An interview with Angela Prentner-Smith
Dyspraxia is a condition that affects around 10% of the British population, yet it’s still generally misunderstood. To mark Dyspraxia Week, we asked our founder and MD Angela Prentner-Smith a few questions about Dyspraxia, her diagnosis, and how it affects her life and work.
When did you first notice you had Dyspraxic traits?
As a child, I was labelled as clumsy. I was the kid that cried in gym class because I found it so hard. My nan used to say I was covered in bruises. Dyspraxia affects your gross motor skills, and your fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are things like running or playing ball. Fine motor skills are things like handwriting. So along with my general clumsiness, I also found handwriting incredibly difficult. Although I could read before I started school, my handwriting was about two years behind everybody else's. My handwriting is still not good. However, during my school years, nothing was picked up. I don’t think Dyspraxia was even a consideration when I was at school. Even now, how many parents would recognise Dyspraxia in their children? Raising awareness about the condition is a priority.
Does Dyspraxia just affect your coordination?
Dyspraxia is also known as ‘Developmental Coordination Disorder’, but I don’t think that term covers all aspects of Dyspraxia. Working memory is also one of the things that affect people with Dyspraxia, and I think that has even more of an impact in the workplace and at school than the coordination issues. The ability to retain sequences of movements and sequences of words is also harder for people with Dyspraxia.
Another thing - and I've only just learned this - is that people with Dyspraxia are emotionally sensitive. This makes complete sense to me now. When I was at school I was very sensitive and I used to get very upset about things. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. It doesn't help when you're also struggling to focus and to do some of the things that your peers find easy like running, P.E and playing games like hopscotch. On the plus side, that sensitivity as a child turns into empathy as an adult, so it's not necessarily a bad thing.
How has it affected your working life?
Distinguishing from left and right and understanding the physical arrangement of things is a big challenge for me. This has been particularly difficult and stressful in the workplace. New space setups, big conferences, and big away days are hard because my brain is working extra hard to understand where things are in space. I have to put so much effort into not bumping into people! And just the level of sensory overload that comes with being in a space with a lot of people can be really exhausting. It takes me weeks to get the layout of a new office building as I can’t remember which way is which. Not knowing where I am can be quite panic-inducing.
One of the hardest things that I remember in my working life was an away day. It was meant to be fun, but for me, it was incredibly stressful. I was in a strange environment with 200/300 strangers, so I already had social anxiety. Then the activities involved listening, which if you have working memory issues is exhausting and difficult. To top it off we were put into groups and assessed on our drumming and dancing skills! I was literally the weakest link. I felt like this little girl that wanted to crumble again. But what can you do? Who wants to say that to their employer that they're not going to take part because they find drumming and dancing and being with groups of people really stressful?
Is there anything employers can do to make it easier?
It’s a tricky one, and I don’t have all the answers, because part of me thinks, well why should others miss out on what they want to do because of me? However, a bit of compassion and an understanding that the things that they think are easy and shouldn’t be a problem can be for others. Asking questions is also really important, don’t just assume that everything will be alright for everyone.
We’re lucky at This is Milk that we have a culture of bringing our whole selves to work. Around half of our team has been diagnosed as neurodivergent, which is quite high for the size of us. And I'm quite proud that we have people in their 40s talking for the first time about the struggles that they've had in their lives and how their brains work differently.
Dyspraxia also makes workplace learning harder. For example, being in a group of people, showing up to a workshop, having to sit and take in the information in certain ways, handwriting and taking notes is difficult. Then there are the working memory issues that come with Dyspraxia and other conditions like Dyslexia. Learning should be for everyone, and we need to focus on removing those barriers. At This is Milk we feel so strongly about this that last year we started developing an inclusive platform called Neve. Neve adapts learning pathways to the uniqueness of your brain. For example, one of the many things it could do for someone with working memory issues is delivering information in bite-sized chunks, so that that the information is easier to retain.
Tell us about your diagnosis
When I was in my late 20s, a colleague told me that she had Dyspraxia. Out of interest, I looked it up on Wikipedia and I went through it thinking: “Oh my god, everything on that is me, everything that is all me”. Fortunately, at the time, I was doing a master's degree in design innovation at the Glasgow School of Art and their additional support needs unit arranged for me to see an educational psychologist.
Part of the diagnostic assessment was the Wechsler Intelligence Scale and what they’re looking for is a spiky profile - when you’re really high for one thing and really low for another. Someone who’s not neurodivergent would have a more or less bumpy wave, however, those who have conditions such as Dyspraxia or Dyslexia tend to have really big spikes. For example, my verbal comprehension was up in the high percentile – which means if you have 100 people all my age, my verbal comprehension was in the top 10%. However, my processing speed was in the first centile at the bottom of it.
