School Struggles: Dysgraphia

One of my biggest challenges in school was my handwriting.  *Checks barely legible notes*  It still is.  I got flat F’s all through elementary school and once they stopped grading that, I got points marked off for “neatness” on any handwritten work I turned in.  My teachers seemed to love having a reason to give me bad marks at times – some of them even treated my penmanship like a character flaw!  But it turns out, just like my troubles with numbers, there was a reason for it: dysgraphia.

Not Just Bad Handwriting

Dysgraphia is often identified by terrible handwriting, but that’s not all it is.  Dysgraphia is a processing disorder.  It affects fine motor skills as well as spatial processing and linguistic processing.  It’s commonly seen in people with ADHD or dyslexia, but it doesn’t have to be connected to either one or to any other processing disorder or learning disability.

Some common signs of dysgraphia include:

  • Bad pencil grip or an overly tight, awkward writing posture
  • Tiring out quickly when writing or complaining that the hand or whole arm hurts
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Uneven spacing of letters or inability to follow lines on paper
  • Difficulty learning to color inside the lines
  • Avoiding writing or drawing tasks altogether
  • Frequently breaking pencils or pushing through the paper

My pencil grip was never a problem, but even as an adult, my whole arm tenses up when I write.  If I’m at it for any length of time and I’m really trying to write neatly (which I only learned to do after several years’ work as an adult), I can end up with muscle spasms and a lot of pain.  When I write with a good flow and a nice smooth pen, my handwriting looks like it belongs on a doctor’s prescription pad, but I don’t hurt as much.  Even after all those years of work, I can only write neatly for a few lines at a time and it’s unreliable – I’m prone to one letter going wonky, and then it deteriorates from there.  On unlined paper, my sentences climb hills and descend into valleys no matter how hard I try to keep them straight and on lined paper, my writing changes as it moves down the page as if it were written by three or four different people.  I tend to add extra marks into words as I write; not misspellings, just extra loops or marks that I couldn’t stop my hand from making.  In fact, that’s how dysgraphia was explained to me: that the signal didn’t get from my brain to my hand in time to stop my coloring from going outside the lines, even as an adult.

What Can Help?

Children with signs of dysgraphia should get interventions as soon as possible.  The longer they have physical issues with completing assignments, the more the “I hate school” or “I can’t do it” attitudes can set in, which bodes ill for their future prospects.  The sooner the motor planning and fine motor skills can be improved and supported, the more confident a child will be and the better their academic performance will be.  Young children can get occupational therapy to improve their motor skills and motor planning.  Other writing aids could include larger or ergonomic pencil grips and paper with raised lines so they can feel where their letters should stop, among other things.  Sometimes the best option for a child with dysgraphia is to let them use a recorder and take tests orally or, for older kids, allow them to use a laptop to take notes and turn in typed work.

For adults, taking time to find pencils or pens that feel good in the hand and cut down on the tension in the hand and arm can help, as well as using a laptop or tablet to take meeting notes.  Dictation or voice to text software can also be very helpful, especially when dysgraphia and dyslexia occur together.

In this digital age, dysgraphia isn’t such a handicap as it was only 20 years ago, but it’s still important to be able to write by hand.  As difficult as it can be for me to write by hand, I still do it for everything from grocery lists to outlines for these blog posts because it helps me to process the information I’m working with and organize my thoughts better – luckily I can usually read my own writing.  If your child has issues with handwriting that seem like dysgraphia, look into the available supports and interventions as soon as possible.  And if you’re an adult with dysgraphia, let me tell you that you’re not stupid and you’re not lazy – your handwriting isn’t a character flaw.  Do what you need to do to support yourself and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for it.

Small boy with a shield painted on his cheek bending low over a paper he's writing on. Purple and black text on white background reads "School Struggles Dysgraphia"

Did you have trouble with handwriting in school?  Were your teachers mean about it or did they find ways to help you?  What supports worked best for you or your kids?

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