Watching your child grow and learn is such a magical experience. To see them trying and accomplishing new things each day is very rewarding. But what happens when you notice them starting to struggle with things you think they should be able to do? When you know they should be able to copy a letter they see or figure out how to tie their shoes? No one wants to think that their child has a learning disorder like dysgraphia or trouble with motor skills.
But learning disabilities, processing disorders, and developmental delays are more common than you may think. It is estimated that around 9.7% of children in the United States are diagnosed with a learning disability and 5% have a sensory processing disorder (in the absence of autism spectrum disorder). Yet there are likely still many more children who are affected by these conditions and never formally diagnosed. Their symptoms may be milder, they’ve learned to overcome challenges, or they were never evaluated.
Identifying Symptoms of Dysgraphia
When my oldest son was in elementary school, we would practice his weekly spelling words together. He was quick to master spelling them aloud, usually only taking a day or two to learn them. But I noticed that when it came time for the test, he struggled to correctly write the words we had practiced so carefully. He would be missing letters, have incorrect letters, or have written them so illegibly that you couldn’t tell what was there.
I attributed this in part to him being left-handed, which meant many fine motor tasks did not come naturally to him. But as he got older, his overall attention, handwriting, and motor planning continued to be problematic. As an occupational therapist, I work with children on handwriting and motor planning, so I knew something was wrong. He started to develop test anxiety because he knew the material when we studied, but when it came to the exam, he wasn’t able to effectively communicate his answers in writing.
In time, I realized that he likely had dysgraphia – not to be confused with dyslexia. While around 91% of American adults have heard of dyslexia, two-thirds of them are not familiar with dysgraphia (or dyscalculia or dyspraxia). Both dyslexia and dysgraphia can lead to problems with writing, but dysgraphia is specifically an issue with written expression or the physical act of writing. My son didn’t have a problem recognizing letters or words when he saw them or spelling them orally, but he had difficulty organizing his thoughts and actually writing the words correctly. It involves a lot of planning to form each letter, space them evenly, and sequence them in the right order. As he got older, he had trouble putting his thoughts down on paper in a way that made sense even though he could prove he knew the information when asked questions orally.
What I was seeing aligned with many of the common symptoms of dysgraphia, though he was never formally tested and diagnosed:
- Poor spelling
- Poor spatial planning on paper
- Illegible handwriting
- Difficulty communicating clear thoughts in writing
Building Fine Motor Skills and Coordination
Looking back, I know now that he may have benefitted from a structured writing curriculum such as Handwriting Without Tears as he was first learning to form letters and write sentences, as these types of programs reinforce motor planning and proper form. But he engaged in other activities that have since helped him to improve his writing abilities and overcome some of the symptoms of dysgraphia.
For instance, his love of skateboarding, swimming, and snowboarding improved his spatial awareness and helped with postural control. More than a decade of piano and guitar lessons helped as well as he refined his coordination, posture, sequencing, timing, and auditory processing. Since he was doing something he loved, he didn’t even realize he was practicing these skills.
As he got older, we talked about the challenges he was having at school and the types of activities he could do to improve his skills. Writing was certainly an area where he struggled most since it requires so much fine motor planning and executive function. Children must not only sequence their movements and have strong visual-perceptual skills, but also have strong working memory to recall letter formation, spacing, punctuation, and ideas for what they want to write. It was important that he understand how his brain and body worked differently from that of people to do these tasks so that he would be on board with activities that could help him be more successful. His drive and motivation definitely played a role in strengthening his areas of need.
Battling Sensory Processing Disorder
In addition to dysgraphia, my son was also learning to manage living with sensory processing disorder (SPD). His brain has a difficult time organizing and making sense of all of the sensory input he receives on a daily basis. For some people, this means lights, sounds, movements, and textures can be overwhelming (or underwhelming). For others, like my son, it presents more as motor skill and body awareness problems. This may have contributed to his sloppy handwriting because it requires hand-eye coordination as well as proper posture and pencil grip.
But it really hit home when he would be doing something most people take for granted like making their bed. This was one of his daily chores. Most kids pull up the sheets, throw the comforter on, fluff their pillows, and they’re done. But if the sheets had fallen off the bed, my son would be in tears trying to figure out how to put everything neatly back together. His brain had trouble communicating with his eyes and arms how to coordinate both sides of his body to pick up the sheets and organize them back on the bed. Not to mention the distraction of the noise from the TV in the other room while he was trying to focus on finishing the task at hand. It was very difficult for him to make sense of what was going on and stay focused or plan each step he needed to do to be successful. This is common for children with SPD.
Managing Dysgraphia and Sensory Processing Disorder
When my son began exhibiting these symptoms, I was a young mother, he was my first child, and I was in denial of early signs that he might benefit from formal occupational therapy services. Being an OT, I was able to provide some support at home and work with him on activities that could strengthen and re-wire underdeveloped areas of his brain, but not every child is fortunate to have this type of support.
I realized that there were plenty of children like my son facing challenges every day with tasks others take for granted such as writing or making the bed. These things did not come naturally to him; he had to work very hard at them. And so I was inspired to launch Therapeutic Movements and provide families with a facility where they could not only have their child evaluated for occupational and physical therapy needs, but also sensory integration issues, rehabilitation, dysgraphia, and more. Our team of experts works with families to determine their child’s unique needs and create a treatment plan to help them reach their goals, overcome challenges, and build independence.
My son has learned to thrive over the years, but I know that he could have benefitted earlier on from formal OT services. If you are concerned about your child’s development or performance, reach out to Therapeutic Movements for more information and to schedule an evaluation.