Dyspraxia and Cutlery | Written by Alys Wilfred Earl
When I was around seventeen, my mother jokingly pointed out that she could always tell where my partner or I had sat at a table, mostly due to the quantity of crumbs, sauce, and other foodstuffs that had missed both our mouths and our plates. As a dyspraxic teenager, I can’t say it was an unfamiliar experience - mine was always the shirt stained with sauce, mine the napkin crumpled and dirty, mine the glass always the one leaving the wet ring on the table, just as it was always my laces that were trailing or my exercise book that went missing.
Now - an unspecified number of years later - I watch my youngest child struggle with the same battles, and sometimes feel as though I’m being granted an external view of my own childhood. Even with the insight my own experiences of dyspraxia provide, I still struggle with the how of it all, as skills and coping strategies embedded deep in my body memory are simply lost in the gap between demonstration and mimicry. Dyspraxia is a difficult one to teach around because it's very difficult to see how the trajectory of the arm holding the cup misses the edge of the table, or careful imitation of your exact motions leaves shoelaces in such a hopeless snarl. It turns out that it’s no less frustrating from the other side, and as I watch my child awkwardly spear an outsize piece of chicken, and raise it wobbling to her mouth, it is very hard not to echo my own parents, “Please use your knife. It’s what it’s for.”
Family dinners can be a difficult time even before neurodivergence is brought in to the equation, but dyspraxia presents a number of specific challenges.
Sometimes, defamiliarising the routine and conventions of the supper table can help us understand how much strain it can exert on a dyspraxic child. Usually taking place after a day where our masking and coping strategies have been near-enough exhausted, we are asked to sit upright in a chair, often in close proximity to others. If we have misophonia, or any sensory issues, these are likely to be triggered by the sounds of ourselves or others eating and exacerbated by any food we get on our hands or clothing. Worse still, the demands of table manners may require our feet to be flat on the floor rather than comfortably tucked under us, and our elbows firmly off the table, unable to help support our upper backs. From this stress position, we are then asked to manipulate two cumbersome and fiddly items of cutlery in a complicated cross-body fashion while - here is the kicker - holding the implement we’re going to need the most dexterity within our non-dominant hand.
Sometimes, defamiliarising the routine and conventions of the supper table can help us understand how much strain it can exert on a dyspraxic child.
Usually taking place after a day where our masking and coping strategies have been near-enough exhausted, we are asked to sit upright in a chair, often in close proximity to others. If we have misophonia, or any sensory issues, these are likely to be triggered by the sounds of ourselves or others eating and exacerbated by any food we get on our hands or clothing. Worse still, the demands of table manners may require our feet to be flat on the floor rather than comfortably tucked under us, and our elbows firmly off the table, unable to help support our upper backs. From this stress position, we are then asked to manipulate two cumbersome and fiddly items of cutlery in a complicated cross-body fashion while - here is the kicker - holding the implement we’re going to need the most dexterity within our non-dominant hand.
Somehow, from this nightmarish set-up, we are expected to manipulate various textures and sizes of food on our plate into bite-size portions and get it to our mouths without mishap. Is it any wonder, then, that the dyspraxic child abandons their knife as a bad job and resorts to stabbing individual peas with their fork, or lifting single strands of spaghetti in a desperate attempt to find the end?
As a parent, particularly a dyspraxic parent, such ineffective workarounds can be frustrating. Any sensory reaction to mess or sound aside, we have spent years honing our own coping strategies, and perhaps have still deep, internalised feelings of shame around our own messiness, clumsiness, or lack of coordination. Seeing our children exhibit the behaviours for which we are embarrassed, or even punished, can be a very upsetting experience.
But - as with everything else - we find coping strategies. Switching from plates to pasta bowels for most meals has been enormously helpful to me, as has eating ‘left-handed’ - using my knife in my left hand and my fork in my right. I wonder, sometimes, if my child’s dislike of rice is to do with how difficult it is to keep on a fork, or if her preference for the drumstick at a roast dinner is because she’s can get away with eating it with her hands. Some dyspraxic people I know favour chopsticks or use the edge of their fork like a knife - anything to ease the complicated relationship of balance, cross-body and hand-eye coordination conventional use of Western cutlery requires.
The trouble arises when these coping strategies are disrupted, and even small changes can make us realising how much more challenging this whole process is with dyspraxia. Visiting my parents a couple of years ago, I discovered they had replaced the cutlery I’d used through my childhood with some stylish, modern stuff with much weightier handles - and spent three days dropping my fork, or sending food scooting off the edge of my plate, in a way I hadn’t since I was my kid’s age. These issues can be particularly pronounced in restaurants, where design and use of space often prioritises aesthetics over ease of use. Without even taking white-tie dining in to account, even mid-range restaurants often present less elbow room, cumbersome chairs, and less ability to rearrange space to meet your needs - combined with the increased noise, and the visibility that comes in public space means that I’m being quite serious when I say cutlery and eating can prove an access issue to people with dyspraxia.
Social anxiety - an often noted comorbidity - and shame around ‘mess’ can make the thought of eating around our peers a really daunting process.
Suddenly, those strategies that can be employed in the comfort of our homes, or around close friends, become taboo - we don’t wish to be the only person eating with our hands, or putting down our knife to pick our fork, or turning our plate to the angle we need it at. Sometimes, eating out as a dyspraxic person can feel a little like being the Queen, avoiding anything high in sauce or spilling potential. Buffets, particularly, can be a trial, as not only do you have to balance cutlery on your plate, but aren’t always guaranteed a proper table or seat. Dress codes only serve to exacerbate this - after a personally intense few years, I remembered that there was a good reason you’ll only see me in a white shirt at weddings and funerals.
If this all feels too silly and personal, it is perhaps important to note that plenty of industries, organisations, and social groups do a lot of their networking at dinners, or in restaurants. In Oxbridge colleges, Formal Hall is still a requirement, and success in many careers still involves some measure of formal dress and social eating. Learning to operate around the social and professional penalties for ‘bad table manners’ is a genuine concern. A lot of social comedy has expended itself around not knowing ‘which fork’ to use, but very little is said the stress and exhaustion of having to use cutlery ‘properly’ with a developmental co-ordination disorder, when the social and professional penalties are potentially so high.
Being in such situations can seem to catapult you back to your childhood, struggling to manipulate unwieldy implements, as food slides about your plate, and your ability to mirror your peers fails you entirely. A sense of hyper-visibilty pervades your every movement as you force your body to hold an unnatural position as you do not understand why this is so much harder for you than for everyone else.
The answer, of course, is because you are facing barriers here that other people do not face. That this has always been materially and measurably, a harder skill for most dyspraxic people to master. It is here, as dyspraxic adults, or the parents of dyspraxic children, that we have the opportunity to enact real change.
Through normalising the use of adaptive technologies and coping strategies, through honesty about our discomfort and struggles, and the recognition that it is not just dyspraxic people who face these barriers. It may not bring immediate change and accessibility to all social situations, but it can at least break down the legacy of shame and frustration at ‘not being able’ to use a knife and fork.