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Hidden Disabilities: Dysgraphia

Everyone loves to show off what they can do as they join their children in the wonderous journey of learning how to read and write. However, some children have a harder time achieving the literacy and writing milestones of their age and education level regardless of their normal, or higher, level of intelligence. Such a hidden disability is not easy to spot, which is why parents and teachers need to be aware of potential-disability indicators, and what this would mean to the child’s future literacy competency and mental health.

Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a learning neurological, or brain, disorder where a person- child, teen, or adult- experiences challenges in coherently expressing their ideas in writing and may also struggle with fine motor skills apart from writing, such as when tying shoes. Their cognitive ability to conceptualize, acquire, and imagine words and numbers to write them may be alright, if not slower than average. It is only when translating ideas into words when the struggle becomes visible.

Wikipedia illustrates that there are at least two stages in the act of writing:

  1. The Linguistic stage, where visual and auditory information is changed to symbols for writing with help from retained linguistic and writing rules in memory.
  2. The Motor-Expressive stage, where expression of words and images is articulated.

Handwriting Problem Solutions explains that there are 5 different types of dysgraphia: dyslexic, motor, spatial, phonological, and lexical. Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for someone to have more than one type.

  • Dyslexic Dysgraphia: Finger tapping speed is common (so the motor-expressive stage is okay) and while the person may not have dyslexia (neurological disorder causing reading challenges), dyslexia and dysgraphia do sometimes both appear in people. They spontaneously have illegible writing and poor spelling in original work, due to reading and spelling challenges, but copied work is legible.
    • Motor Dysgraphia: Finger tapping speeds are below average (affected motor-expressive stage). Occurs due to poor fine motor skills, flexibility, low muscle tone, or unspecified clumsiness. Written work is often illegible- copied and original. Letter formation can be well done with extreme effort and time, however there is poor grip on writing tool which results in slanted writing. Spelling is not impaired.
    • Spatial Dysgraphia: Finger-tapping and spelling is normal, but they struggle to keep writing on lines and proper spacing between words. Occurs due to incomprehension of spatial arrangement (affected linguistic stage). Writing is sometimes illegible- copied and original.
    • Phonological Dysgraphia: occurs with poor writing and spelling in the face of unfamiliar and irregular words (affected linguistic stage). Phonemes can’t be memorized. These are any distinct units of sound which distinguish one word from another. For example, p, b, d, and t in the words pad, pat, bad, and bat.
    • Lexical Dysgraphia: traits include normal spelling when sound-letter patterns are present, but there are misspellings of irregular words (affected linguistic stage). This is common in languages where words/spellings don’t align with the sound of the word (e.g.: English and French). This form of dysgraphia is rare.

The severity of dysgraphia varies, but generally, there may be illegible handwriting and poor spelling, inconsistent spacing, poor spatial planning on paper, and difficulty composing writing, as well as thinking and writing at the same time- all of which could result in writing fatigue. All children will experience these traits in their initial writing years, but if writing consistently shows to be a mentally, emotionally, or physically straining activity while attempting different strategies and tips to make writing easier, there is a chance that the child has dysgraphia, and strategies will have to be changed not to cure, but accommodate, the condition.

Causes

Tired boring boy don’t want to do his difficult school homework

There isn’t a for-sure cause of dysgraphia, but it is noted that the condition is often a result of numerous factors and diagnosed among children with other learning disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. In adults, the condition is sometimes a result of brain injury. Other causes have included physical illness or deformity, intentionally poor penmanship, lack of or inadequate instruction, multiple mental images, and disorientation. 

Therefore, dysgraphia is considered a “working memory problem” where individuals fail to develop normal connections to write in their brain, and at times with their body, thence leading to difficulty in accurate visual or audio-motor relay and comprehension, quick-recall, and mastering of movements needed to write.

Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For

Many children realize that their writing skills are not on-par with their classmates’ and may hide their condition, while others would notice their written language is sub-par, but their speech covers the deficiency. So, they would avoid exposing their oddity by speaking well so written communication becomes unneeded- leaving none the wiser about the situation and no diagnosis and treatment to cater to the unlabeled dysgraphia. Considering such scenarios, parents and teachers need to be keen and sensitive to the writing development of their children and communicate clearly that every person has their own pace; making universally available the various tools and learning tricks which would benefit the dysgraphic as well.

Here are some signs and symptoms of dysgraphic persons:

  • May have unclear, illegible printing and cursive writing (despite appropriate time and attention given the task)
  • Frequent erasing and abnormal writing speed (fast or slow)
  • Shows inconsistencies: mixtures of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or irregular sizes, shapes or slant of letters
  • Stress or frustration with writing, or when writing
  • Poor spelling or grammar
  • Has unfinished words or letters
  • Writes the wrong words when expressing ideas, or has omitted or missing words
  • Does not enjoy writing tasks
  • Inconsistent spacing between words and letters
  • Exhibits strange wrist, body, or paper position while writing
  • Has difficulty pre-visualizing letter formation
  • Copying or writing is slow or labored
  • Shows poor spatial planning on paper (e.g.: writing on the lines or within page margins)
  • Talks to self while writing
  • Has cramped or unusual grip, may complain of, or develop, sore hand
  • great difficulty thinking and writing at the same time (e.g.: taking notes, creative writing)

Diagnosis

The treatment plans for dysgraphia first depend on the individual’s situation. To each one’s type and severity of dysgraphia, is a remedy tailored to meet their needs. Consideration is also given for those with multiple learning disorders or other health complications. Like many other hidden disabilities which are neurological in nature, dysgraphia is incurable and early diagnosis goes a long way in helping the individual and their loved ones understand the situation and continue their lives without any negative influence on their self-esteem, self-perception, and decision-making.

Diagnosis by a professional pediatrician or psychologist is the first step. This will help to eliminate any causes of writing challenges, whether mental or biological, aside from dysgraphia. Tests for dysgraphia include written tests to grade one’s ability to put thoughts into words, write words/letters, and copy words/letters, along with fine motor screenings where they’ll be asked- for instance- to tap their fingers or turn their wrists in a certain way. The specialist will observe the finished work, chosen hand and body positions, their pencil grip and posture, and writing process.

Solutions

  • Accept the child’s condition and explain it to them and their other caretakers- teachers, tutors, etcetera. In this way, parents, teachers, and the child can all work together in the child’s academic life- at his/her pace.
  • More group-work writing tasks; others write the sole conclusive report
  • Suggesting use of word processor instead of writing and train typing skills early
  • Allow more time to finish work
  • Avoid chastising student for sloppy, careless work
  • Use oral exams
  • Let them squeeze a stress ball to build hand-muscle strength and increase coordination
  • Be flexible with, or entirely remove, “neatness” or “spelling” criteria in written tests for them
  • Allow choice between normal and cursive script
  • Praise their hard work and give positive reinforcement
  • Provide pencil grips or larger pencils to help train proper tool holding
  • Allow use of tape recorder for lectures
  • Teach ways to relieve stress before writing like shaking or rubbing hands together
  • Allow the use of a note taker or voice-to-diction machine
  • Provide notes or outlines to reduce the amount of writing required
  • Reduce copying aspects of work (e.g.: pre-printed math problems)
  • Allow use of wide rule paper, graph paper, and/or paper with raised lines
  • Suggest use of specially designed writing aids
  • Provide alternatives to written assignments (e.g.: video-taped reports, audio-taped reports)
  • Shorter assignments (quality over quantity teaching) or those different from classmates

By: Ann Yebei

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