Dysgraphia makes it difficult for a person to form letters in writing. It’s a neurological disorder that can affect children or adults. People with dysgraphia may also use the wrong word for what they’re trying to communicate.

The cause of dysgraphia isn’t always known, though in adults it sometimes follows a traumatic event.

Once the condition is diagnosed, you can learn strategies to help overcome some of the challenges it presents in school and in life.

Illegible handwriting is a common sign of dysgraphia, but not everyone with messy penmanship has the disorder. It’s also possible to have neat handwriting if you have dysgraphia, though it may take you a long time and a lot of effort to write neatly.

Some common characteristics of dysgraphia include:

  • incorrect spelling and capitalization
  • mix of cursive and print letters
  • inappropriate sizing and spacing of letters
  • difficulty copying words
  • slow or labored writing
  • difficulty visualizing words before writing them
  • unusual body or hand position when writing
  • tight hold on pen or pencil resulting in hand cramps
  • watching your hand while you write
  • saying words aloud while writing
  • omitting letters and words from sentences

Other effects of dysgraphia

People with dysgraphia often have trouble concentrating on other things while writing. This can make it difficult to take notes during class or a meeting because so much attention is being paid to getting each word down on paper. Other things that are said may be missed.

Students with dysgraphia may also be accused of being sloppy or lazy because their handwriting isn’t neat. This can affect self-esteem and lead to anxiety, a lack of confidence, and negative attitudes toward school.

If dysgraphia appears in childhood, it’s usually the result of a problem with orthographic coding. This is an aspect of working memory that allows you to permanently remember written words, and the way your hands or fingers must move to write those words.

With dysgraphia, kids or adults have a harder time planning and executing the writing of sentences, words, and even individual letters. It’s not that you don’t know how to read, spell, or identify letters and words. Instead, your brain has problems processing words and writing.

When dysgraphia develops in adults, the cause is usually a stroke or other brain injury. In particular, injury to the brain’s left parietal lobe may lead to dysgraphia. You have a right and left parietal lobe in the upper part of your brain. Each is associated with a range of skills, such as reading and writing, as well as sensory processing, including pain, heat, and cold.

Researchers are still learning the reasons why some children have learning disabilities, such as dysgraphia. Learning disabilities often run in families or are related to prenatal development, such as being born prematurely.

Children with dysgraphia often have other learning disabilities. For example, having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may raise the risk of having dysgraphia. That’s because attention is closely linked to both writing and reading abilities.

Other learning disabilities associated with dysgraphia include dyslexia (trouble reading), and oral and written language (OWL) learning disability. OWL symptoms include trouble placing words in the right order in a sentence and difficulty remembering words.

Dyslexia is a reading disorder and dysgraphia is a writing disorder, but the conditions may sometimes be confused for one another. That’s because people with dyslexia may also have problems with their writing and spelling.

It’s possible to have both learning disabilities, but it’s important to get a proper diagnosis so you know if one or both conditions require attention.

Diagnosing dysgraphia often requires a team of experts, including a physician and a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional trained in working with people who have learning disabilities. An occupational therapist, school psychologist, or a special education teacher may also help make the diagnosis.

For children, part of the diagnostic process may include an IQ test and an assessment of their academic work. Specific school assignments may also be examined.

For adults, examples of written work or written tests administered by a doctor may be evaluated. You will be observed as you write to look for fine motor skills problems. You may be asked to copy words from one source to another to help understand if there are language-processing problems.

Occupational therapy may be helpful in improving handwriting skills. Therapeutic activities may include:

  • holding a pencil or pen in a new way to make writing easier
  • working with modeling clay
  • tracing letters in shaving cream on a desk
  • drawing lines within mazes
  • doing connect-the-dots puzzles

There are also several writing programs that can help children and adults form letters and sentences neatly on paper.

If other learning disabilities or health issues are present, treatment options will need to address those conditions as well. Medications may be needed to treat ADHD, for example.

Living with dysgraphia

For some people, occupational therapy and motor skills training can help improve their writing ability. For others, it remains a lifelong challenge.

If you have a son or daughter with dysgraphia, it’s important to work with your child’s school and teachers on accommodations that are appropriate for this type of learning disability. Some classroom strategies that may help include:

  • a designated note taker in the classroom
  • use of a computer for notes and other assignments
  • oral exams and assignments, instead of written ones
  • extra time on tests and assignments
  • lesson or lecture notes provided by the teacher as printouts, recordings, or in digital form
  • pencils or other writing implements with special grips to make writing easier
  • use of wide-ruled or graph paper

And if you feel that the treatment you or children receive for dysgraphia isn’t sufficient, don’t give up. Look for other therapists or resources in your community that may help. You may need to be an aggressive advocate for your child, but keep in mind that there are laws and school policies designed to serve students with all types of learning challenges.