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What the heck is dysgraphia?

Updated on September 1, 2011

Think of it as "writing dyslexia"

I describe dyscalculia (mathematics learning disability) as "the Jermaine Jackson of the dyslexia family". To continue the metaphor, dysgraphia (writing disability) is kind of like LaToya. She keeps popping up on all those magazines in the grocery store check out line, and she looks familiar, but you have no idea why.

Dysgraphia is a learning disorder that affects a person's ability to write.  It is better known than dyscalculia (having 150,000 google listings to dyscalculia's 44,000) but nowhere near as well-known as dyslexia (with 3.5 million google listings). I suspect this is because many dyslexics have trouble with symbol manipulation in general, providing substantial overlap between those with dyslexia and the other two disorders.

I was diagnosed with dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADD while in college. The dyscalculia and ADD were no surprise -- I'd struggled with math and attention all my life. But writing? I'd always thought I was good at that. But the more I learned, the more the diagnosis made perfect sense.

Read on to learn symptoms of dysgraphia, how it is defined, and how it can be remediated. If you or somebody you know has dysgraphia, I hope you will find helpful information here. If dsygraphia does not affect your life, I hope you'll come away knowing a little more about the strange workings of the human brain.

Dysgraphia, or Disorder of Written Expression, is defined under the DSM IV 315.2 as "writing skills [that] are significantly below what is normal considering the [person's] age, intelligence, and education".

The writing difficulties must interfere with a person's daily living and academic achievement. If sensory deficiencies are also present, the writing difficulties must be substantially worse than one would expect given that deficiency.

As with other learning disabilities, people with dysgraphia have intelilgence in the normal, above average, or gifted ranges. People with dysgraphia are not stupid or lazy. They will not "get over it" if they just "try harder". Dysgraphia is a neurologically based cognitive difference that makes it difficult to learn to write as it's normally taught in school.

Researcher RK Deuel has broken dysgraphia into three subcategories, depending on where the writing difficulty lies. Someone with dysgraphia may have one, two, or three of these subtypes.

1: Dyslexic Dysgraphia. This subtype characterized by unusual spelling and poor legibility in spontaneous written work. If the work is copied, legibility improves dramatically. Finger tapping speed (measured by neuropsychological testing) is normal. A person can have dyslexic dysgraphia without actually being dyslexic.

2: Motor Dysgraphia. The second type is motor dysgraphia. People with this subtype often spell reasonably well, but still have poor legibility in spontaneous as well as copied written work. With extreme effort, writing may be OK in short samples; but in longer samples, problems with letter formation, letter size, and letter or word omission become increasingly worse. Writing is very time consuming for those with motor dysgraphia, and becomes unsustainably painful after a short period of time. Finger tapping speed is below normal.

3: Spatial Dysgraphia. This subtype is characterized by difficulties with the space allotted for writing. Spontaneous and copied written samples are poor or illegible, spelling is normal, and tapping speed is normal.

Dysgraphia is about much more than having bad handwriting. Here is a list of common symptoms of dysgraphia, broken down by age, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities:.

Early Writers

* Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position

* Avoiding writing or drawing tasks

* Difficulty forming letters shapes

* Inconsistent spacing between letters/words

* Poor understanding of upper and lowercase letters

* Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins

* Tire quickly while writing

Young Students

* Illegible handwriting

* Mixture of cursive and print writing

* Saying words out loud while writing

* Concentrate on writing so much that they don't comprehend what they've written

* Difficulty thinking of words to write

* Unfinished or omitted words in sentences

Teenagers & Adults

* Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper

* Trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down

* Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar

* Large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech

If a person continues to display difficulty over time in the areas outlined above, testing for dysgraphia should be considered.

A Dysgraphic Writing Sample - This is why I love the internet!