How important was that diagnosis for you?
There is a view that a diagnosis doesn't matter. That labels don't matter, but I think they do because they help you understand yourself. They allow you to feel okay about being in the world as you, rather than thinking you're just bad at stuff. These aren't curable conditions, and who even want to ‘cure’ them? It’s part of who we are. I think that's an important way to look at it.
Do you think Dyspraxia makes you stronger in some areas?
Strategic insights, empathy, episodic memory, tenacity, and being a really hard worker are all Dyspraxic traits. I frequently get told I have a brain like a trap. I remember what document we've put things in, and exactly when we did something. I can pretty much remember the content of a whole meeting. There are no flies on me for that! Yet, on the other hand, my working memory can't remember whether my left or my right tap is hot or cold
I wish I had known there were particular strengths of Dyspraxia when I was diagnosed because I probably would have felt better about it. The language used around Dyspraxia, and other neurodivergent conditions can be so negative. They really focus on the problems. Why can't we just change the language on this? It’s time we started talking about the strengths instead.
You can find out more about Dyspraxia at The Dyspraxia Organisation and if you’d like to be kept up to date with our new learning platform, Neve, please enter your details in this form, and we'll be in touch.
The mistakes I made - and the lessons I learned - when I started This is Milk
Being in a position to reflect on 7 years of building This is Milk, has been a humbling experience. I’m thankful for being able to make the decisions I have in life, and as a result made the learnings I have. As they say, you learn by doing.
When you’re building a business – your focus is always, at least in part, on looking successful, so although you experience much hardship as you grow, it’s not always appropriate to share your failings and therefore your learnings. Today, I feel comfortable in sharing what I learned in those first few years, and in another 7, I’ll be sharing what I’m learning today!
Be your own salesperson
In the early days I had the courage and bravery to start a business, but I lacked the confidence to make sales and pursue the business I needed to. I looked to others to do this for me. But when you first start a business, you need to be the salesperson, you need to have enough confidence to do that yourself.
Get on top of your cash flow
Cashflow is the killer of small business and in the first few years, I don't believe any small business will not have cashflow problems. I personally feel cashflow problems as like a physical pain. It makes me want to vomit, I feel stressed, I can't sleep. It's awful. It completely distracts you from delivering and making the right business decisions. So, getting on top of your cashflow, and really understanding where the money comes from in your business, is one of the first things that you have to learn. Rather than getting distracted by brand, and marketing and team development, you just need to understand where your cash is coming from really, really quickly. (And don’t underestimate the value of developing your company’s credit – credit cards, and overdrafts aren’t easy to get until you have trading history, so view your ability to get credit as an achievement).
Don’t rush to employ staff
Employing full-time staff was a pressure that as an early-stage business owner I found really derailing. There is a lot of overhead with employing staff, both from a finance perspective, a time perspective, and the pain if it doesn't go right. A lot of the push that you get is to employ staff early, because it looks good. But in those early days, what was more important to my business, was close associates that can help you deliver and being confident in your model. Getting used to delivering a lot with a little human capital is key!
Trust your gut
I once believed that nothing bad could come with a cup of coffee with someone. Yes, it can! I also thought I should pursue every opportunity, even when my gut told me it wasn't the right one. I should have trusted my gut, as I knew something wasn't sitting right, even if I couldn't entirely articulate what it was. Learning to trust your gut instinct and to be confident to walk away is so important. I think as we learn more about our brains, we will really start to understand that intuition, is really knowledge.
Eat that frog
Have the difficult conversations. Specifically, for me, these were with team members, and I would lie awake at night, losing precious sleep over issues and unsaid things. I should have just had the conservation and been upfront about my expectations. I wanted to be nice, and be seen as a different kind of boss, and as a result I let things fester. Don’t be like me, just eat that frog straight away. It’s never as bad as you think it will be and you’ll be respected and be able to deal with issues in a better way.
In business there’s a patriarchal tendency towards ownership, to look big, and to have the swanky office. This leads to people feeling like that’s what they need to do to compete. But that’s not the kind of business I wanted to run. It sat so incongruently with my values. Once I made the decision to embrace being small, it turned out we were able to land good clients because we were being authentic, and we were delivering better work. Walking away and saying that is not what I want to become was a very important thing for me to do.
And finally, ignore the naysayers!
When you first start out, there’s so much negativity, everybody's giving you advice. It's really hard to navigate this advice. Some of it is well meaning, some of it isn't though, some of it is just: “Who do you think you are to be doing this?”. Ignore the people with tall poppy syndrome!
Forge your own path, make your own learnings, and know there are others out there that do mean well. Find your community, this will help you on the bad days and celebrate the good days.