Dyspraxia and Doctor Who: Ryan Sinclair Remembered

An own voice assessment of the companion who couldn’t ride a bike
Comic-Con International 2018 -  BBC America's "Doctor Who" Press line
Comic-Con International 2018 - BBC America's "Doctor Who" Press line / Dia Dipasupil/GettyImages

I’m a firm believer in representation, and diversity inclusion forms a lot of my opinions when I read or watch media. This especially goes for the BBC's longest-running science-fiction program, Doctor Who.

Jodie Whitaker’s era as the 13th Doctor was always going to interest me, as an actress whom I only knew as a grieving mum on Broadchurch. I loved Peter Capaldi’s irrascible Scottishness and had no idea what the next generation of The Doctor might bring. 

Then Tosin Cole appeared on-camera as Ryan Sinclair and abashedly  confessed that he was a grown man who couldn’t ride a bicycle. The first words out of my mouth were, “I wonder if that’s because of what…”. A few minutes later, Graham chided Grace for letting her grandson blame things on his dyspraxia and I punched the air in triumph.

My friends paused the episode to ask about that and I sent the news to my own mother. She responded, “You must feel like a superhero!”  Twenty-four years after I’d had a life-defining conversation with my mother, I had a Doctor Who character like me.

A more personal look at dyspraxia

I always knew that I was a bit different. My pediatrician apparently termed me a FLK (Funny-Looking Kid). I had an Individualized Education Plan for physical education and had to take extra classes to pass the subject.  I went to occupational and vision therapists. And I was, as Dad recalls, “Band-aids’ most loyal customer.”

But I was also an award-winning young artist and the concertmistress of my school orchestra. One day, I asked my mother why everything was so hard to do sometimes and she gave me terms I didn’t know. Acute maladroitness. Bilateral vestibular syndrome. Acute dyspraxia. They called it different things in different areas, but it meant that I had a perfectly valid reason to be the world’s biggest klutz.

Dyspraxia is characterized by clumsiness in healthy kids, but better described like this:

"Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), is a chronic condition that begins in childhood that causes difficulties with motor (movement) skills and coordination."

Cleveland Clinic

Some other symptoms can be problems with coordination, walking difficulties, speech delay, difficulty with building and drawing things. Therapies can help.

What I remembered most about that first conversation was the claim that “you weren’t supposed to be able to ride a bike or play a musical instrument!” I still consider it to be a huge favor that my parents knew my diagnosis by the time I was crawling, but didn’t tell me I couldn’t take piano lessons or win ribbons at Field Day just because the doctors underestimated me. I’m now a 43-year-old novelist who plays five instruments and runs 5K races for fun, but I also am terrified of driving a car and hide my spatial-reasoning problems behind computer skills. I can ride a bike, but I’ve crashed many times.

So I heard Ryan’s frustration and humiliation from the start. I didn’t know how long he’d had a name for his diagnosed limitation or what school was like for him, but knew that Graham was probably not the only person to see it as an excuse. I guessed that he had been called things because I know that FLK was far from the cruelest thing I’ve been called for my clumsiness.

If you look up famous people with dyspraxia, the list might surprise you. Singers, politicians, and artists fill out the ranks. Ryan struggles with a bicycle and I’m an expert in subway routes, but Daniel Radcliffe played Harry Potter with dyspraxia and Florence Welch is a musical goddess with the same diagnosis.

What I loved about Doctor Who was its treatment of the disorder. In the second episode, the companions have to run from a threat and scale a ladder. I clutched my face in anxiety, but saw the Doctor hang back with Ryan to make sure he’s doing all right and be patient with him being careful on the ascent.  At one point, he saves the universe and sums it up with, “Not bad for a kid with dyspraxia, right?”  In a later episode, he is seen playing basketball and I loved that he felt comfortable with that.

Others have called his dyspraxia a disappearing disability and criticized the writers for being less obvious with it. I disagree with this as someone whose friends mostly are unaware of my disorder because I’ve had four decades of practice knowing how to work with it. Showing his dyspraxia as a part of him and not his entire persona made me feel empowered and I thank Tosin and his writers for that.

dark. Next. Doctor Who: Redacted podcast returns in September. Doctor Who: Redacted podcast returns in September