Here's an writing sample by a twelve-year-old with dyslexia and dysgraphia. It's an excellent illustration of the difference between what a dysgraphic means to say and what she or he actually can say in writing. The sample appears is taken from the article A Look At Dysgraphia: What Dysgraphia Looks Like On The Outside (http://www.peas-ink.com/ann/folio/hgse/t560/dysgraphia/outside.htm) .

When I took was diagnosed with learning disabilities back in college, I was not at all surprised to find that I had math disorder or attention deficit disorder. But the diagnosis of "written expression disorder" was shocking.

Since I was in sixth grade, people had been telling me that I write pretty well. In fact, my college stressed writing very heavily, to the point where a well-written admissions essay could be a significant counterweight to a wonky GPA that was, say, brought down by poor math scores. Just to pick a random example.

Then I started to remember my life before sixth grade.

I remembered all the poor marks in handwriting, the complaints that my writing was illegible, being told that I pressed too hard on the paper and couldn't stay in the lines.

I remembered the teacher who told me, "your problem is that by the time you've written anything down, your brain is so far ahead of what you're writing, that you've already forgotten what you wrote".

I remembered all the times I'd nearly finished an assignment, only to realize I'd made a mistake at the beginning. I would try to squeeze in whatever word or sentence or phrase I'd forgotten, and get scolded for my messy, careless work.

I remembered that before sixth grade, I hated writing, my teachers all told me I was no good at it, and I had concluded that they were right -- I could never be a good writer.

I believe that the reason my dysgraphia caught me so much by surprise is that I only have one subtype -- motor dysgraphia.

By the time I came of age, handwriting was on the way out, and word processing was on the way in. Since my difficulties are solely with handwriting, and not with writing per se, it pretty much stopped being an issue by the time I finished elementary school.

That's not to say that dysgraphia had no impact on my life. In seventh grade, I got B plusses instead of A's in English because my overall grade in that class (and therefore my GPA) was dragged down by my spelling test scores. My ability to spell is fine -- but dysgraphia causes me to omit and transpose letters, so I don't spell well on a timed test. The spelling tests ended with seventh grade, but after that I started taking French, where I would get dinged for omitting diacritics. My dysgraphia did me no favors in math class, where I was already plagued by dyscalculia. By the time I got to college, dysgraphia caused me problems in music theory classes, as I unable to observe various rules regarding the spellings of accidentals and key signatures.

With my dysgraphia diagnosis, my school provided me with accommodations that pretty much eliminated its impact on my academic life. A fellow student in each of my classes was assigned to take their notes on carbon paper and give me a copy after each class, freeing me up to pay attention to the lecture instead of struggling to write down the important points. As for music, once I explained my situation to my instructors, they were willing to overlook my musical "spelling" mistakes.

My first five years of elementary school were an absolute misery due to my undiagnosed learning difficulties.

I was in constant trouble with my teachers for losing worksheets and permission slips, forgetting textbooks at home, and turning assignments in late (if at all). When I did turn in written work, I was marked down (and scolded and shamed) for the fact that my work was messy or barely legible. Mistakes in written work -- such as cross-outs or insertions -- were not tolerated. And since I could not (and still cannot) write anything out by hand without omissions and errors, I was penalized severely.

In sixth grade I was assigned to a truly gifted teacher. For the first time in my life, I felt like I hadn't been written off as lazy and careless by the end of the first week of school. For the first time in my life, I had a teacher who would grade me on what I had to say, not how neat my handwriting was in saying it.

By the time I reached junior high, we were expected to type all written work on the computer. Finally, I could correct misspellings, insert omitted words, delete mistakes, and even move entire sentences around if I needed to! Successive English teachers complimented me on my writing ability, eventually cementing the confidence that my sixth grade teacher had planted.

For me, dysgraphia is a simple handwriting disorder. I make a lot of errors, and writing anything out by hand is excruciating, but in this world of texting and word processing, I just don't have to do that very often. So for me, yes, dysgraphia is no big deal.

For others, however, it's another story.

