What Is Dysgraphia?

Doing Homework
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Often, homeschooling parents feel that they're not equipped to homeschool a child with special needs or a learning disability. In my experience, that's just not true. Home is often the best place for a student who learns differently.

To highlight the benefits of homeschooling for special needs kids and to explain some of the lessor-known learning challenges, I went straight to the source - moms who are successfully homeschooling children who learn differently.

Shelley, who is an educator, author, marketer, and editor, blogs at STEAM Powered Family. Her oldest son is considered 2e, or twice exceptional. He is gifted but also grapples with dysgraphia and an anxiety disorder. His struggles with dysgraphia began while he was still in public school, and here's what Shelley had to say.

When did you first begin to suspect a problem?

I struggled to read the messy scrawl of his printing - the letters irregular in size, random capitalization, a complete disregard for punctuation, and a few letters that were inverted and crawled up the sides of the paper.

I looked into his bright, expectant eyes and turned the paper to my 8-year-old. “Can you read this to me?” The words he spoke were so eloquent, yet to look at the paper it appeared that a child half his age had written the message. Dysgraphia is a trickster that masks the abilities of the mind behind writing that is messy and often illegible.

 

My son has always been precocious and advanced in reading. He started reading around four years old and even wrote his first story a few months later in that adorable childish scribble. The story had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was called Killer Crocs, and I still have it tucked away in a drawer.

When my son started school, I expected his printing would improve, but by grade 1 it became apparent to me that something was not right. The teachers brushed off my concerns, saying he was a typical boy.

A year later, the school took notice and started voicing the same concerns I had earlier. It took a great deal of time, but we finally discovered my son had dysgraphia. When we looked at all the signs, we realized my husband has dysgraphia as well.

What is dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that impacts the ability to write.

Writing is a very complex task. It involves fine motor skills and sensory processing, along with the ability to create, organize, and express ideas. Oh, and don’t forget about recalling proper spelling, grammar, and syntax rules.

Writing is truly a multi-faceted skill that requires a number of systems to work in unity in order to achieve success.

The signs of dysgraphia can be tricky to identify, as there are often other concerns, but generally you can look for clues such as:

  • Significant difference in quality and expression of ideas when written versus spoken. Students can be incredibly eloquent and well versed in a subject, but if asked to write about the topic, they struggle to convey their knowledge.
  • A tight and awkward pencil grip and body position while writing
  • Shaping letters in strange ways, starting them in awkward places, or varying their sizes
  • Illegible and messy handwriting
  • Orienting letters wrong, like writing letters backward or inverting them
  • Poor spatial planning on paper (not leaving enough room for the words or starting in strange places)
  • Avoidance of drawing and writing tasks
  • Becoming tired quickly while writing or complaining that it causes pain
  • Unfinished or omitted words in sentences when writing
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper, but not when using other mediums
  • Struggles with grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, even though the student is well read
  • The appearance that the child's mind is always going significantly faster than his hand. 

My son shows every single one of these signs of dysgraphia.

How is dysgraphia diagnosed?

One of the greatest battles I think parents face with dysgraphia is the difficulty in getting a diagnosis and putting a treatment plan in place. There is no simple test for dysgraphia. Instead, it is part of a battery of tests and evaluations that eventually lead to a diagnosis.

This testing is very expensive, and we found the school simply did not have the resources or funding to provide comprehensive professional testing for our son. It took a very long time and years of advocating to get our son the help he needed. 

Some possible testing options include:

  • Psychoeducational assessments
  • Academic assessments focusing on reading, arithmetic, writing, and language
  • Fine motor assessments, specifically involving skills used in writing
  • Writing sample evaluations
  • Testing involving copying designs

How can a parent help a child with dysgraphia?

Once a diagnosis is in place, there are many ways to help a student. If funding is available, an occupational therapist specializing in writing disorders can do a lot to help a child. The other approach is to use accommodations and concessions that allow the child to focus on his work, rather than struggle due to the writing issues.

We have never had access to an OT, so we utilized accommodations while my son was in school and have continued to use them in our homeschool. Some of those accommodations include:

  • Typing – My son is learning to touch type and has use of a computer to type all of his written materials.
  • Note-taker – In school, an aide worked with our son during exams, and he would dictate the answers, while the note-taker wrote them on the exam. In our homeschool we always provide our son with the opportunity to take “writing breaks,” and we act as his scribe.
  • Dictation software – There are some fabulous speech-to-text products on the market that work with word processors to type dictated text.
  • Oral presentations – Instead of asking our son to write a report, we will ask him to do oral presentations. We can even videotape these to provide a record of his learning.
  • Cursive – Although we have tried to go back and reteach printing to our son, it has proven to be an exercise in frustration. Instead, we chose to focus on something the school didn’t teach, cursive. Since it is new, we have the opportunity to work with him to develop new techniques and habits which will help him develop functional writing skills as an adult.
  • Creative presentations – One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we can be creative in how my son demonstrates his knowledge. As part of a study on Ancient Egypt he created a LEGO pyramid and did a presentation. Other times he has produced videos talking about the subject. Together we think outside of the box to come up with ways he can show his knowledge without extensive handwriting.

How does homeschooling benefit a student with dysgraphia?

When my son was in school, we really struggled. The system is designed a very specific way that involves judging and grading children based on their ability to demonstrate their knowledge by writing it out based on tests, written reports, or completed worksheets. For children with dysgraphia that can make school extremely challenging and frustrating.

Over time my son developed a severe anxiety disorder due to the constant pressure and criticism placed on him in the school environment.

Thankfully we had the option to homeschool, and it has been a wonderful experience. It challenges all of us to think differently, but at the end of the day my son is no longer limited by dysgraphia and has started to love learning again.