Think back to a time when you had to write an essay for school, but experienced crippling writer’s block. It might have lasted for a couple of hours or even days, but in the end, you probably hit that moment of inspiration when the ideas started flowing.
Now, imagine reaching that point, but having no ability to write down your ideas. This is how individuals with dysgraphia feel.
This learning disability, which is also called a written output disability, is often described as a disconnect between the brain and the hands.
A person can have intelligent ideas and a high IQ, but struggle to visualize those ideas in letters and put those letters down on paper, according to Howard Eaton, the founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith School (EA).
Dysgraphia is much more than an inability to write. It’s a neurological disorder.
“The visual motor system of taking words in the mind and quickly transcribing them with letters while patterns enter the brain is challenging,” he said. “That’s why individuals with dysgraphia often say, ‘I can just tell you the story.’”
Children and adults with dysgraphia experience deficits in motor symbol sequencing, which involves the ability to learn and produce symbolic sequential motor patterns. This includes processes that require input through the eyes and output through the hands or mouth.
In her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young – founder of the Arrowsmith Program – talks about a student named Josh.
He was diagnosed with dysgraphia and specialists said he would never learn to write. They suggested Josh’s mother just teach him to sign his name in case he ever had to write a check.
Josh had a high IQ. He would get A’s on multiple-choice tests. He could also solve math problems quickly and accurately. But when asked to show his calculations or write an essay, he couldn’t do it. He also struggled with keyboarding skills and copying notes from the blackboard before teachers erased them.
Josh was eventually tested by the Arrowsmith Program and found to have a severe motor symbol sequencing problem. Like many individuals with dysgraphia, translating thoughts onto paper proved extremely difficult.
But after a year in the Arrowsmith Program, he noticed a difference.
“Josh was retested by the school board and declassified as learning disabled. No more compensations. No more need for extra time,” Arrowsmith-Young wrote in her book.
According to Eaton, students with dysgraphia often develop a phobia for putting thoughts on paper, so the Arrowsmith Program eases them into writing and helps them strengthen connections in their brains through tracing and word exercises.
For example, students copy sets of characters from Greek, Korean and Chinese. When the patterns become automatic, they move onto new sets.
A study conducted by Arrowsmith-Young and another researcher, involving 12 participants between the ages of 15 and 24, found this process to be particularly effective in helping people overcome writing problems.
“For individuals identified as having certain specific difficulties with the writing process, the treatment program […] appears to have improved subjects’ performance on tests of learning a symbol sequence, clerical speed and accuracy, handwriting, and copying,” a report on the study said.
Interventions for individuals with dysgraphia and motor symbol sequencing issues typically focus on giving students tools to cope with their cognitive weaknesses.
“Tech bypass has been the go-to intervention,” Eaton said.
Students learn keyboarding skills and use computers, laptops and tablets to bypass writing issues. They are also given note takers or encouraged to record test answers on devices.
But Eaton Arrowsmith schools focus more on building cognitive strengths than providing temporary crutches.
“The Arrowsmith program helps students build capacities for printing and handwriting so they don’t need to go to technology to be efficient,” Eaton said. “The exercises also reduce errors in math and improve speech and spelling.”
This approach gives students the ability to build on their skills for life, which is important because life without the ability to express oneself through writing can take a huge emotional toll.
“The inability to write can become a source of acute embarrassment and mental anguish,” Arrowsmith-Young said in her book.
Stuart Albertson knows from first-hand experience the weight that an inability to write can place on a person’s life.
He couldn’t read or write until age 12 due to severe motor symbol sequencing problems caused by dyslexia. Like individuals with dysgraphia, he couldn’t organize his thoughts on paper.
“I could barely write a sentence,” Albertson said. “I developed anxiety around writing and had to lie to everybody.”
Tasks that people without motor symbol sequencing problems do every day frightened him – like signing his name, writing in a birthday card, getting a driver’s licence and making friends.
“I felt alone. I felt stupid. I didn’t feel like I could contribute,” Albertson said.
He was home schooled during high school so he could work at his own pace, but he still avoided writing whenever possible. But by the age of 21, Albertson hadn’t graduated and needed a different type of intervention to improve his writing skills and boost his confidence.
He enrolled in the Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre (ECIC), EA’s school for teens and adults with learning difficulties.
When he first started, he was asked to provide a writing sample. Albertson said he could only finish around three to four lines. But after two years in the program, he could complete a page and a half.
“Not amazing to most, but to me it was life-changing,” Albertson said.
He remembers the moment he felt a difference in his ability to write. It was after three to four months in the program.
In addition to cognitive exercises to strengthen weaknesses in the brain, students are asked to keep a daily journal. This journal became proof of Albertson’s progress.
“This was not my favourite thing,” he said. “But writing it, I could see a change after a couple of months. I could write more and my writing was better. It began to look like an adult’s writing instead of a five-year-old’s.”
Since finishing his program at ECIC, Albertson has completed high school, graduated from a carpentry program with straight A’s, and is currently studying horticulture in university.
“I never would have dreamed of accomplishing any of this before ECIC,” he said.
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