When you think of ‘dyspraxia’, gender differences probably aren’t the first thing to come to mind. And compared to other conditions like autism, which is gendered as a ‘male issue’ across the media, the gendering of dyspraxia is more subtle and so, perversely, less people tend to be aware of it. Because there is no theory describing dyspraxia as an ‘extreme male brain’ or the like, it can be tempting to assume sex and gender just don’t come into it.
Yet practitioners are increasingly speaking out about the low numbers of girls being identified with dyspraxia. A nationwide poll of young people with dyspraxia found that 53% of female respondents, yet just 38% of male respondents, believed their primary school teachers were unaware of their difficulties. Moreover, while in a sample of children with dyspraxia 73% were male and 28% female, this almost reversed when it came to adult respondents to the survey – 69% were female and 31% male – indicating many women have dyspraxia but are not diagnosed young. While this could be argued to be the result of a self-selecting sample – where more women have put themselves forward so are over-represented – studies have put the gender disparity of dyspraxia/DCD at a 2:1 ratio, rather than the 3:1 diagnosis ratio detailed above. It is clear that many women are waiting much longer until adulthood, to get a diagnosis and understand their own behaviour and identity.
There is no clear reason behind the lower diagnosis rate, and it’s likely there are multiple reasons – Sally Payne has proposed that girls are more likely to conceal difficulties, especially in childhood. Another hypothesis is that, since society expects young boys to be more interested in sport and fitness than girls, difficulties in this area will be more visible in young boys at sports days, games, and everyday social physical activity. Additionally, since dyspraxia can often be diagnosed alongside conditions where males strongly dominate diagnosis figures, like dyslexia, autism and ADHD, dyspraxia will be picked up inadvertently as an additional or unexpected diagnosis, in many more boys than it will girls, who simply won’t be there in as great a number having (e.g.) ADHD testing.
Dyspraxia also presents differently in men and women – both in terms of traits, and how those traits affect differently gendered activities. Dyspraxia can make it very difficult for women to apply makeup and eyeliner, or wear high heels – which naturally isn’t an issue for the vast majority of men – and the tendency for people with dyspraxia to ignore or avoid personal grooming tends to affect women more, given the higher standards of personal hygiene and appearance women are held to. Dyspraxia can also bring difficulties for girls during puberty, particularly around menstruation and organising a response to periods.
Conversely, though, there are also areas men with dyspraxia report more difficulty with. Since sport tends to play a greater social role among boys than girls at a young age, difficulty with coordination can affect male social development more than female. Being unable to take part in any sport closes off more social extra-curricular events for most boys than for most girls, leading to lesser confidence in social situations later down the line – though women and girls should not be dissuaded from sport the fact remains that society does not view sport among girls with the same level of importance. It is clear that gender affects how dyspraxia affects someone, and how it is viewed by others – and that’s without even discussing trans* and intersex people or those from non-binary genders with dyspraxia, of which there has been almost no research.
Despite this general lack of understanding, however, there are some great role models out there for women and girls with dyspraxia. These include Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields since 2013, who was elected being open about her diagnoses of dyspraxia and mild dyslexia and who works tirelessly in parliament and with the Dyspraxia Foundation; Janet Taylor, a support group coordinator at the Dyspraxia Foundation who has spoken to audiences about dyspraxia for many years; and Cara Delevigne, a famous supermodel who recently revealed a dyspraxia diagnosis, and who has achieved great success without dyspraxia, or the associated difficulties she has with writing, holding her back. No doubt others will follow in time, bringing further visibility to women and girls with dyspraxia – the only question is when.