What Is Dysgraphia?

If you or your child struggles to form letters, spell words correctly, or even read your own handwriting, it could be dysgraphia — a brain-based disability that affects fine motor skills, particularly writing.

A teacher guides a student, employing a common strategy to help ADHD students learn.
A teacher guides a student, employing a common strategy to help ADHD students learn.

What Is Dysgraphia?

  • Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects handwriting and fine motor skills.
  • It interferes with spelling, word spacing, and the general ability to put thoughts on paper.
  • It makes the process of writing laboriously slow, with a product that is often impossible to read.
  • When the act of forming letters requires so much effort that a child forgets what he wanted to say in the first place, it’s not surprising that children with dysgraphia often hate to write, and resist doing so.

The act of writing something down helps most of us to remember, organize, and process information, but children who struggle with the mechanics of writing learn less from assignments than do their peers. On top of that, when the physical act of writing is incredibly challenging, a child can’t effectively “show what he knows.” He may fail an exam simply because he can’t translate his thoughts and answers to paper. When a child encounters such classroom defeat frequently, especially in the early years of schooling, it doesn’t take long for academic discouragement to develop into a sense of inferiority that undermines all attempts to learn — and that often persists to adulthood if the dysgraphia is not caught and treated. This is just one reason why early evaluation and diagnosis is so critical — though 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. Those with dysgraphia occasionally have trouble with other fine motor skills, like tying their shoes — but not always. In elementary school settings, it’s estimated that approximately 4 percent of children suffer from dysgraphia. By middle school — when the complexity of written assignments starts to increase dramatically — estimates can get as high as 20 percent. Common indicators of dysgraphia, at any age, include:

  • Trouble forming letters or spacing words consistently
  • Awkward or painful grip on a pencil
  • Difficulty following a line or staying within margins
  • Trouble with sentence structure or following rules of grammar when writing, but not when speaking
  • Difficulty organizing or articulating thoughts on paper
  • Pronounced difference between spoken and written understanding of a topic

[Self-Test: Could It Be Dysgraphia?]

Types of Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia manifests in three general ways, each one requiring its own treatment plan:

Dyslexic dysgraphia: In this form of dysgraphia, spontaneously written text (meaning writing that hasn’t been traced or copied) is most strongly affected, and is often illegible — particularly as it goes on. Spelling, either oral or written, is extremely poor. Drawing and copying are not affected. Finger-tapping speed, a commonly used measure of fine motor skills, is in the normal range.

Motor dysgraphia: Motor dysgraphia most strongly affects fine motor skills, so finger-tapping speed is highly abnormal. All forms of writing — either spontaneous or copied — are close to illegible. Drawing and tracing skills are far below average. Spelling skills are usually normal.

Spatial dysgraphia: This type of dysgraphia most strongly affects the spatial relationship between the writing itself and the medium on which it’s written. This means all forms of handwriting — and particularly drawing — are highly problematic. On the other hand, finger-tapping speed and spelling skills are close to normal.

[Dysgraphia — There’s an App for That]

Diagnosing Dysgraphia

If you or your child have demonstrated the symptoms listed above or other persistent problems with writing — usually, but not always, appearing by elementary school — consult either the school’s special education staff or, in the case of adults, your primary care doctor, who can refer you to a dysgraphia specialist. If your child’s school can’t test for dysgraphia (or doesn’t want to), look for an occupational therapist, pediatric neurologist, or a neuropsychologist with experience in the disorder.

A specialist can assess a patient’s writing ability, fine motor skills, and (if applicable) academic progress to determine whether dysgraphia is the culprit. Tests for dysgraphia usually include a writing component — copying out sentences or answering brief 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 a sense of both the quality of the writing — how well do you or your child organize thoughts and convey ideas — and the physical act of writing itself. Does writing hurt? Are letters formed correctly?

Treatment Options for Dysgraphia

If your child is diagnosed with dysgraphia, meet with the school’s evaluation team to request services or support. 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 intently on what they want to say. But more practice is often not what kids with dysgraphia need to improve their writing; rather, they need the right practice — both at school and at home. This often involves letter-formation drills, fixing incorrect grips on pencils or pens, and using handwriting-specific training programs like Handwriting Without Tears (hwtears.com).

[Dear ADDitude: Is It Dysgraphia or Something Else?]

Adults who lived with undiagnosed dysgraphia for years have likely learned to avoid writing as much as possible in their daily life — a pursuit that gets easier every day in our increasingly computer-based society. If writing is still a concern for you, however, you can request accommodations at work — like being allowed to type notes during meetings or making use of speech-to-text technology — that can take the focus off handwriting and make day-to-day tasks easier to handle.

Children and adults alike may also benefit from working with an occupational therapist on letter formation, fine-motor skills, and cursive writing, which can be easier than printing.