In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Ryan Sinclair became the first Doctor Who companion to have dyspraxia. In this opinion piece, Blogtor Who explores why that representation matters.
“He’s got dyspraxia. It’s a coordination disorder.”
When Grace O’Brien said these two sentences, she changed everything for some viewers.
On Sunday night, one of the Doctor’s new best friends Ryan (Tosin Cole) was revealed to be dyspraxic. Dyspraxia, more formally Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), is a chronic neurological condition. Effectively, it involves the messages from your brain to your limbs and body getting lost or confused somewhere along the way. To most outsiders it resembles simple clumsiness. Dyspraxics drop stuff and they fall over their own feet. When you see one walking down the street carrying fistfuls of shopping bags you can’t tell exactly what’s gone wrong but you know there must have been an easier way to manage them that that. And then you give them a lot of space.
It also has other implications. Short term organizational skills are effected, though long term planning skills are strong. Many dyspraxics can be guaranteed to turn any kitchen from an ocean of peace to a virtual warzone of pots, pans, spills and 64 individual dirty spoons (used to stir the sauce exactly once each). There’s an impact on their senses, particularly touch, with their nervous system sending more sensory data than they can process. Imagine feeling every point of contact between your shirt and your skin – every thread – and not being able to turn it off. Particularly with new or unusual sensations, dyspraxics can struggle.
And yes, learning to ride a bike is about twenty times harder.
Chris Chibnall and his team worked with the Dyspraxic Foundation to get Ryan’s story right
On Sunday night’s Doctor Who, we saw Ryan Sinclair – a young man in his early to mid twenties – struggling to stay upright on a bike for more than a couple of seconds. Holding his own balance, keeping the front handlebars straight, moving both his left and right feet in steady circles but at opposite points in the circle to each other, all at the same time. It may quickly become second nature to some kids, but for someone with dyspraxia it’s the motor skills equivalent of solving quadratic equations in your head while simultaneously reciting the Wolverhampton Wanderers 1992 squad. No wonder he fails. Gets frustrated. Doesn’t want to do it anymore. Throws the bike away.
Speaking about the decision to write Ryan as a dyspraxic character, showrunner Chris Chibnall said he was “very conscious of [reaching an audience who can feel disconnected from their TV heroes]. In drama, generally, and very conscious of that particularly with this show. We did a lot of research into dyspraxia. We worked with the Dyspraxia Foundation. It was important because people live with these things. I have a nephew with dyspraxia. Some people on the production [are affected by the issue too]. It’s a relatively common thing among kids. I think it’s important to see that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. That’s the most important thing about Doctor Who and you’ll see that happen a lot across this year.”
Ryan is a new hero for dyspraxic kids everywhere
I have to admit also having a vested interest in Ryan’s story. My son has dyspraxia. My glorious, wonderful son who, at eight months old was plopped down in front of the television to see Christopher Eccleston grab Billie Piper’s and tell her “Run!” Who for years devoured every issue of Doctor Who Adventures he could get his hands on. And who he has a wall filled with an every increasingly collection of Big Finish Doctor Who audios and Titan Comics that is most is definitely his collection (I’m allowed borrow them from time to time.) My son’s that’s taken the never cruel, never cowardly Doctor as his role model. My son that, at fourteen, has never seen someone turn and say of a world saving, courageous TV hero “He’s dyspraxic. It’s a coordination disorder.” Until now. Until the Doctor’s new best friend.
And it matters.
We’ve been comparatively lucky in our house. A swimming instructor identified the signs almost from his first lesson and recommended we have him assessed. Despite the three year waiting list with the Heath Service Executive (the HSE- Ireland’s equivalent of the NHS) we could afford to go private. And, after his diagnosis, to pay for him to receive weekly occupational therapy. He went to a small, caring primary school where he dealt with incredibly lovely Resource Teachers and where the other staff went for training on DCD as well. Then on to an equally supportive secondary with a highly trained and compassionate support staff.