I had an acquaintance who was a M.Div. candidate at a local seminary. He was a kind person, likable, well-spoken, and clearly very intelligent. I never heard him give a sermon but I have every confidence that he was an excellent, dynamic, and inspiring speaker.

He mentioned once that he had dysgraphia, and given our other similarities in ability and education, I assumed that his dysgraphia, like mine, was No Big Deal. I was therefore shocked when he sent me an essay he'd written to find that it was ... well, pretty badly written. There were numerous mistakes in grammar and syntax and misspellings that were beyond my ability to interpret. It was a kind of writing you would never connect with a passionate and articulate divinity candidate at a prestigious seminary.

Fortunately for my friend, he knew of his disability and knew how to work around it. He got academic accommodations when he needed to, and he wasn't afraid to ask for help and feedback when writing papers or job applications. Unfortunately, many people with dysgraphia are not as lucky as my friend; dysgraphia is often chalked up to carelessness, laziness, or unwillingness to learn. The shame of such labels, in addition to the frustration of being unable to express oneself in writing, can lead to lifelong mood problems.

As with any other learning disorder, dysgraphia can have long-term psychological consequences. As children, dysgraphics struggle with written exercises, spending more time and effort to complete them than any of their peers. I have many unhappy memories of being the last kid in my classroom to finish writing an answer to a test, mocked and scolded by my teacher for "taking my own sweet time" and "keeping everybody waiting".

The fact that my teachers often made my learning difficulties an object of ridicule signaled to my peers that I was fair game for bullying. Between the academic failure and the cruelty of my peers, elementary school was total hell, and the source of life-long self-doubt and depression.

But as I said, I was lucky -- my writing problems, at least, essentially vanish when I can type. For others, who labor even to type, the problems continue. As school continues, written expression becomes an ever more important skill. Writing is no longer just the province of English class, but is expected in social studies and the sciences as well. A student who cannot write well is seen as less intelligent, less capable, and less deserving of opportunity than her peers.

This is to say nothing of the frustration faced by an intelligent student who cannot express herself. This frustration alone can lead to low mood, anxiety, and self-destructive rebellion. When frustration is combined with a self-esteem worn down by years of academic failure, years of being labeled as "lazy" and "careless" by teachers, the results can be tragic.

Dysgraphia Poll - Have you heard of dysgraphia

I'm curious to know how many people have heard of dysgraphia before reading this lens. Help me out by taking this poll!

Had you heard of dysgraphia before reading this lens?

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Are you parenting or teaching a child with dysgraphia? Do you have it yourself? - These books might help.

Learn more about writing difficulties. Because knowing is half the battle.

One of my many part-time jobs was teaching in an after school program in East Oakland. One of the boys in my class was always making trouble -- specifically, whenever I asked the class to write anything. Being dysgraphic myself, I suspected he was trying to avoid writing because he struggled with it. Sure enough, when I asked him to show me what he had written, I couldn't even read it. However, when he read it out loud to me, it was clear that he was an intelligent, articulate person. I made sure to let his teachers know that he might have dysgraphia.

You may have a child or a student in your class who acts out when asked to write something, consider that this child might simply be trying to avoid something that brings them pain and embarrassment. This child might have a writing disability.

If you have dysgraphia, your life will be easier if you avoid writing things out by hand. Fortunately this is a pretty easy thing to do in our modern technological society. Here are my favorite ways to avoid writing:

1. Word Processing

When I was in elementary school, laboriously writing out assignments by hand and inevitably screwing them up, I used to wish there was a way to insert words when I forgot them, move sentences around, and erase my mistakes. A few years later, my family got a computer, and thanks to WordStar 2000 (old school, baby!), I could do just that.

2. E-mail

Rather than write out your correspondence by hand, stick a stamp on it, and wait for DAYS before it gets to where it's supposed to go, keep in touch with your friends and family at the speed of electrons! In the days of e-mail and e-cards, there's no reason to kill yourself trying to write out birthday cards to all your cousins.

