What Is Developmental Coordination Disorder?

Young patient doing physiotherapy at a clinic with help of a therapist

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Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a neurodevelopmental condition. Otherwise known as dyspraxia, this disorder affects the development of motor skills and functions. It is a common challenge, affecting around 6% of children who are between five and 11 years old. 

A child with dyspraxia is often regarded as clumsy, and may experience difficulty with movement. This disorder prevents fluidity in activities like walking and holding objects, as expected of the child’s age group. Such difficulties may continue well into adolescence and adulthood.

Despite its widespread nature, dyspraxia often goes unnoticed—even under observation by health experts.

This guide will examine the signs and symptoms of developmental coordination disorder. To understand the origins of dyspraxia, the causes of this condition will be explored. We will also examine the different types, and management options available to control the effects of DCD.

Symptoms of Developmental Coordination Disorder

As part of their development, children learn a number of skills that are important for independent living. Among these are fine and gross motor skills. The former is responsible for minor movements such as picking things up, holding items, drawing, etc. Fine motor skills typically employ small muscles in the hands, wrist, fingers, feet, and toes—these skills determine our ability to pick things up, and write carefully. 

Gross motor skills require large muscle movements. These are required for walking, crawling, running, or sitting independently. When children begin to exhibit difficulty with fine or gross motor functions, it can suggest developmental coordination disorder.

The following are signs that may indicate dyspraxia in children:

  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination
  • Vision problems
  • Awkward coordination
  • Trouble tying shoes
  • Challenges throwing or kicking a ball
  • Poor posture

Developmental coordination problems may be associated with other developmental issues such as challenges with social interactions and can show signs of poor short-term memory.This disorder may not affect intellect, as average and above-average intelligence levels occur with dyspraxia. However, people with this condition may behave immaturely.

Causes of Developmental Coordination Disorder

Despite an increase in dyspraxia research, there is yet to be a conclusive agreement on the causes of this condition. One suggestion claims that children with dyspraxia experience challenges with the cerebellum—a part of the brain responsible for balance and coordination. 

Some experimental research suggests that children have difficulty making motor behaviors automatic. Another theory suggests difficulties in planning and completing motor tasks as a cause of DCD.

However, while there is yet to be a consensus, certain risk factors like premature births and low birth weight may increase the odds of dyspraxia. Research also suggests that postnatal exposure to steroids can be responsible for a child’s difficulties with motor coordination. Other studies identify a greater risk for obesity in children with DCD.

Boys May Be More Likely to Have DCD

Male children are more likely to live with this disorder. It is believed by some estimates that boys are 1.7 times more likely to live with dyspraxia than girls. 

Diagnosis of Developmental Coordination Disorder 

An accurate diagnosis of dyspraxia requires the expertise of professionals. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the following are the criteria used when confirming a case of this condition:

  • A delay in acquiring and displaying motor function. This delay is observed following difficulty with activities like cutlery or scissors usage. The child may also struggle during more complex scenarios like sporting exercises. These challenges are usually below what is expected of a child in that age group.
  • The difficulties experienced in motor function can interfere with daily life and the challenges affect a child’s schooling and play.
  • A child living with developmental coordination disorder will display signs of this condition early in life.
  • When screening for dyspraxia, the symptoms present should not be attributable to intellectual disabilities, neurological conditions, or visual challenges in the child. However, this condition may co-occur with anxiety, ADHD, learning disabilities, language challenges, and autism

Treatment of Developmental Coordination Disorder

Beyond awkward movements and clumsy coordination, there are other consequences that follow life with developmental coordination disorder. This condition can lead to compromised physical well-being, obesity, hypermobility of the joints, and mental health challenges. 

But despite its impact on everyday life, dyspraxia is a disorder that can be managed with the right treatment methods. Management techniques may be task-based or process-oriented. Other approaches include physical therapy and medication.

  • Task-Based: Task-oriented therapies focus on carrying out specific tasks to improve motor function. This will require specific therapies that focus on tasks like cutting paper with scissors, writing out a list, etc, in order to enhance the performance of these activities.
  • Process Oriented Therapy: This approach to therapy aims to improve general motor skills, as opposed to those for specific tasks.
  • Physical Therapy: Children with dyspraxia will typically exhibit an unsteadiness/delay in movement and executing tasks. Through proper physiotherapy, these difficulties can be managed. Physical therapy can help to improve motion, coordination, and agility through programs designed to build core strength, improve balance, and even strengthen movements.
  • Medication: Stimulants such as methylphenidate may be prescribed, particularly if there is co-occurring ADHD. Methylphenidate helps to improve concentration and may help improve motor function. These effects can potentially help to improve the quality of life, and the performance of tasks in people with dyspraxia. 

A Word From Verywell

When a child experiences delays in development, it can be very challenging for their well-being. Likewise, it can be difficult for parents and loved ones that witness these issues firsthand. Developmental coordination disorder is, however, manageable with the right treatment methods and therapies. Before deciding on a management approach, it's important to speak with an expert. These experts can provide a correct diagnosis and advice on the next steps to take.

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By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.