“I can’t write! It hurts my hand! I hate writer’s workshop! I’m never going to be a good writer!”
Do you know a child like this? Doesn’t it make your heart sink, seeing how that child’s academic challenges are tied so closely to their self esteem and sense of self? Can you imagine that child’s constant frustration in school where learning is focused on being able to read and write? They have the ideas in their mind but the road from their brain, with the idea, has a traffic jam and can’t translate that into writing. Forget about making their thoughts come out in a cohesive manner the first time or in a timely fashion! What’s going on with this child?
It could be a number of different things, but for this particular child, he has dysgraphia. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development shared an article from the Twice-Exceptional Newsletter (May/June 2011) stating that, “Dysgraphia is a learning disability that, involves difficulty with writing. This processing disorder can affect one or more of these abilities: (a) forming letters, numbers and words by hand; (b) spelling correctly, [and] (c) organizing and expressing thoughts on paper.”
So why is this? An fMRI of dysgraphia study published by Richards, T.L, et. al, (2011), which was shared on the Eide Neuro Learning Blog in September 2012 reported that, “The ‘good writers’ (scored in the normal or higher range on WIAT writing test) showed a strong coordination between the cerebellum (motor-sensory feedback) and primary motor-sensory areas in the precentral and postcentral gyrus. Poor writers had a very different pattern. Their cerebellar activation was stronger in midline structures (trunk > fingers) and also visual areas of cortex were much more active than primary motor-sensory areas around the central gyrus.”
From this research it appears that there is more activation and coordination (relaying information back and forth) between the cerebellum and primary motor-sensory areas (precentral and postcentral gyrus) in good writers. In poor writers, the research appears to indicate there was more cerebellum activation in midline structures such as the trunk compared to the fingers, as well as visual areas than the primary motor-sensory areas. The primary motor-sensory areas are responsible for executing voluntary motor movements such as hand movements for writing. Therefore, poor writers are using more vision and have less of their primary motor-sensory areas activated, which was not the case for good writers.
Although dysgraphia may occur alone, it may also occur with other learning disabilities including dyslexia, selective language impairments, ADD, ADHD, or Combined ADD/ADHD.
With a diagnosis of dysgraphia and a co-diagnosis of dyslexia, Davis (2010) describes in his book that a child becomes:
Disoriented by letters and shapes when they have multiple mental images of what their writing should look
like…what they do is draw a combination of all these pictures, usually switching from one to another… And the
solution is to get rid of all those old mental pictures so there is one clear single mental image… This isn’t to say
that the person’s eyes wouldn’t pass along the images correctly. The problem is that the brain wouldn’t process
the diagonal line images. The neural pathways for processing the stimuli have never been used. Also, because the
brain has never been able to see a straight diagonal line, it cannot instruct the hand to draw one, because the
neural pathway for making one has never been used. (p.45-47)
This makes sense because some children we see in the clinic who have the most difficulty with handwriting skip letters and words, make grammatical errors, have difficulty spelling, and may not know when to use uppercase or lowercase letters. The traffic jam starts with the mental image of the letters/symbols, which is jumbled or not even present, making the motor component of writing (written expression) more challenging. This results in increased concentration and fatigue until the child eventually gives up on writing.
Well now isn’t this EYE opening! The child with dysgraphia isn’t really lazy or oppositionally defiant because they want to be. Instead, writing is just REALLY HARD because everything is wired differently and they have to be taught a different way.
Therefore, it is extremely important to see where the breakdown in the writing process occurs to be able to provide the most effective intervention. The areas that may be contributing to the child’s dysgraphia include: oculomotor deficits, fine motor skills and strength for pencil control, automaticity of letter formation, sequencing, visual perceptual skills, and phonological recall of letters for language and written expression.
Professionals that are able to help identify the breakdown of the problem include Occupational Therapists, Behavioral Optometrists, Neuro-Psychologists, School Psychologists, School Educators, Licensed Psychologists, and Physicians. A team approach can establish where the deficit lies and formulate an intervention plan to allow for increased success with writing.
Written by Cassandra Andrade, MS, OTR/L
Photo credit: Reading Rockets