3. Camera phone

Before we got an unlimited text-messaging package, my partner wrote the week's menu grocery list on a white board that adhered to the fridge via one o' them newfangled magnets. If I was doing the shopping that week, I'd take a picture of the list with my phone's camera, and then put the phone in my pocket. This solved my problem of writing out lists by hand and inevitably omitting half a dozen vital ingredients for the week's meals.

3. SMS

Ask your friends and colleagues to give you dates, times, and directions via SMS instead of by phone. That way you'll have what you need in your phone without having to write it out on paper. Better yet, get a service package that allows you to send and forward e-mails to your SMS inbox. This has taken care of 99% of my meetings and invitations.

4. Google voice mail

This one is new, and there's a waiting list (yeah, I know) but it's totally worth it. Google now has a service that will send voice mail right to your inbox, in voice and transcribed form. The transcriptions aren't always 100% accurate, but they're pretty good, and the audio message can help fill in the gaps. No more scrambling to write down that phone number before the message ends, and no more listening to each phone message five times while you try to write everything down!

5. Google maps

Rather than taking directions over the phone, writing them out by hand, and getting them horribly wrong, put the address into google maps and print it out. If you have a fancy cell phone with a GPS, this is even easier, and saves paper too.

6. Other people

If you have dysgraphia, don't be ashamed to ask for help. If you can, have a friend or family member fill out household paperwork while you pick up other chores. Ask another person at that meeting to share their notes with you. Have someone proofread any writing you might be concerned about.

7. Music notation software

If you're a musician, music teacher, or student, consider investing in music notation software such as Finale or Sibelius. These programs are sort of like word processing for sheet music. Both of them have MIDI interface, so if you have a keyboard with a USB MIDI drive you can have the program transcribe what you play. It saves all that cramped writing on tiny staff paper. If you have a student or faculty ID from an accredited institution, you're eligible for substantial discount prices on either software. My personal experience is with Finale, and it made my life as a music student MUCH easier.

I appreciate everyone who's visited and left a comment. I make an effort to check out the lenses of those who visit mine, and I can't do this unless I know who you are. I promise I'll return the visit, even if it might take me awhile.

After all, it's only neighborly.

Thanks for dropping by! - If I'm not in, you may leave your card with my butler.

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      Anita 19 months ago

      I am in tears with this article. My son has Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Dysgraphia. I was trying to find my words to explain it all to his schooling, in which at present time he is failing in. Thank you, for helping me find my words.

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      Chryl 21 months ago

      Yes I spelled it right as I read your story it is like an echo of my own except no computers or calculators yes some teachers made it worse if the teacher could bully me in front of the class the kids figurid that it was ok on the play ground whent to collage and if you can believe a collage teacher would do the same thing but my classmates told her to be kind got an F and quit as a person you can only take so much I am an artist now no one can tell me I am wrong and I can be me and help others find that you are kind you are smart you are important

    • profile image

      lisylou1 2 years ago

      Thanks so much for this. My son aged 10 years old has dysgraphia. He is such a clever, lovely little lad but he was so quick to tears and stressed at school for 3 years, I think he was also struggling with friends and he would think he was 'thick'. He would never allow himself to cuddle me or his dad and we would just argue as he would be so stubborn about school from messing about in class or his classwork. His self-confidence was absolutely rock bottom and he would constantly be in a dream world. I would go into school and find that his teachers would write in his books "I can't read this" and "your writing is too scruffy". He was assessed as having anger management issues because he shouted at a teacher who had been shouting at him due to his poor writing skills and to speed up! For 3 years, I knew something was wrong because he is so bright but I couldn't put my finger on it. I would research and investigate but couldn't work it out and hound the school about it everyday but they said he would grow out of it! Then we moved to a new country as my husband took a new job and within one term at his new school he had been screened as being dysgraphic and having poor fine motor skills. He's like a different boy now he's getting the help and he's head of his house in his school, he's happy, positive and he's allowed himself to mature. The best bit is that he is now closer to us as parents and we get loads of cuddles from him!!

