If you or your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and less-than-perfect penmanship, you may have wondered if there's a connection. It's true. Messy handwriting is linked to ADHD.
ADHD and Dysgraphia
Hard-to-read handwriting is a sign of a learning disability called dysgraphia. It might include:
- Letters that slant in different directions
- A jumble of upper- and lower-case letters
- A mix of printing and cursive
Those with dysgraphia may also write slowly, use an uncomfortable grip that can cause hand cramps, and have a hard time spacing things out on paper.
Not everyone with ADHD has poor handwriting or a diagnosis of dysgraphia. But the two often go hand-in-hand. One study found that among students diagnosed with ADHD, 59% had dysgraphia and 92% had weaknesses in "graphomotor skills." These are skills like hand-eye coordination and movement planning that you need for good handwriting.
The connection between ADHD and handwriting is so common that some researchers have suggested that doctors include a handwriting analysis as part of testing for ADHD.
Teachers often report immature, messy handwriting in students with ADHD. Boys and girls may show different symptoms. Some research has found that boys tend to have more trouble with spacing between lines of letters, while girls struggle with the direction of lines of text on a page.
Why Is Handwriting Hard for People With ADHD?
Handwriting requires a mix of skills that are often challenging for those with ADHD. They include:
- Fine motor skills (the ability to use small muscles in your hands)
- Hand-eye coordination
- Executive function (a set of mental skills that help you get things done)
- Attention and focus
When you have ADHD, you may also want to finish tasks as quickly as possible. Or you might struggle to match your writing pace with the speed of ideas in your head. These things tend to make your handwriting even messier.
What Can Help
Messy handwriting is not just hard to read. In children, it's been linked to loss of motivation, lack of progress in school, and poor self-esteem. Students may avoid writing projects for fear others will make fun of them or teachers will label their work as messy.
Asking kids to write lines over and over again to practice writing probably won't help. Students with ADHD get bored with repetitive assignments. And research shows that writing practice did not improve the handwriting of children with ADHD (though it did help other kids).
But classroom techniques, certain devices and equipment, movement training, and ADHD medications can make a difference.
Teachers can offer oral exams and give students notes or outlines to limit the amount of handwriting. Instead of written assignments, they could ask students to do video reports or oral presentations.
Keyboards and touchscreens, speech-to-text technology, and other apps and software can help as well. Grips and other writing aids make pencils or pens more comfortable to hold and easier to move on the page.
The stimulant drugs often used to treat ADHD might also help to improve handwriting. We need more studies on this. But some research has found that these medications, together with movement training, could boost the motor skills needed for good handwriting.