Getting Things Done

“What Does That Say?!?” My Life with ADHD and Bad Handwriting

Illegible bad handwriting, and even the learning disability dysgraphia, are particularly common in people with ADHD. Here’s how I wrote my own ticket to clarity despite my poor penmanship.

adhd and dysgraphia on display in a pile of letters

A Lifetime of Bad Handwriting

My handwriting sucks. I know it. My friends know it. Now you know it.

Don’t think that it doesn’t bother me. It does. Mightily. There is something deeply embarrassing about scrawling notes that my physician husband can decipher, but I cannot.

Poor handwriting didn’t creep up on me. As a child, I decided that signing Christmas cards would be a fun, grown-up activity, so my mother let me handle a few of them sent to close relatives. I was enjoying myself until Mom read one of my notes: “P.S. Excuse the bad handwriting.” I meant it as a joke, but she immediately censored the card and forced me to write another. Clearly, I had committed a serious faux pas. “We don’t apologize in Christmas cards,” she said.

The reprimand made a big impression on me, but her advice didn’t stick. I’ve been apologizing for my poor handwriting ever since.

Bad Handwriting and ADHD

Years after I was officially diagnosed with ADHD in my mid-40s, I learned that poor handwriting is often associated with ADHD. There are several varieties of handwriting dysfunction; mine combines spatial and motor dysgraphia.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Dysgraphia?]

I’ve talked to friends and people with ADHD who report trouble with handwriting. The general consensus is that our processing speed is so fast that our fingers can’t keep up. We also have trouble with sequencing and organizing lots of details — forming letters is nothing but details.

Technically, “dysgraphia” is a learning disability, separate and distinct from ADHD. Not everyone with ADHD has poor handwriting. Compared to other comorbid conditions, such as mood disorder, dysgraphia seems insignificant. Unless you are one of the unlucky ones.

I have been ridiculed for my inability to write legibly. My friends laugh that my postcards take on new meaning every time they read them. Once, the cashier refused my check, saying the bank wouldn’t honor it. I’ve stopped sending thank-you cards because they are supposed to be handwritten.

Making Peace with My Bad Handwriting

But, lately, I’ve made peace with my handwriting, thanks to computer keyboards, text messaging, and voice-to-text software. Take, for instance, my grocery list.

[ADDitude eBook: The ADHD Guide to Mobile Apps & Digital Tools]

I learned long ago not to trust my handwritten list, so I created a fancy document on the computer that lists my most-purchased items. In a fit of efficiency, I took a field trip to Kroger’s, marching up and down the aisles, taking notes on where items are located. The list was in perfect alignment with the store.

Each item on the list has a clever little box beside it, so when I run low on steel-cut oatmeal, I pull out my bright blue marker and put a checkmark in the box. I’m (almost) certain to stock up the next time I head to the store… if I remember to pull the list off the refrigerator door where is it attached with magnets. (By the way: The magnets are really cool. They look exactly like the dock items on my iMac: Finder, Mail, iCal, and so on.)

The system works pretty well. But this week, the computer list needed updating, so I wrote out everything by hand. I had trouble reading the list. I managed to figure out I needed batteries when I saw “batt c.” I knew that “FF carl why” was “Fat-free Cool Whip.” But “frm spiner” threw me for a loop. I sorted it out after I started making lentil soup and realized I needed “frozen spinach.”

Thank goodness the computer-generated list is now updated and printed, so I am back in business. And my husband Victor — bless him! — stopped by the store tonight, so I can finish the soup.

Because modern etiquette says it is acceptable to send birthday greetings and even Christmas cards digitally, I don’t feel the need to apologize for my poor handwriting anymore. And, if you’d like a copy of my computer grocery list, drop me an e-mail and, I’ll send it out right away.

Managing Dysgraphia: Next Steps

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8 Comments & Reviews

  1. Reading this article is a constant reminder of why I stopped writing in cursive. My penmanship has always been a struggle for a significant amount of time. I was not only diagnosed with ADHD, but also with cognitive learning disabilities that are comorbid: a combination of dyspraxia, dysgraphia and dyslexia. It’s also another reason why I stopped using paper planners.

  2. My sister gave me the best advice ever when I was about 30. After a lifetime of struggle ahe suggested “just print, forget cursive existed”

    At least my writing became legible. The criticisms now are “why do you write like Everything Has To Be Designer”. It’s still idiosyncratuc and keeping to the lines is optional. But hey! Progress!!

    After being the last kid in 3rd Grade restricted to pencil, I’m studying Japanese Calligraphy in my 50s. Hyper-focus, Own style and Ideographs! All ok!

  3. I have ADHD and have always had good writing, if a bit on the large size. My ADHD son has beautiful handwriting, too. My daughter, however, has Dyspraxia, and had a 504 in school because of the Dysgraphia component. In her case, it’s not that the brain is working too fast, it’s that the brain is working normally, but there is a delay in transmission of nerve impulses that causes her to have poor fine motor skills. She can draw beautifully, but ‘drawing’ her letters is much slower than ‘writing’ her letters, so her handwriting, even in college, looks like that of a 3rd grader. Words just don’t flow smoothly from her hand. For than matter, they don’t flow from her mouth, either. She often has to stop, regroup, and start a sentence over.

    If you have other problems, such as with speaking, depth perception, or being “clumsy” (tripping over yourself, not holding tightly enough to an object, etc.), it may not be the ADHD.

  4. One thing I learned is that it frequently goes along with another set of symptoms that are related to this that are grouped under the heading of “cluttering” It affects not just the cursive handwriting but also speech and typing. It is also caused by the speeds not matching up and having too many ideas trying to escape all at once, without a traffic cop to handle the flow. This article had good examples of it. . I find that printing works better than cursive….that a smooth flowing gel pen helps keep the writing to keep up with the thoughts…and that sometimes just picturing a policeman directing the flow of a conversation can help me get the words out in a sane speed and focussed direction. So many of my friends and their children who have ADHD also have the cluttering issues, I thought it might be useful to share the info here.

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