What is dysgraphia?

Though writing is a complex skill that takes time to master, parents who see their children chronically struggling with handwriting, spelling or typing may want to have them tested for dysgraphia.

People with dysgraphia have difficulty expressing their thoughts in writing and can have difficulty with spelling, grammar, punctuation and other skills, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Although the exact prevalence of dysgraphia in the U.S. is unknown, an estimated 10% to 30% of children experience difficulty with writing, some of which can be attributed to dysgraphia, according to a 2020 study in the journal Translational Pediatrics.

“Dysgraphia impacts the physical ability to write, and that includes poor control over holding a pencil, pen, crayon or marker,” says Liz Matheis, a certified school psychologist and consultant in New Jersey. It also affects a student’s ability to use grammar correctly, properly space letters in a word and properly space words in a sentence, she says, resulting in writing that may be difficult to read.

Because writing is an essential component of learning, dysgraphia can cause frustration for students. Yet there are plenty of resources available to help parents and teachers recognize and treat dysgraphia.

Recognizing Dysgraphia

Just as people with dyslexia are wired differently when it comes to reading, people with dysgraphia are wired differently when it comes to writing, says Stephen Glicksman, a developmental psychologist at Makor Disability Services and adjunct professor at Yeshiva University.

“Kids and adults with dysgraphia don’t have poor handwriting because they are lazy, aren’t focusing or don’t care,” he says. “It’s because their brains are just wired differently.”

[Read: How Children Learn to Write.]

Glicksman says dysgraphia can show in the following ways:

— Poor letter formation.

— Letters that are too large, too small or inconsistent in size.

— Incorrect use of capital and lowercase letters.

— Letters that are crowded or cramped.

— Inconsistent spacing between letters.

— Slow writing, even when asked to write quickly.

“When you look at this list of characteristics, you can imagine how they might impact a student’s functioning in school or a person’s performance on the job,” Glicksman says. “Sometimes, as students try to address their own dysgraphia, the fluency of writing is impacted so that it looks like [they] are drawing each letter. This can impact a person’s ability to finish tests on time, or keep up with the class while taking notes.”

Cheri Dotterer, an occupational therapist and dysgraphia expert at Dotterer Educational Consulting in Pennsylvania, says students with dysgraphia often exhibit specific behaviors. This can include:

— Avoiding handwriting.

— Awkward pencil grasp.

— Pencil pressure that is too light.

— Breaking pencils.

— Hand cramps or pain.

— Intensely watching their hand when writing.

— Unusual hand or paper positioning.

Diagnosing Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia can be diagnosed by a clinical psychologist trained in learning disabilities, an occupational therapist or a pediatrician, Matheis says. “Parents can help their children by seeking a psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation in order to gain a diagnosis,” she says.

A full evaluation for dysgraphia will look at a variety of skills that can affect a child’s writing, including fine motor skills and written expression, grammar, spelling and punctuation, handwriting skills, word usage and the ability to organize a narrative. The evaluation will rule out other possible issues with expressive language or executive function.

David Flink, CEO and co-founder of Eye to Eye, an organization that helps students with learning differences in New York, says dysgraphia is often diagnosed as a developmental coordination disorder that causes difficulty with fine motor movement.

Difficulty in written expression is considered a learning disability and is protected under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Flink says. That means students with dysgraphia can, in many cases, qualify for accommodations and additional support in public schools.

Treating Dysgraphia

Students can often be evaluated for free in school by an occupational or physical therapist, and then a plan for support can be established. “Occupational therapists help improve fine motor skills and planning, while physical therapists work on gross motor skills,” Flink says.

Dotterer says there is a lot that can be done to help students with dysgraphia, beginning with work on shapes, letters and numbers. “My students take the pencil strokes apart and then put them back together to form the letter, number or shape,” she says. The work then progresses to address control, accuracy, precision, speed and other aspects of writing.

Glicksman says the challenges of dysgraphia can also be addressed with assistive technology.

“Providing students with pencil grips, graph- or raised-lined papers and occupational therapy can help build strength and skills,” he says, “but a laptop [can be used] for written assignments to avoid handwriting issues altogether.”

[READ: How Kids Can Get Dysgraphia Help in School.]

How Parents Can Help

Parents can help their child with dysgraphia by learning about the disorder and its related writing challenges, Flink says. He recommends connecting students with a mentor who can help them advocate for what they need in the classroom and work toward a better understanding of their challenges.

At home, Flink says parents can provide support in many ways. For example, having the right supplies on hand can help, including handwriting paper, graph paper, pencil grips, personal whiteboards, word spacers and other tools.

Parents can work with students to do exercises suggested by a professional, paying attention to how a child is seated, how they are holding their paper and pencil, and whether they are writing with their fingers rather than their wrist. Instead of correcting every error, experts suggest that parents focus on one aspect of writing, such as the direction children write their letters, and then celebrate improvements.

Typing may also be helpful. Many children with dysgraphia can benefit from learning typing skills at a young age.

Dysgraphia Resources for Parents

Education experts say the following resources may be helpful to parents:

Dysgraphia Life provides information, education and services to those with learning disabilities and writing difficulties.

Understood is a nonprofit dedicated to providing parents with credible information about learning differences, including dysgraphia.

— The International Dyslexia Association is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people who struggle with dyslexia, but they also have information and resources to address dysgraphia.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

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What Is Dyscalculia?

What is an IEP?

What is Dysgraphia? originally appeared on usnews.com

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