For many years, my 10-year-old confounded me. She has tested at a ninth-grade reading level and has read classics like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series since the first grade.
So, how could a child with such advanced reading and comprehension levels disregard proper syntax and grammar when writing? Why were basic punctuation marks like commas non-existent in every assignment? Why was she failing every spelling test?
I soon learned that my daughter, who has an autism spectrum disorder, also has a disability called dysgraphia ― or, essentially, “disabled handwriting.”
People with dysgraphia often have high IQs, but struggle with writing. Symptoms include writing inappropriately sized letters, flipping written letters and jumbling numbers. They can struggle with translating thoughts to paper and spelling words properly, even while testing in average and above ranges in reading comprehension. Slow or labored writing, which can also be neatly done, is also a sign of the disorder.
Federal law specifies written expression as one of the areas in which students with learning disabilities may be affected, which helps ensure assistance. But there is one problem: The testing used to assess written expression disabilities often doesn’t score handwriting or spelling problems, masking the disability.
“If your child is a reluctant or struggling writer, it is important to determine why.”
Even more alarming, children who are “twice-exceptional” ― a popular term for gifted children with intellectual disabilities ― are at greater risk of being under-diagnosed.
“The ability to write is extremely complex, using a diverse set of skills and cognitive functions,” says BethAnn Pratte, a Pennsylvania-based advocate with a Ph.D in education and a mother of a son with dysgraphia and autism.
Pratte also notes that people often assume that by fourth grade, children are both competent in writing and reading. With each year building on the skills taught in the last, the struggles for children become more intense and cross into different content areas.
“If your child is a reluctant or struggling writer, it is important to determine why,” Pratte says.
Undiagnosed dysgraphia can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety in students, taunting from classmates, as well as conflict in the classroom and at home. Teachers and parents can easily confuse the inability to process and translate information into written form with laziness or lack of effort.
Pratte says the blame and guilt that can result from a lack of diagnosis is common.
“Do not assume that your child’s writing difficulties are caused by a lack of motivation,” she says. “It is better to err on the safe side ... to determine if you child has an undiagnosed learning disability.”
What parents of dysgraphic kids can do
Fall is back-to-school time for many families across the country, and parents are sharing notes about school requirements, curriculum updates and even homeschooling lesson plans.
But for students who face learning disabilities ― and their parents ― this can be a fraught time. That’s especially true with little-known disabilities that can take longer to be diagnosed.
Kathryn Stark, an elementary school literary specialist, offered additional insight for parents and teachers looking for signs of dysgraphia, which include:
- Handwriting issues (illegible, sloppy lines, poor formation of letters/words)
- Fine motor skill issues (holding a pencil or pen to write, problems cutting with scissors, unable to tie shoes
- Taking extra time to complete written assignments
- Having difficulty putting thoughts to paper/organizing thoughts
“There are, however, solutions, to help a child with dysgraphia,” says Stark. She suggests shortening written assignments for dysgraphic students, such as asking for two sentences instead of five. Teachers can provide graphic organizers for the child to draw pictures or write simple words and phrases to help organize thoughts before writing.
“It’s also helpful to allow the child to orally tell you their thoughts before you write them on paper together or by providing one-on-one assistance in ‘writing exactly as he/she says,’” says Stark, which is one of the tricks my daughter and I use at home for more complex written assignments, such as book reports and worksheets.
“Finally, with technology implemented in more classrooms, typing is a more exciting option for children as is “voice to text” recognition apps and software.”
Mati Sicherer, a learning disability specialist for College Connections, has a few more tips for parents and educators hoping to level the playing field for students with dysgraphia and to help them thrive in the new school year.
“Occupational therapy, overt handwriting instruction and instruction in how to use assistive technology tools are examples of remediation for dysgraphia,” Sicherer said. “Accommodations allow the student to present and access the work in a way that takes the writing process out of the equation so they are graded on their acquisition of knowledge over their dysgraphia.”
Of course, the first and most important step for parents is to listen when a child says they are struggling, says Pratte, whose own son was diagnosed with dysgraphia at the early age of 18 months.
“There is nothing more powerful than an informed parent, advocating for their child,” she added.