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A still of Ryan from Doctor Who.

Image caption

Tosin Cole plays dyspraxic character Ryan Sinclair

Ever since the 2005 series reboot, I’ve been hooked on Who. So, I was surprised to find my highlight of the opening episode of the new series was nothing to do with the latest Doctor’s debut but involved a relatively minor character falling off a bike.

More than 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia. And Sunday night was the first time I have ever come across a fictional character portraying my disability.

The episode has received broadly positive reviews, most focusing on the spectacular performance of the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.

But for me it acquired real resonance when Tosin Cole was introduced as Ryan, a young man with dyspraxia.

Doctors will tell you dyspraxia is a “developmental co-ordination disorder” but this can cover a wide range.

Someone with dyspraxia might have problems with fine motor skills, such as hand-writing and typing.

I want to ride my bicycle

Others, including me, might struggle with memory, planning and organisation, and particularly with learning skills involving coordination – catching a ball or riding a bike.

Which is where Doctor Who comes in.

Soon after we meet Ryan, he too is finding it impossible to keep his balance on a bicycle.

Let’s be clear – just because you have dyspraxia, it doesn’t mean you will never ride a bike. It may simply take longer to learn than it would for someone else.

In some cases, a lot longer. My brother – who also has dyspraxia – was eventually able to learn how to ride, while I never was.

The frustration that comes with not being able to learn at a normal pace can be so affecting that you give up learning a skill altogether. I still can’t ride a bike. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.

In Doctor Who, Ryan becomes angry at his failures as he relentlessly falls off his bicycle. Later in the episode, he attempts to channel his frustration and learn again – yet he still fails.

It cannot be overstated how happy I was at this moment. I didn’t want Ryan to suddenly, magically succeed. I wanted him to keep failing.

Don’t call him inspirational

Dyspraxia doesn’t have an overnight fix. You can’t will yourself to not be disabled anymore. It’s always there, always present, always making things harder than they should be.

I don’t want to see people using the word “inspirational” to describe him. He’s not an inspiration. He’s a normal guy, who happens to have a disability.

But there’s something else to the representation of dyspraxia in Doctor Who that I really, really like.

Ryan shies away from the word “dyspraxia” when we first see him. In fact, the word isn’t used at all in the episode until about 15 minutes in, when Ryan’s Gran explains his disability to another character.

I was so impressed to see that feeling of anxiety so accurately represented on television by this deliberate omission. I too hate saying that word – it requires so much explanation.

It’s much easier to smirk and refer to myself as clumsy when I lose my balance while walking, or claim I’m drunk after a single drink.

It’s easier to just not mention my disability and hope people don’t notice.

The exact number of people with dyspraxia, or indeed dyslexia, in the UK remains unknown.

A 2013 report from the Dyspraxia Foundation said 5-10% of people in the UK “have some symptoms of dyspraxia”, while the NHS website estimates that 10% of people in the UK “have some degree of dyslexia”.

Harry Potter

Yet despite the similar figures, dyspraxia is wildly under-represented in the media compared with its better-known cousin.

I can think of a number of fictional characters with dyslexia:

But dyspraxia, in the world of stage and screen at least, remains invisible.

Sure, there are plenty of characters out there with dyspraxic traits.

Take the Harry Potter series for example. Both Neville Longbottom and Nymphadora Tonks exhibit clumsiness and lose their balance but the word “dyspraxia” is never used – though coincidentally, Daniel Radcliffe, who portrays Potter in the films, does have the disability.

Doctor Who’s new sidekick may be the first ever fictional character in mainstream media to carry the dyspraxic label.

I’ve waited more than 20 years for this. All I can say is, it’s about time.

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