When my son was in school, there wasn’t much information available about Dysgraphia. Now, there’s plenty, however, it’s still quite a confusing issue. Particularly since many professionals don’t really seem to be “on board” with Dysgraphia as an actual disability.
The College Board is very cut-and-dried. To them, dysgraphia is a fine motor skill deficit, period. No matter if a child has never been able to produce more than a paragraph using a pen or pencil; if testing doesn’t show a fine motor deficit, then that child will be handwriting their essay, thank-you-very-much. However, the fact that they even have dysgraphia listed as a disability is a step in the right direction. Just two years ago, they did not.
Many professionals agree with The College Board’s definition. So, when your child has problems with handwriting, they will test fine motor skills. This is appropriate, yes. What’s not appropriate is, if and when the test shows no fine motor delay, that they simply say, “Not dysgraphia, no fine motor delay, work harder.” Some occupational therapists just tell families, “We can’t help you with this.” Particularly if the child’s fine motor skills measure in the “average” range.
Yet the problem is very real, and very frustrating, especially for people who have something to say, and cannot get it out using a pen or pencil. It would be nice, and seems logical, to just let them use a computer for word processing, however, while some schools are happy to do this, others are not. And, you are still stuck with the problem of the SATs and other standardized tests requiring handwriting.
And, you’re also stuck with everyone else’s opinion about what you should do and their opinions about how important good handwriting is to being able to function as an adult: get a job, write a check (really?), go to the doctor, the DMV, I don’t know, the grocery store? Never mind that there are people with physical impairments who manage to actually get all these things accomplished: somehow if it’s neurological disability, like dysgraphia, many people think one simply cannot get along in the world without gaining that particular skill.
The NationalCenter for Learning Disabilities explains how to know if your child may have dysgraphia. You’ll see that some of the symptoms - difficulty with proper spacing, poor understanding of upper and lowercase letters, saying words aloud while writing, difficulty thinking of words to write, unfinished or omitted words, difficulty with syntax structure and grammar, for example - really don’t have a lot to do with fine motor control. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke agrees that it’s more than simply a fine motor difficulty.
So, since you and your child have to live in a world of not-so-accommodating others, as well as professionals who are not yet in agreement about what dysgraphia is or how to treat it, what to do? You have two options:
1) Therapy (that you might have to pay for yourself)
2) Advocate for accommodation, and teach your child to advocate for themselves
Like any other neurological difficulty, dysgraphia is something that can be worked on: the earlier, the better. If you have a young child who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, you can figure that they will most likely need extra help in this area, and start working on it while they’re young. The AmericanAcademy of Neurology reports that children with autism are more likely to have handwriting problems, so go ahead and be proactive.
If your child is older, you already know if they are struggling in this area. As someone gets older, they may or may not benefit from therapy, so you’ll want to try therapy and also be mindful that you are not simply going through the motions and never getting anywhere. If you’ve worked on it for a couple of years with no real progress, perhaps it’s time to think about how to work around it. Many professionals who do understand about dysgraphia are now recommending accommodations over therapy.
The first step to obtaining therapy is testing. Wrightslaw does an excellent job of helping parents understand just what schools should be testing for when they test for dysgraphia: it’s not just fine motor skills. Keep in mind that if your child tests “average” then schools do not need to provide therapy, even if the child is struggling. This doesn’t necessarily mean your child wouldn’t benefit from therapy for dysgraphia, it just means that they aren’t quite “bad enough” to receive therapy for free.
If you need to find a therapy provider on your own, the International Dyslexia Association also provides help and information about dysgraphia. You can send them an email asking for information and a list of providers in your area.
There are things you can do with your child or even older child or adult to help with handwriting. Some parents report that using a Tomy Megasketcher helps their children practice letters without fatiguing. Kate Gladstone has developed a handwriting repair program designed for people, who, like herself, have neurological handwriting difficulties. This program is now available as an iPhone application.
And, last but not least, something I've been wanting to try because I have a very awkward grip is The Writing Claw, a tool that helps maintain a tripod pencil grip.
Advocate for Accommodations
Most colleges have no problem giving accommodations for dysgraphia: they will assign note-takers, allow a student to use a laptop in class, and allow a student to word-process written assignments and tests. They require recent documentation of disability, however, so be prepared to show it. And, your child has to be willing to ask for the accommodation, so part of your job is to teach your child how to ask for help when they need it. At the beginning of each semester, my son has to take an accommodation letter around to each professor. He balked at it at first; but through discussion realized that he truly needed the accommodation. He was really happy he had done so when he was able to get his math test grade changed because the teacher misread his answer.
Public schools vary in their willingness to accommodate, although I’ve found that they are much happier to let a student use a computer to word-process if they are not also being asked to provide therapy. Again, keep in mind that you’ll need really good documentation for the future, so be sure everything is clearly stated in your child’s IEP, and proper testing is done.
When asking for accommodations, arm yourself with information. This won’t help you with those SATs, however, it will help you everywhere else, so stay informed. The Learning Disabilities Association of America lists some good accommodations, and Susan Jones, M.Ed, wrote an excellent review of accommodations and modifications for dysgraphia for The Resource Room. And ABC News reports that “For Intelligent Children with Autism, Handwriting is Barrier.”
If you go this route, be prepared to spend some of your time educating those who work with your child. Each new year brings new teachers who do not necessarily understand that your child is not being “lazy” or “messy” when his or her handwriting is almost illegible. You’ll need to be creative, too. Science lab notebooks, for example, presented a challenge for my son, until we got duplicate sheets, had him word-process his answers and then printed them out and pasted them on the pages. More work, yes. Taught him the value of neatness, absolutely. Neatness that he was actually able to accomplish.
If I had to explain my beliefs about disability, I think that might be it in a nutshell: work as hard as you can to overcome your difficulties, understand that others are always going to have their perceptions and you do have some responsibility to try to understand and accommodate them while seeking appropriate accommodations for yourself.
Dysgraphia: When it's more than bad handwriting by Sara Gardner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://ncld.org/.