Friday, May 1, 2009

ADHD and Handwriting: What's the Connection?

The link between ADHD and Poor Handwriting (Dysgraphia):

It has been well-known for years that individuals with ADHD are often more prone to problems with penmanship, that is, they have trouble producing legible handwriting. But why is this the case? There are several theories out there, and multiple studies showing how effective ADHD treatments can also result in major improvements with a person's handwriting. I will review some of the current findings on the topic:

  1. A group in Israel sought to investigate whether the problem with handwriting in ADHD children was due more to underlying language problems (i.e. spelling, formulating sentences, etc.) or more due to the mechanical problem of the physical writing process. While they concluded both were at play, the results of their study seemed to indicate that underlying language difficulties played only a secondary role to the writing difficulties and that the primary cause was due to "non-linguistic deficits". Interestingly, the group did find specific patterns to the frequent mis-spellings of words, instead of a host of random, unrelated errors. This blogger personally found the conclusion of the article's summary to be particularly amusing, as it recommended a "judicious use of psychostimulants".

  2. Continuing on with the "judicious use of psychostimulants" theme, we must investigate the effectiveness of one of the most common types of stimulants for ADHD, methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate). This drug has elicited a number of positive effects as far as improving both the cognitive and physical aspects of handwriting, as concentration or attentional lapses subside, allowing the thought process and physical act of writing to be performed simultaneously.

    However, another study found that even medication with methylphenidate had its limits, and that handwriting gradually deteriorated as the child continued with the writing process. This suggests that for long essays or standardized tests (such as the writing portion of the SAT's, or A.P. exams), medication with methylphenidate or other stimulants may only be useful early on.

  3. Specific Genetic Factors may underlie both ADHD and handwriting problems: There was an interesting study done by a Dutch group which suggests that there may be some sort of genetic factor that inhibits fine motor movements (such as those required for writing) which then make their way over to ADHD. In other words, this study seems to suggest that ADHD is a secondary problem to fine motor problems such as dysgraphia (typically, it's the other way around, where ADHD is considered the primary disorder). This study discovered that non-ADHD siblings (who, by definition, share half of the ADHD child's genes, provided they are not identical twins) of the ADHD children also had difficulties with more complex forms of the writing process, compared to the general population. In other words, these siblings had some degree of impairments with the writing process, but not to the degree of their ADHD siblings.

    This suggests that these non-ADHD siblings may have enough genetic "impairments" to share some of the comorbid writing problems as their ADHD counterparts but not enough to manifest an outright diagnosis of ADHD themselves. In other words, the comorbidity (co-occurrence of) ADHD and dysgraphia is apparently not an all-or-nothing phenomena.

  4. Differences in hand-eye coordination and motor control problems are more pronounced in the left hand for ADHD vs. non-ADHD children: We have previously investigated key brain regions commonly associated with ADHD, including differences in relative brain region size, use of brain regions, bloodflow patterns, brain electrical activity patterns, sense of smell, the relationship to alcoholism, brainwave patterns, and genetic differences targeting specific brain areas.

    However, it is worth noting that these brain regional differences are often not laterally symmetric, that is they may only be on the left side or right half of a particular brain region. This lopsidedness may play a role in manual dexterity and motor coordination differences between ADHD and non-ADHD individuals, which appear to be even greater in the left hand (which, in most cases the non-dominant one).

    The article which found this discrepancy between the different sides of the body goes on to suggest that testing for fine motor coordination in ADHD kids would be better suited for the left hand, since the effects are more pronounced. This leads to this potentially intriguing question: If handwriting is done with the dominant hand, does it stands to reason that handwriting difficulties are just the tip of the iceberg with regards to immensely greater fine motor difficulties? In other words, if an ADHD child is having trouble writing with his or her dominant right hand, how bad would the fine motor deficits be if they needed to use their left hand for something like catching a baseball, or shooting a left-handed layup in basketball?

    Based on this finding, it appears that poor handwriting may be just one aspect of a much larger fine motor disability. Another possibility, however, is that using one's non-dominant hand requires a higher order cognitive process than utilizing one's dominant hand for a routine task. This possibility may actually carry some weight, as we have seen in previous posts how discrepancies between ADHD and non-ADHD individuals begin to balloon as the cognitive processes become increasingly more difficult.

