What Does Dysgraphia Look Like in Adults?

If you have trouble expressing yourself in writing and if others complain they can’t read your handwriting, you could be struggling with the learning disability dysgraphia.

A man is very focused on writing in his notebook. Hyperfocus is a positive trait of ADHD, but adults with ADHD can also suffer from dysgraphia in adults.
A man is very focused on writing in his notebook. Hyperfocus is a positive trait of ADHD.

Many adults have handwriting that would make an elementary school teacher cringe — but if your handwriting is so messy that even you can’t read it, it could be a sign of dysgraphia.

What is dysgraphia? In short, it’s a learning disability that affects fine motor skills like writing, buttoning a shirt, or tying a shoelace — as well as the mental processes associated with writing, like picking a topic, organizing ideas, and making a coherent point. Since most children with dysgraphia are otherwise bright (and are often skilled readers and speakers), writing-related challenges early in life are frequently missed or chalked up to sloppiness. This means that a child with dysgraphia could easily reach adulthood without receiving a diagnosis — missing out on life-changing treatment and suffering harsh blows to her self-esteem.

Since so many adults with dysgraphia remain undiagnosed, it’s difficult to estimate just how many are living with the condition. In children, the rate is often estimated between 4 and 20 percent — and since dysgraphia can’t be outgrown, just as many adults are living with this learning disability. Dysgraphia affects men more often than women, and can go hand-in-hand with other learning disabilities or a related condition like ADHD.

[Take This Dysgraphia Symptom Test for Adults]

Dysgraphia Symptoms at Home

If writing has been a lifelong challenge, you’ve likely devised strategies to compensate or to avoid writing altogether. With that in mind, symptoms of dysgraphia in adults will manifest as more than just messy handwriting — they’ll also appear in the purposeful avoidance of writing and in weak fine motor skills. Symptoms of dysgraphia at home might look like:

  • Highly illegible handwriting, often to the point that even you can’t read what you wrote
  • Struggles with cutting food, doing puzzles, or manipulating small objects by hand
  • Uses a pen grip that is “strange” or “awkward”
  • Slow to understand the rules of games or follow sequential directions
  • Trouble reading maps
  • Difficulty drawing, tracing, or painting
  • Avoids writing whenever possible; prefers a digital grocery list to a written one, for instance
  • Makes spelling errors in simple notes
  • May also dislike texting

Dysgraphia Symptoms at Work

As more and more jobs depend on computers, writing may not factor in to your day-to-day life at work. Even if that’s true for you, dysgraphia can still cause challenges at work by making other fine motor tasks — like handling small objects — difficult. Symptoms of dysgraphia at work might include:

  • When using spell-check on a computer, often has difficulty picking out the correct word from a list of similar words
  • Trouble filling in routine forms by hand, particularly if they require fitting words into set boxes
  • Illegible handwriting; can’t read own meeting notes or coworkers complain that memos are indecipherable
  • Mixes lowercase and uppercase letters, or print and cursive letters, seemingly randomly
  • Often leaves out individual letters or the ends of words, particularly when writing quickly
  • In some cases, may have trouble with typing as well
  • Experiences hand cramps or pain when writing
  • Has trouble telling when words are misspelled
  • Often uses grammatically incorrect sentences in emails or reports
  • May be overly reliant on simple sentence structures
  • Prefers to give or get directions orally, instead of in writing
  • Has trouble “getting to the point” in written communication; emails may be rambling, or reports may repeat the same ideas several times
  • Able to explain self clearly when speaking, but not when writing

Dysgraphia is a brain-based disorder, and it can be improved with accommodations and, in some cases, occupational therapy. If you think you might be showing signs of dysgraphia, talk to your primary care doctor. He or she should be able to refer you to a neuropsychologist or another learning specialist who can diagnose you with dysgraphia and work with you on an effective treatment plan.