Dyspraxia in the kitchen

Dyspraxia in the kitchen

The challenges of cooking with a developmental co-ordination disorder

Most people I meet in life tend to notice fairly quickly that I'm quite clumsy. I walk into things, drop things, can't work out mechanisms that seem to be very simple for others (like locks and keys, for example - I have a lot of trouble with those) and I'm always spilling drinks and food. When I worked in offices, it was a standing joke that I couldn't walk from one end of the office to the other without crashing into or tripping over something. 

"Why can't you just look where you're going?!"
The reason is not because I don't watch where I'm going, as many people assume. It's because I have dyspraxia, which is classified as a "developmental co-ordination disorder" according to Dyspraxia Foundation UK. Dyspraxia can affect several areas of day to day functioning. The main areas are: gross motor co-ordination and spatial awareness (large movements like throwing, catching, driving, riding a bike), fine motor co-ordination (small movements such as writing, painting, playing musical instruments), sensory processing, speech and language, and learning/thought processing/organisation. 
I have three of the five affected areas to differing degrees. My gross motor co-ordination and spatial awareness are pretty bad. I had issues learning to drive, although eventually passed my test by some miracle. I don't know my left from right a lot of the time and I can't read maps (satnav is, as far as I'm concerned, the best invention ever made). My sensory processing is also affected; I am quite sensitive to things like background noises, lights, the feel of fabrics and touch. In terms of learning and thought processing, I literally melt down if I have to multi-task. I can focus very intensely on one thing, but if someone interrupts me, woe betide them, because my concentration won't come back. You can see how I just loved working in open-plan offices and having people wander up to my desk every five minutes to ask me inane questions, right? No wonder I became a writer and opted for a solitary occupation!
My fine motor skills, however, are pretty good. I learned musical instruments as a child and was always praised for neat handwriting. Happily, cooking also involves a lot of these fine motor skills, so cooking and baking are hobbies for me that play to my strengths, for the most part. I learned cake decoration as well, which allowed me to indulge my inner artist as well as my love of cake. I also love to see people's faces when they see their favourite things in cake form. 
A birthday cake for a giraffe lover
Dyspraxic kitchen challenges
Although I personally don't have problems with fine motor kitchen skills like chopping, dyspraxia affects everyone differently and those who do have fine motor difficulties find those aspects hard and struggle to learn those techniques. My issues are more around being able to work out kitchen gadgets, especially in a new kitchen environment, moving around the kitchen without tripping or bumping into things, and juggling having lots of things on the go at once. I often make extra mess because I didn't quite get the lid on the blender tight enough (and therefore end up painting the kitchen with whatever's in it) or I'll forget that I put the rice on because I get into concentrating hard on something else I'm trying to do, until it's boiling over and there's more liquid on the stovetop than in the pan. I spill ingredients pretty much every time I weigh them out, which is why I love American recipes that use cup measurements and I can just dig my cups into my mason jars. I couldn't live without my funky JosephJoseph measuring cups and spoons. Too easy.
This is what happens when I cook...

Learning new techniques isn't always easy for me because of the way I learn (or rather, don't learn). Many of my friends use and share YouTube videos to learn new techniques or recipes, but I'm not a visual learner at all, so this just goes over my head. I can't translate images or diagrams to what I'm actually doing - I absolutely have to do it before it's cemented in my brain, so I'm what's known as a kinaesthetic learner. A high proportion of dyspraxics tend to prefer this learning style. My way of learning is definitely "trial and error" which can be interesting in a kitchen environment! It has made me pretty adaptable in the kitchen though - I don't really stress too much if something goes wrong (as it often does when you have some of the issues I've described in this article). There's nothing that accelerates your learning quite as much as having to fix your own mistakes. 
If you like your kitchen super tidy, don't let me cook in it
To many outsiders, the way I cook looks incredibly chaotic. Neat freaks never want me in their kitchens. I have tried to learn to cook differently, in a more methodical way, but when I do that I feel like the enjoyment goes out of it and I can't put the creativity and instinct into it that I love so much. Because I hate spending energy measuring and timing, I've developed a fairly instinctive approach to flavouring and cooking food, preferring to go by smell, touch and taste rather than following a recipe to the letter. While a lot of people hate watching me cook, I've noticed they don't seem to have a problem eating the food, so I must be doing something right! The neatness of my finished products nearly always belies the state of the kitchen.
Don't be afraid to have a go
I owe a lot of my kitchen abilities to the fact that I was taught and encouraged to cook at home. Sadly, since being diagnosed with dyspraxia as an adult and knowing other dyspraxic adults and children, I've noticed that some parents tend to discourage their dyspraxic kids from doing things like cooking and baking, assuming that their co-ordination difficulties will mean that they won't cope in the kitchen, won't be able to master the techniques or it's too dangerous for them to learn. I understand that many families want to shelter their children from feeling like failures, because that's hard (and obviously you don't want your kids to have accidents and hurt themselves badly), but whether you're dyspraxic or not, it's a reality of life that you can't be good at everything and there are some skills in life you'll have to work harder to master. I feel sad whenever I read about dyspraxic adults who never learned to cook and adapt to their particular difficulties in the kitchen, and now struggle to care for themselves properly in adulthood. Looking back on it, that's probably one of the advantages I had an an undiagnosed child (back when I was a kid, they just called it "clumsy child syndrome"!). 
Could be the story of a dyspraxic's life...

Because I didn't have a 'label', nobody thought to prevent me from doing things I wasn't naturally skilled at or to protect me from the experience of not being good at something. Of course that was hard - I was made fun of a lot and even admonished for my clumsiness and awkwardness - but it also taught me important lessons about perseverance and has also helped me adapt and find different ways of doing things even if I can't do them the same as non-dyspraxics. 
Specially adapted kitchen equipment
There are some pretty cool kitchen tools out there these days too for people with disabilities, which can help alleviate concerns about poor grip or co-ordination, particularly when using knives. Angled, weighted and rocker knives can help give people with dyspraxia more confidence with their knife skills, while talking thermometers are brilliant if you're doing something you need a certain temperature for and you are, like me, prone to going off and doing something else and forgetting about the process you already started. They were originally designed for the visually impaired, but hey, they also work for the chaotic-brained, so why not take advantage?
An angled knife by ETAC, designed for people with joint and grip problems, but may also make it easier for dyspraxics with fine motor difficulties to cut and chop more safely.

Don't limit yourself because you have a different set of abilities and don't be afraid to use what's out there to help you succeed in the kitchen on your own terms. 

Image Attribution: Main image - Janice Cullivan. Top to bottom: Author's own; Kim S, Philip Bump, used under Creative Commons 2.0; ETAC angled carving knife courtesy of ArthritisSolutions.com.au.


Most funny and interesting article, , however, you definately know how to write, Liz!
Respond 0 15.Apr 13:17
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