How does Sensory Issues affect Handwriting?


Handwriting is a more complex process than you think. Some of the processes that are involved include fine motor skills, attention, postural control, visual perception, cognitive (literacy and language) and of course Sensory! Have you ever wondered if the sensory part is not working well then how does it affect your child’s handwriting?

Here are some of the ways how sensory issues can affect handwriting. 

Problems in Sensory Reactivity 

Sensory processing issues are difficulties with organising and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Often the child may be over-reactive, under-reactive, seeking or a combination of these three when responding to sensory input. 

When this happens the child can have problems with their response to certain sounds, sights, smells, textures and movement. When handwriting the child can be sensitive to some sensory parts of the task. For example, the sound of pencil lead on paper, feel of paper on hand, even environmental sensory elements. For example, light reflections in the classroom, noisy classroom environment, other children walking around the room. This can make it hard for them to feel regulated when engaging in handwriting activities. They might often be distracted and disengaged from handwriting. A child might have delayed or be less reactive to sensory input in their environment. This can also impact their ability to write. For example, slow to initiate the task, unaware they’ve dropped the pencil. 

Poor Touch Awareness & Discrimination 

If a child has poor touch discrimination the sensory information from their fingers does not provide enough information about what they are holding (this is a bit like wearing gloves, being blindfolded and manipulating a small nut and bolt). These children tend to rely a lot more on their vision to monitor what their hands are doing. When handwriting they will have difficulty adjusting pencil in hand to achieve appropriate grasp and control. Learning how to form letters correctly can be harder as well because they have trouble with shape and size perception. So providing adequate toucha and visual support is needed to help with their handwriting. 

Poor Proprioception Processing (body awareness) 

Just as our eyes and ears send information about what we see and hear to the brain, parts of our muscles and joints send messages to the brain so that we get a sense of our body positions. This is proprioceptive processing,  we depend on this information to know exactly where our body parts are and to plan our movements. Through proprioception you know where your body is in space, legs crossed, leaning to one side etc. When you have poor proprioceptive processing it can make it difficult to hold and maintain the correct position of fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and trunk to handwriting. You will also have problems with using appropriate pressure, so you might see the child pressing too hard or writing too lightly. 

Poor Vestibular Processing (movement & balance)

Vestibular processing provides us information about where our body is in space and whether the movement is up, down, fast, slow or angular. It helps you to maintain your balance, move well against gravity, maintain appropriate muscle tone, move your eyes efficiently, and feel safe and secure in space (physically and emotionally). It is closely linked with ocular and postural functions. When you have poor vestibular processing it can make it hard to coordinate eyes and head to copy from the board or worksheet. Difficulty with directionality and spatial organisation making handwriting messy because learning letter formations may not make sense.It can also contribute to your level of attention and arousal state. If the child seeks vestibular input then they may have difficulty handwriting due to the need for movement and can’t sit still. 

Poor Visual Processing

When a child has difficulties with visual processing they may find visual discriminating of different letters and words very hard. Since they do not distinguish the letters well then they will mix up letters and may often have letter reversal when writing. This is not done on purpose and can also impact the child’s confidence and self-esteem for handwriting tasks. Visual motor control can also be weak. This is when the child has difficulty coordinating visual information from their eyes with precise motor output from their hands to copy shapes, letters and numbers. So this child knows how to do it but they can’t guide movement accurately to accomplish a visual motor task successfully. 

Poor Motor Planning (Praxis) 

Motor planning is the ability to figure out how to use our hands and body in skilled tasks. Good sensory processing is essential to motor planning (praxis). If a child has difficulties with motor planning or is dyspraxia they might find it harder to initiate handwriting tasks. They might even have trouble with coming up with ideas of what to write about. You might see that this can result in the child’s written work to be more simple and basic for their age because they do not know how to plan their written work well. They will benefit from more support on brainstorming and sequencing their ideas. Since the child will have difficulties planning and sequencing actions together for handwriting. You might see the child experience difficulty organising their handwriting materials on their desk. They can present to be a bit more clumsy and not stabilise the paper with their non-dominant hand and writing with the other hand. May also have more difficulties writing neatly on lines and within worksheets. 

If you are concerned that your child may have sensory issues that affect their handwriting. Please seek Occupational Therapist advice for a handwriting assessment. Information on this blogpost about sensory issues and handwriting is general in nature. 

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