Dyspraxic children fight, and win, their own battles every day
He found, in swimming and kayaking, physical hobbies which allowed long term planning and developing muscle memory to offset his dyspraxia while doing something he loved and was genuinely brilliant at. He’s found a deeply inspiring kayaking coach who pushes him to defeat his own boundries every step of the way. In a few weeks he’ll be white water kayaking on a Grade 4 river in Llangollen (homeplace of the old Dapol Doctor Who Experience, as I scream internally on every visit)
But mostly we’ve been lucky in his Mum. Calling her a mama bear would be flattering to mama bears. She’s fought for him every step of the way. Gotten him resource hours, gotten him assessments, filled out a small forest of paperwork to ensure he can type in his Junior Certificate exams next year (the Irish equivalent of GCSEs) as DCD can also make handwriting slow, difficult and painful. And more than she’s been there for him. She’s supported him and worked with him and developed with him the skills he needs to succeed.
She’s never given up. And consequently never has he.
Doctor Who is raising awareness of a common but often misunderstood issue
But other children with DCD haven’t been so lucky and it hasn’t always been plain sailing for us either. A seven year old boy who can’t even find the ball with his feet let alone score a hat trick is still a playground target. And explanations of neurology are only going to make that worse, not better. Many go for years undiagnosed or are dismissed as “just clumsy.”
Probably my son’s greatest bugbear is the cycle of (i) telling someone he’s dyspraxic (ii) explaining what DCD is and then (iii) having to explain it all again when they’ve obviously just heard ‘clumsy’.
The most important thing about Ryan’s bicycle isn’t that he can’t ride it at the start, but that he still can’t at the end
So Doctor Who’s Ryan Sinclair is important. He’s important because of the message he sends to the kids like him watching at home about themselves. Because his very presence at the Doctor’s side underlines the fundamental essence of the series. Because the key message of Ryan Sinclair’s bicycle isn’t that he can’t ride it at the start of the episode, but that he still can’t ride it at the end. In the hands of a lesser writer, a more feel good Hollywood writer, Ryan’s experiences that terrible night would have transformed him. He’d suddenly be able to ride that bike though the power of Self Belief! He’d hoot and holler and he cycled down the hill, the Doctor looking on approvingly. But it would have been hollow and meaningless, and untrue to Ryan’s condition.
But he keeps on trying and that’s what’s important. Just like he kept on climbing a ladder hundreds of feet into the sky even though he knew it was more dangerous for him than for most other people. Ryan doesn’t give in. He doesn’t give up. He’s afraid, but he does things anyway. He acts without witness (or so he thinks) and without reward. And that is what the Doctor looks for in a companion. And boys and girls and teenagers watching The Woman Who Fell to Earth know that. That it’s the very gifts of courage and determination that their dyspraxia has fostered in them that makes them worthy companions of the Doctor too, not whether they’re the fastest runner or the best at sports.
With perfect timing, it’s currently Dyspraxia Awareness Week
It’s also important in raising awareness. Doctor Who’s The Woman Who Fell to Earth aired, with perfect timing, during Dyspraxia Awareness Week. How many families who’ve never heard the word ‘dyspraxia’ sat and watched and perhaps pointed to say “that’s just like Jessie!” and then thought “that is just like Jessie…” Perhaps now taking the first steps towards assessment and support. How many school friends, or teachers, or football coaches, or grandparents, or neighbours, will watch and think “Dyspraxia? Isn’t that what Terry has?” and maybe understand it better?
The Dyspraxic Foundation have been enthusiastically supportive about Ryan, and what he represents as a character. They told their followers to mark the 7th of October in the calendars and called it “a great way to start Dyspraxia Awareness Week.”
The adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues on BBC One at 6.55pm this Sunday with The Ghost Monument by Chris Chibnall. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
Still reeling from their first encounter, can the Doctor and her new friends stay alive long enough in a hostile alien environment to solve the mystery of Desolation? And just who are Angstrom and Epzo?
The Dyspraxia Foundation is committed to making the teaching and medical professions more aware of dyspraxia; and to spread understanding of how those who have the condition can be helped. You can learn more about Dyspraxia during Dyspraxia Awareness Week – 7th to 13th October – by joining the Dyspraxia Foundation as a member, and getting involved in their 30th Anniversary Celebrations.