It is a learning disability that affects handwriting and fine motor skills.
It interferes with spelling, word spacing, and the general ability to express thoughts on paper.
It makes the writing process painstakingly slow, with a product that is often impossible to read.
When the act of forming letters takes so much effort that a child forgets what they wanted to say in the first place, it is not surprising that children with dysgraphia often hate writing and are reluctant to do so.
Writing helps most of us remember, organize, and process information, but children who struggle with the mechanics of writing learn less from homework than their peers.
On top of that, when the physical act of writing is incredibly challenging, a child cannot “effectively show what he knows.” You may fail a test simply because you cannot translate your thoughts and responses on paper.
When a child encounters defeat in the classroom so often, especially in the early years of school, academic discouragement soon turns into a feeling of inferiority that undermines all attempts to learn, and often persists until adulthood if dysgraphia not caught and treated.
This is just one reason why early evaluation and diagnosis are so important, although a diagnosis can bring relief and progress at any age.
Symptoms of dysgraphia
Dysgraphia is usually identified when a child learns to write, but it can remain hidden until adulthood, particularly in mild cases.
People with dysgraphia sometimes have problems with other fine motor skills, such as tying their shoes, but not always. In the elementary school setting, it is estimated that approximately 4 percent of children suffer from dysgraphia.
For middle school, when the complexity of written assignments begins to increase dramatically, estimates can go as high as 20 percent. Common indicators of dysgraphia, at any age, include:
- Trouble forming letters or spacing words consistently.
- Uncomfortable or painful grip on a pencil.
- Difficulty following a line or staying within the margins.
- Problems with sentence structure or following grammar rules when writing, but not when speaking.
- Difficulty organizing or articulating thoughts on paper.
- Pronounced difference between oral and written comprehension of a topic.
Types and causes
Dysgraphia manifests itself in three general ways, each of which requires its own treatment plan:
In this form of dysgraphia, spontaneously written text (that is, writing that has not been traced or copied) is severely affected, and is often unreadable, especially as it progresses.
Spelling, whether oral or written, is extremely poor. Drawing and copying are not affected. Finger tapping speed, a commonly used measure of fine motor skills, is within the normal range.
Motor dysgraphia affects fine motor skills more strongly, so the speed of the fingers is very abnormal. All forms of writing, whether spontaneous or copied, are almost illegible. Drawing and tracing skills are well below average. Spelling skills are usually normal.
This type of dysgraphia most strongly affects the spatial relationship between the writing itself and the medium in which it is written.
This means that all forms of handwriting, and particularly drawing, are very problematic. On the other hand, the speed of the fingers and the spelling are almost normal.
Diagnosis of dysgraphia
If you or your child have demonstrated the symptoms listed above or other persistent problems with writing, usually, but not always, in elementary school, see the school’s special education staff.
For adults, your primary care physician, who may refer you to a dysgraphia specialist.
If your child’s school can’t (or won’t) test for dysgraphia, find an occupational therapist , pediatric neurologist, or neuropsychologist with experience in the disorder.
A specialist can assess the patient’s writing ability, fine motor skills, and (if applicable) academic progress to determine if dysgraphia is to blame.
Tests for dysgraphia generally include a writing component (copying sentences or answering short essay questions), as well as a fine motor component, in which you or your child will be tested on reflexes and motor speed.
The specialist will try to get an idea of both the quality of the writing: how well you or your child organize thoughts and convey ideas, and the physical act of writing yourself. Does writing hurt? Are the letters formed correctly?
If your child is diagnosed with dysgraphia, meet with the school’s evaluation team to request services or supports.
Reducing the emphasis on writing and / or the required daily amount of writing allows most children with dysgraphia to work successfully in school.
Uninformed teachers have been known to tell students with dysgraphia to “just practice” by writing more often and focusing more intensely on what they want to say.
But more practice is not what children with dysgraphia need to improve their writing; rather, they need correct practice, both at school and at home.