Motor planning is often referred to as praxis, but a more accurate definition of praxis is the organization of the self. This definition encompasses motor skills but also extends to cognitive tasks. Insofar as it relates to motor function, praxis allows us to appreciate and carry out the step-by-step nature of many motor activities, as well as make inferences about new tasks based on similar ones already experienced. Most young children demonstrate this ability from an early age, organizing their actions with a purpose in mind.
Although blocks may be scattered on the floor and people may be moving around, most children would be able to physically negotiate a busy room without any difficulty. The reason they are able to do this is because they have a motor planning ability. At a certain age they recognize when to tiptoe carefully and can generally maintain such control over their body. Dyspraxia describes what happens when a child does not possess praxis and lacks the coordination and physical organization necessary to perform basic motor tasks as easily or successfully as others of the same age.
Praxis is possible through a three-step process: ideation (understanding the task), organization (planning how to perform the task) and execution (carrying out the task). People who have dyspraxia may have problems with ideation or organization, both of which are dependent on effective neural (brain) processing. Ideal motor development involves learning through motor planning, then automating movements so that new ones can be learnt. Individuals with dyspraxia expend so much energy planning their motor tasks that it takes a long time to learn them well enough to make subsequent tasks easier.
People with dyspraxia often find it very difficult to learn physical movements and adapt them to different situations – even when the movements are learnt, they are often executed without confidence or coordination. The motor difficulties experienced by individuals with dyspraxia are not a result of physical deficits. Dyspraxia, like many developmental disorders, is neurological in origin – that is, it has its basis in the brain. The brain is a network of neural connections that allow us to process the information we receive. Dyspraxia is a result of weak or disorganized connections in the brain, which then translates to difficulties with motor coordination.
Movements are performed because the brain sends messages to the area requiring action. The more often certain movements are performed, the better developed the neural pathways become, and pretty soon the most common applications of this system (such as moving the mouth to produce speech) become almost automatic. Dyspraxia is a result of weak or poorly structured neural pathways to the mouth (oral and verbal dyspraxia) or other moving parts of the body (motor dyspraxia).3 Some children only have verbal dyspraxia, while others only have motor dyspraxia. It is not uncommon for both types to be present in the same person.
Dyspraxic people tend to have a poor organization of thoughts and an inability to integrate sensory information to form an appropriate physical response. For example, most children at a Wiggles concert will be able to copy the actions of the people on the stage and dance along to the music. A child with dyspraxia would not know how to move his or her own body in imitation, even though the actions are very simple.
Dyspraxia can also affect language and speech development, as manipulation of the mouth requires fine motor coordination. As a child develops, language becomes increasingly more complex and the rapid sequencing of the tongue and jaw must also be coordinated with breathing. Dyspraxia compromises language skills, which in turn impacts on academic, social and emotional development. This often, but not always, occurs alongside general motor difficulties.
One of the most common symptoms of children with dyspraxia is messy handwriting which is a result of poor fine motor coordination. Similarly, the clumsiness and tendency to fall down are a matter of poor balance and gross motor coordination. People with dyspraxia also tend to have an overly sensitive tactile system that causes them to perceive the most benign touch as unpleasant.
People with Dyspraxia may have a very low pain-threshold or have an automatic reaction of fear – tactile defensiveness – when touched. This is a result of a sensory integrative dysfunction which describes a problem in the way the brain interprets information received from the senses. This problem, like that of coordination, originates in the vestibule – an organ located in the inner ear. All sensory information is transmitted to the vestibule before being sent to the cerebellum, the part of the brain associated with movement.