Understanding Dyspraxia and Apraxia of Speech

Whitney P. Gordon
Whitney P. Gordon
Special Education and English Teacher; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership, Thomas University, GA

When it comes to speech and motor skills, children grow and develop at varying rates. This can be challenging when trying to meet the needs of all students and is a reason why differentiation is key in a successful classroom. Although teachers can expect that some students will present a natural developmental delay, there are some neurological conditions that may hinder students from making developmental progress. If a student exhibits significant speech and/or motor skills deficiencies, it is possible that a common disorder known as dyspraxia or apraxia of speech is present. Although dyspraxia affects six to ten percent of students, it is often undiagnosed. Thus, it is important for teachers to recognize the signs and know how to support these students in the classroom.

What are Dyspraxia and Apraxia of Speech?

Dyspraxia is best understood through its pseudonym “developmental coordination disorder.” As this name suggests, dyspraxia manifests as an impediment to one’s ability to coordinate physical movements. These hindrances can include any of several daily activities such as walking, writing, and speaking. When dyspraxia hinders a student’s ability to speak, this is a form of dyspraxia called apraxia of speech.

The effects of dyspraxia can range from mild to severe and have the potential to adversely affect a student’s classroom performance. Aside from speculation that incorrect development of motor neurons may cause this condition, scientists and medical professionals have yet to identify a concrete cause of dyspraxia. Because there are no specific medical tests to diagnose dyspraxia, doctors rely on an assessment of the child’s development of motor skills. Mild to moderate cases, though still affecting a child’s daily activities, are often dismissed as clumsiness or a normal, self-correcting developmental delay.

Due to the shroud of mystery surrounding the cause of dyspraxia and apraxia of speech, some medical professionals use these terms interchangeably. Furthermore, students with dyspraxia often have other conditions such as autism and ADHD, so their symptoms are often erroneously attributed to a different cause. Despite their deficits, dyspraxia does not affect student intellect. Although there are many factors that cause students with dyspraxia to go undiagnosed, there are signs that teachers can recognize, and strategies that can help these students be successful in the classroom.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

The most commonly identified sign of dyspraxia is apraxia of speech, which causes students to exhibit a developmental speech delay. Each case of dyspraxia is unique, and the symptoms are abounding. Some of the most common dyspraxia symptoms that affect students in the classroom are listed below.

  • Difficulty gripping a pencil
  • Delayed handwriting skills
  • Trouble with fine motor skills (i.e. buttoning, tying shoes, and cutting with scissors)
  • Difficulty controlling volume and pitch of speech
  • Difficulty playing sports
  • Bumping into things and people
  • Poor organization
  • Oversensitivity to external stimuli
  • Poor posture

Because students with dyspraxia and apraxia of speech are affected by any combination of the symptoms above and others, they often face social issues in school and beyond. Dyspraxia can cause students to become frustrated easily and adopt a poor self-image. Unfortunately, the deficits attributed to dyspraxia can make students a target for bullying and make it difficult to maintain friendships. This is a major reason why it is imperative that teachers know how to support these students in the classroom.

How can Teachers Support Students with Dyspraxia and Apraxia of Speech?

Allow Extended Time

Motor skill deficits will make most activities more difficult to navigate. Giving these students extended time to complete assignments and activities will alleviate frustration and allow them to demonstrate their true ability.

Chunk Information and Assignments

When tasks have multiple steps, this can be difficult and sometimes frustrating for students with dyspraxia and/or apraxia of speech. Chunking information and assignments into smaller portions can help alleviate this frustration, and help students pace themselves.

Provide Tools for Writing

Though they are capable of producing and expressing ideas, many students with dyspraxia struggle with the physical aspect of writing. Providing tools such as pencil grips and helping students align paper correctly will be very helpful.

Provide Checklists

When students are working with dyspraxia deficits, they are often disorganized and need extended time. Thus, it can be easy to forget necessary steps and tasks. Providing a checklist that students can mark while working will help the students complete tasks independently. This will make them more academically successful and boost confidence.

Preferential Seating

Due to sensitivity to light, sound, and touch, students with dyspraxia will need to be seated in a place that is conducive to screening out distractions. This may be in the front of the classroom, but not always. It’s important to know the specific deficits and needs of any student with this condition to understand what location in the classroom would best serve him or her.

Solicit IEP and 504 Support

Students with dyspraxia and apraxia of speech often need the support of an IEP or 504 plan in order to be successful in the classroom. Starting the process to get your students the services they need could give them access to speech and occupational therapy along with a host of other supportive aids and services. If you feel your student needs this type of support, reach out to the student’s parents and the support staff at your school.

Although there is much to be discovered about the origin of dyspraxia, the vast number of affected students means that understanding this issue should be a priority for teachers. This will not only help these students excel academically, but also help develop their emotional intelligence and confidence. Because there is no cure or expiration for dyspraxia, teachers have a hand in preparing students to build lifelong skills necessary to overcome its challenges.

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