How Common is Dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is not a familiar term. But symptoms of dysgraphia are not uncommon, especially in young children who are starting to learn how to write. If a child continues to struggle with writing despite plenty of practice and corrective feedback, it’s a good idea to take a closer look to see whether dysgraphia is an underlying cause.

What is Dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is a condition that causes trouble with written expression. The term comes from the Greek words dys (“impaired”) and graphia (“making letter forms by hand”). Dysgraphia is a brain-based issue. It’s not the result of a child being lazy.

For many children with dysgraphia, just holding a pencil and organising letters on a line is difficult. Their handwriting tends to be messy. Many struggle with spelling and putting thoughts on paper. These and other writing tasks—like putting ideas into language that is organised, stored and then retrieved from memory—may all add to struggles with written expression.

Different professionals may use different terms to describe your child’s struggle with written expression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) doesn’t use the term dysgraphia but uses the phrase “an impairment in written expression” under the category of “specific learning disorder.” This is the term used by most doctors and psychologists.

Some school psychologists and teachers use the term dysgraphia as a type of shorthand to mean “a disorder in written expression.”

The term, “specific learning disability" includes issues with understanding or using language (spoken or written) that make it difficult to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations.

Whatever definition is used, it’s important to understand that slow or sloppy writing isn’t necessarily a sign that your child isn’t trying hard enough. Writing requires a complex set of fine motor and language processing skills. For children with dysgraphia, the writing process is harder and slower. Without help, a child with dysgraphia may have a difficult time in school.

Experts aren’t sure what causes dysgraphia and other issues of written expression. Normally, the brain takes in information through the senses and stores it to use later. Before a person starts writing, he retrieves information from his short- or long-term memory and gets organised to begin writing.

In a person with dysgraphia, experts believe one or both of the next steps in the writing process go off track:

Organizing information that is stored in memory
Getting words onto paper by handwriting or typing them
This results in a written product that’s hard to read and filled with errors.
And most important, it does not convey what the child knows and what he intended to write.

Working memory may also play a role in dysgraphia. A child may have trouble with what’s called “orthographic coding.” This is the ability to store unfamiliar written words in the working memory. As a result, he may have a hard time remembering how to print or write a letter or a word.

There may also be a genetic link, with dysgraphia running in families.