    • Addy Bell profile image
      Author

      Addy Bell 2 years ago

      @Fairlygoodmother: I'm so glad I was able to help! This is exactly why I try to be open about my disabilities. I can't count the number of times I've described my dysgraphia or dyscalculia (math disorder) and had someone respond "Maybe my kid has that! I've never understood why he has so much trouble writing!". Or better yet, a teacher will say, "I have three students who are really struggling in that area. I haven't figured out how to teach them - maybe this is why!".

      My boss (who's self-diagnosed with dyscalculia) told me once that she sort of envies her brother, who has dyslexia, because he got early intervention and help. On the other hand, having difficulties with language and reading creates more life challenges. On the other other hand, those of us with less-common learning disabilities have to spend A TON of time compensating and trying to hide them.

      Thanks for your note - it's so good to know I helped someone.

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      Fairlygoodmother 3 years ago

      My sweet daughter has dysgraphia. In 2010 when we finally got a diagnosis, I couldn't find much information about it online. This article is so helpful. I am sending it to her, Pinning it, and printing it to hand to her teachers (mostly the ones that are outside of ELA subjects that aren't as familiar with dysgraphia). Thank you!

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      Dean1111 3 years ago

      A very helpful article. I teach adolescents with specific learning difficulties which include awkwardness with handwriting. None, however, have been diagnosed with dysgraphia.

    • profile image

      Ganash 3 years ago

      My daughter is in the 3rd grade and has just been diagnosed with dysgraphia. I am trying to learn as much as I can so that I will be able to help her be successful!

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      cleansweeping 4 years ago

      Our son was diagnosed with dysgraphia a few years ago along with him having sensory issues. It is complicated to understand, but once you see the problem, you understand why your child struggles. He is doing fine now, just two years later - in the gifted program, which is quite common for those with dysgraphia.

    • choosehappy profile image

      Vikki 4 years ago from US

      I'd heard of it; but didn't really know much about it in depth. Great information ;)

    • profile image

      totacrowe 4 years ago

      I am well schooled in ADD, ADHD and ODD with and without Dyslexia so when my one Grandson began having problems I wondered......normal right. In primary school they were still writing letters with the "curls" when it wasn't right the first time he would go back over the letters you got it ,making it illegible. he would take a long time to do written assignments but his math was a different story.....right answers without showing his work.......and every Sept the same complaint.....we are doing the stuff we learned last year. Some of his teachers even suggested that he take his tests orally but nothing was done. Now he is getting into trouble at school not completing assignments yes being called lazy and a troublemaker......he was suspended for most of last year and had a tutor coming to the house so when she mentioned Dyslexia to me I was not surprised. All his work was dictated to her or myself so the flow was easy not struggling to think and write at the same time. 6 weeks of tutoring in Algebra got him an 80% on his Regents with a class mark of 21. He is 16 and is finally being assessed it is my hope that he will at least be given the tools to cope and will be able to enjoy his last 2 years of High School as he did his first 2 years of Primary those in between he hated. The articles you have written are very informative and as a Behavioral Science Technician I commend you for all your help to others.

    • KayeSI profile image

      KayeSI 5 years ago

      Very interesting! And great tips. Thank you.

    • KayeSI profile image

      KayeSI 5 years ago

      Very interesting! And great tips. Thank you.

    • Spiderlily321 profile image

      Spiderlily321 5 years ago

      Thank you so much for creating this lens. It has so much great information. I added you to my featured lens list in my lens called "would you like to be part of a support circle..." under the section dysgraphia. Thanks for sharing

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      lynne-croteau-gregorio 5 years ago

      My son has dysgraphia as part of Tourettes Syndrome. When it is part of TS, the dysgraphia can be more severe as it goes beyond just poor handwriting. He has the inability to get thoughts from his head onto to paper in a sequential, organized fashion. His handwriting is barely readable and his teachers don't understand this disability so it has been very frustrating for us. He is in 6th grade but still writes at a 3rd grade level, we are trying to make progress but it is a real challenge because it isn't just about messy handwriting but how overall written expression.