    This also seems to jive with the underlying genetic component of these disorders proposed by the ADHD sibling study in the previous point, in which the non-ADHD siblings had trouble only with the higher-order writing processes and not the more automatic ones (such as doing a simple task with one's dominant right hand). Unlike the Israeli study, this seems to favor more of an underlying cognitive discrepancy as the main culprit of poor handwriting in ADHD, as opposed to a more "mechanical" one.

  5. The genetic discrepancies in ADHD and fine motor impairments may be one of motor timing: Going back to the genetic aspects of ADHD and motor impairments such as dysgraphia for a moment, it is worth mentioning another finding by a group investigating difficulties in timing fine motor applications in ADHD children. This study utilized tests such as pressing a button on self-determined one second intervals (and measuring how close the child's perceived timing matched up with "real" one-second intervals), tapping one's finger as many times as possible within a given time limit (a relatively common test for individuals with ADHD and related disorders) and tests which measured reaction timing to moving objects and visible changes (which may have direct implications as to how well a child would perform in a sport involving reacting to moving objects, such as baseball, lacrosse, or tennis). Based on these tests, the authors concluded that the motor impairments in the ADHD children were more likely due to timing issues as opposed to generalized motor problems.

    As a blogger's note, this might explain some of the difficulties in the handwriting mechanics, such as crossing "t's" and dotting "i's", which essentially involves hitting a "target" on the paper, or keeping up with a teacher while taking notes (which is a very time-dependent process which often requires a fast execution of handwriting numbers, letters, diagrams, and symbols).
A number of books on the subject of ADHD and writing disorders show actual handwriting samples of children on and off medication for ADHD. The differences are astounding. Additionally, differences in complexity and eloquence in creating stories are often extremely pronounced depending on the mode of expression. For example, actual cases involving gifted children with ADHD have highlighted how a child can concoct an thorough, detailed, and well-rounded story orally, but when asked to write out the same story, he or she is scarcely able to construct even a single, legible, coherent paragraph.

This brings up the important issue as to whether children with ADHD should be afforded opportunities to use different modes of communication for their assignments, such as dictating or typing as opposed to handwriting. It appears that for many, the actual process demanded of ADHD children for actually writing may rob or ferret away the majority of their cognitive capacity, resulting in a barren landscape of creativity or eloquence.

Given the fact that many children with ADHD respond positively to alternative learning or expressive styles such as predominantly auditory (dictating) or kinesthetic (typing) means of expression, numerous questions surrounding the degree of accommodation for these ADHD children must be addressed. It is my personal hope that the findings of some of these studies will shed some light onto the mechanical and cognitive impairments of the physical writing process for children with ADHD will help shape an educational environment to help these children to flourish.

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Liz Ditz said...

ADND warrior ---

Thanks for this round-up of research.

There is so much to say.

Handwriting, even at the block-printing or manuscript stage is more than a fine-motor skill. The child must have a mental image of the letter(s) to be produced, plus the executive-function capabilities to run the hand to produce the letters in order, on a line, with aappropriateplacement and sizing.

Personally, I wonder if the general US demands for handwriting in young children is part of the problem If handwriting (and spelling) demands were delayed until the child was >72 months, would we see fewer problems?

I don't know the answers

The ADHD Treatment Guide said...

Liz Ditz,

Thank you for your insightful comments. I agree with you that handwriting is a complex process, especially if one tries to synchronize it with something cognitive like listening to a teacher or professor and taking down notes while simultaneously trying to decide what is important and what is not.

Your 72 month comment is interesting. Since most ADHD children have a developmental delay in multiple brain regions (at least according to a growing body of research in the literature I've currently covered), pushing back certain technical/cognitive processes such as handwriting and spelling by a few years would help. Are you suggesting the children begin to type first (which is immensely helpful for a number of kids I work with personally) and then handwrite at a slightly later age?

On an analogous note, age and brain maturation actually play a huge role in learning certain concepts, such as abstract ideas like the concept of "x" in algebra. In general, once a child hits 12 or so, the ability to grasp this concept gets remarkably easier and it often "clicks" in the child's brain. I wonder if a child passes through a similar "checkpoint" in brain development that would translate to handwriting formulation and development. Definitely something to ponder. Thanks for the comments!

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Anonymous said...

So, meds don't really help handwriting. Could the "perceived" behavioral problems teachers think they see be mostly due to anxiety related to writing. They say my grandson CAN write well, just won' t, that he is being defiant. He cries while being "defiant". That is his only behavior problem at school. It's going to be a long hard road trying to get oral work, typing, and more modern thinking, imo. Maybe they should do a study of teachers sho expect normal work when meds are not that miracle cure.

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