sally’s presentation earlier.
I think this presentation was quite similar to what Laurence presented at the AGM in the summer, but I may be misremembering! Even so, I’m really glad that it could be shared with so many more adults at this conference than had been possible at the AGM, as it’s such an important issue.
By this point, it was time for a well-deserved lunch break. I popped out and braved the rain for a few minutes to get some needed fresh(ish) air before heading back inside. It was great to meet a few people I’ve known from Twitter, even if only briefly, and to move around a little after sitting all morning.
I also spent some time visiting the different information stands, and picked up some leaflets either for personal use or to take back to work with me. It was great to have a good number of stands covering a range of areas, from job search to in-work issues to mental health to support for students, as well as the Dyspraxia Foundation stand. For me this was one of the strengths of the adult conference as it allowed a little more one-to-one discussion. Although the stands were overcrowded at times, and some of the most popular were never missing a queue, I see this an an indication that the stands are a valuable part of the day.
After lunch we heard from a number of people about their own lived experience of dyspraxia.
Danielle Hickey spoke about her experience of taekwondo – which I think it is safe to say she excells at – compared to her experiences of PE, which just goes to show we shouldn’t write ourselves off completely as bad at physical activity! She also reflected on how her teacher training had technically covered dyspraxia… but not well enough for her to realise it applied to her own experiences. I’m finding increasingly that people *think* they know what dyspraxia is, meaning things get missed or misunderstood, and that it can be harder to know where the misconceptions are – I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience.
Janet Taylor spoke about the impact of dyspraxia on her working life, and her decision to return to work after a long break. I was really moved by her sharing some of the challenges and successes that she has had since returning to work and am pleased it sounds like she has found a supportive team to work in. She also shared some tips for travelling, which I will definitely be making use of in the future!
Mark Robinson also shared his experience, and this felt like a bit of an update after his presentation at the AGM in June as it touched on some of the same points in terms of mental health and aiming for success, but also continued on from where Mark had been in June. It was great to hear him sounding a little more positive and I was struck that we are often very good, as dyspraxics, at learning to persevere and keep going, but that sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s not longer helpful or worthwhile to keep going (at least for me!). Mark spoke about reconsidering his career direction, and I thought that this can take just as much determination, courage and strength and persevering when things are difficult.
It was also great to see Mark become an official ambassador for the Dyspraxia Foundation! And very well deserved too.
I found these three presentations very moving and loved the mix of strengths, challenges, obstacles and successes that were discussed. Sometimes I think the conversation around dyspraxia can become polarised in a way that strips away from the complexity of the condition and that also minimises our full experience as dyspraxic people who might also be parents, friends, students, employees, bosses, artists, cyclists, quiz-players, partners, etc. It was great to hear about people’s different roles and put so much of what we talk about into the context of an individual’s own life experience.
Then there was just time for one final break – with having just shaved a few minutes from each of the lived experience presentations, we were back on time – before Harriet Kemsley took to the stage. I used the time to give some feedback on the flipchart sheets that had been put on the wall, but more on that in a bit!
Living with Dyspraxia
For some reason, it was not until Harriet Kemsley started speaking that I realised how funny her session was going to be. Given that she’s a comedian, I probably should have seen that coming!
I was crying with laughter as she shared so many experiences that I could relate to – getting lost trying to escape from Birmingham New Street, misadventures with underwear and in relationships, and so much more. The breakages fund is a budget I also have – and a necessary one, as I’ve killed two laptops in the last 5 years by spilling too many drinks over them (you’d think I’d have learned not to have drinks near my laptop!).
After the previous speakers, I was also grateful for the humour, as it helped lighten the mood at the end of an emotionally powerful day. I think it is safe to say that Harriet has gained herself some new fans!
Jonathan, Alice and Sophie from the Dyspraxia Foundation shared some of their reflections on the day and brought the conference to a close.
It’s taken me a few days to get my thoughts together. I was quite emotional after the conference, which I hadn’t been expecting. I’m really grateful to have been part of it.
I had high hopes for this conference, but even so, it surpassed by expectations. The range of speakers was excellent and I really appreciated the mix of personal and professional knowledge. An awful lot of thought and work had clearly gone in to the organisation of the day, and I would say that work certainly paid off.
Alice (Dyspraxia Foundation Adult Representative) had posted some flipchart paper for us to leave feedback about the day, with questions such as ‘what would you have done differently?’ and ‘how did the day make you feel?’ The responses about how the day made people feel were incredibly moving – so many people wrote about a sense of belonging, of being understood. There was an amazing sense of community about the whole day – including my favourite ‘overheard in the toilet moment’ (someone saying how great it is that we’re all bumping into each other but nobody minds and we can just be ourselves).
For one day, it was like being in a bubble of understanding and non-judgement. Where being myself was not only okay, it was positively welcome. Where it was okay to need a few quiet moments, or to say I was tired and trust that people would know this wasn’t a personal comment on them – that I just was tired.
We talk about the importance of safe spaces a lot and this was the first time I had really felt that I was in a truly safe space as my whole, dyspraxic self. There are safe people and relatively safe places in my daily life, of course, and other Dyspraxia Foundation events have felt like comfortable places to be me. But there was something different about knowing that most of the other people in the room were dyspraxic adults, and the sense of togetherness that was created between the attendees and the range of such relateable speakers.
It was also incredibly liberating to have the chance to think in more depth about being an adult who is dyspraxic. The adult workshops at the AGM of course give some very welcome space for this, but as someone who likes depth and details, having the full day to get a bit deeper was fantastic. I feel a little more comfortable in my own skin now, a little bit more proud of who I am, and a lot more confident that it’s okay to still have needs and struggles as an adult and to ask for help – and to celebrate my successes, too.
Thank you to everyone who spoke, to all those who came and especially to everyone who was involved in organising the conference. It was a fabulous experience to be part of.
Were you also at the conference? What was your favourite moment or speaker? Have I missed something that really resonated with you?