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      karina-salgado 5 years ago

      My son was recently diagnosed with dysgraphia (he's in the 5th. grade), and in my searching for information we found yours and just finished reading it together. He is right here next to me, telling me to thank you for the information, his exact words were: You saved my life! So, thank you!

      Kary

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      RecipePublishing 5 years ago

      Thank you.

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 6 years ago

      I discovered that I had dysgraphia I was in graduate school. Amazing how I made it that far by learning to adapt! Thanks for the information.

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      thethemit 6 years ago

      It is such a great lens !

      That's good. You're really thinking proactively. This is important

    • pacrapacma lm profile image

      pacrapacma lm 6 years ago

      Excellent information and resources! I am smarter for reading this. I've bookmarked it to refer and help anyone who has issues with this. Thanks for the blessing on my speech lens.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      Another Great lens!

    • Addy Bell profile image
      Author

      Addy Bell 6 years ago

      @addiva: So glad I could do that, ADDiva! And I like your work :)

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      addiva 6 years ago

      Thank you SO much for this comprehensive and elegant description of and solutions for dysgraphia. I was always in gifted classes but was shamed by my "sloppy" cursive writing. I must have motor dysgraphia since I can type well and I am a writer by profession (imagine that!). I'm writing a book about ADHD midlife women and wanted to include info about dysgraphia. You have MADE MY DAY!

    • jvsper63 profile image

      jvsper63 6 years ago

      I had never heard of dysgraphia. But I understand how a teacher can have a big impact on a child. It bother's me when I hear thing's like that. It's something that can stay with us for the rest of our lives..Great lens Topic

    • Addy Bell profile image
      Author

      Addy Bell 6 years ago

      @miaponzo: Broke his arm, huh? That's really going the extra mile :)

    • profile image

      miaponzo 6 years ago

      My son has dysgraphia and that is how I discovered that he had dyslexia when he was already 16! No one had even thought about it before.. he coped well... even managing to get his arm broken to avoid taking his final exams. the teacher wrote, and he passed.

    • profile image

      maggiet 7 years ago

      What you went through sounds exactly what I went through throughout all my years of schooling. I just recently discovered I have dysgraphia (not yet officially diagnosed, but I am going to get it tested.). I'm writing my research paper on it for my English 102 class. For so many years I thought I was a failure because I couldn't write. I would literally break down into tears and just wouldn't do the assignments.

      Boy, did I relate to this.

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      Cynthia Arre 7 years ago from Quezon City

      Beautifully written and crafted and chock full of information and useful tips for coping with this LD. (:

    • profile image

      poutine 7 years ago

      Thanks for making me aware of this writing problem.

      I've never heard of it before. Now I know.

      Poutine

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      Extremely informative and interesting - a beautifully put together and very helpful lens. Those tips are great.

    • HorseAndPony LM profile image

      HorseAndPony LM 7 years ago

      I had no idea about any of this. I have many writing issues. I need to re-read this and see where I land. This is a really great lens. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 7 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      A wonderful, well-written lens chock full of useful information!

    • SpellOutloud profile image

      SpellOutloud 7 years ago

      You organized this lens so well. Great information on this topic.

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 7 years ago

      That is another great lens of yours. By clicking the link, I knew I would find a lot of useful, detailed and personal information. Good job!

      Dom.

    • punkin1976 profile image

      punkin1976 7 years ago

      Very informative, and actually an enjoyable read.

      The mini-injections of humor will be appreciated by those dealing with this disorder.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Another really helpful lens. People are going to be grateful to find this information, thanks for collecting it!