Although I could read and spell at a very young age, I spent much of my youth being yelled at for my poor handwriting. My teachers and parents believed that I was rushing and not putting in enough effort. They claimed I was being sloppy and not performing to potential. My answers were always there, and they were (nearly) always correct. But the teachers couldn’t easily read them. Granted, I was bored to tears, and just wanted to finish the silly assignment so I could read about my special interests, or do anything that challenged me, but no, I wasn’t trying to be sloppy. My handwriting was just that bad, and the content of what I was writing, especially in compositions, was pretty disjointed and unreadable as well.
When I was first learning to write in kindergarten, we had those pieces of paper with the 3 lines – 2 horizontal solid lines, separated by a dotted line in the middle. This was so we could practice forming our letters in the right dimensions. I’ve always had trouble with visual art – I’ve never been able to make what I see in my head appear on the paper in front of me. The same holds true for writing letters. I would spend my class time carefully forming letters, tracing them, working with them, trying anything I could to make them form correctly. I was quite often nearly the last to have my penmanship checked off by the teacher. And to top it off, I knew my letters already, so I started teaching myself cursive too (since it was up on the wall, and I already knew what the print letters looked like).
When my school had standardized testing, we had to write essays, and we always had as much time as we needed to complete them. My teachers had told us that we should write the essays in cursive and try to make them look as neat as possible, because if the graders didn’t think we could write well, they wouldn’t grade our content well, either. One memorable test day, I spent 5 hours working on my essay. I was the last person finished. Why? Because after I had drafted my essay, I spent 4 more hours carefully copying it over, writing and rewriting the letters, using the best cursive I knew. I must have gone through an entire eraser that day. One of the big ones, not the silly little nubs on the back of the pencils. Anything, to try to make it readable. I got a copy of it back when I graduated high school. Let’s just say that those were 4 hours wasted. My brain moves far too fast for my handwriting to keep up.
My mother hated that I had bad handwriting. This was one of the things she yelled at me most often for. She believed that having good handwriting was a sign that you are cultured and smart. And having bad handwriting was a mark that you are useless, awful, and all-around stupid. She would tell me this on almost a daily basis. I think she thought it was motivational. And in a sense it was. As a little girl, I would do anything possible to please my mother. I have notebooks FULL of penmanship practice that I would fill up after school. Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee… all the way to Zz, then numbers. And it would repeat, over and over and over again. Some pages were all A’s. some pages were alphabets. None of them were great handwriting. Despite hours upon hours of practicing, it was never very good. Some of those notebooks were from high school. Handwriting is something I still struggle with today. Ironically, my father also had terrible handwriting – as a consequence, he only writes with all upper-case letters.
But there’s another layer to my bad handwriting. I am severely right/left confused. I literally can not tell my right side from my left side. My verbal processing just can’t parse the words “left” and “right” and apply them to my body. I know the right side is where my watch is, but even then, I can’t translate the words “right” and “left” onto myself. I’ve developed tricks over the years, but it’s still a toss up. So when I was learning to write, I had trouble remembering which hand to hold the pencil in. In an attempt to help me become unconfused about my rights and my lefts, my teachers taught me to hold out my hands with my pointer fingers up and my thumbs out, and whichever made an “L”, was the left hand. Well, sorry, teachers, but if you flip your right hand around, THEY BOTH MAKE AN L! And if you flip your left hand around, neither makes an L. The test is flawed.
But when I was learning to write, my teachers were also attempting to teach me my left and my right sides. I never remembered which hand the pencil/crayon/marker/writing utensil was supposed to go in, so they taught me that the hand I used to write with was my right hand. This, of course, further confused my brain, because I used both hands to write with. And I was left-side dominant. But the teachers made the guess that I was probably like 90% of the population, and right-handed, so they would use that as a tool to help me learn left vs. right. And so, I learned to write right-handed. I am probably left-handed. I do everything else left-sided (including eat when my mother isn’t watching and intoning “left hand in your lap”), and I can even write left-handed. My lefty writing today is slower but neater than my righty writing. They are very distinctly different, and you’d never guess they were written by the same person. Neither will be winning me any penmanship awards.
So where am I today? I can write with both hands. Neither is terribly good, but both are usually legible. But thankfully, we live in the age of computers and typing. I can type at >100 words per minute, and everything I type is legible! Anyone can read it. Plus it fixes my spelling, too. I can type words that I don’t know how to spell, because they have a particular shape under my fingers. So while I acknowledge the need for legible handwriting (and I still take some of my notes handwritten, and it’s good to be able to scribble things out, but those are for me, not for other people), I am very thankful for the computer, as it has opened up a world of communication for me. I have read that poor handwriting (well, really poor fine and gross motor skills) are symptoms of Autism. Regardless of whether that is actually true or not, I certainly fit both criteria.
So what do I take from this? There’s almost always more than one “right” way to do something. If handwriting is causing trouble, try a keyboard. My ability to convey my thoughts and ideas in writing came after I learned to type. When I was learning to make letters, my thoughts weren’t on what words I wanted those letters to form – I was concentrating on making them legible. Take away that barrier, provide me with legible letters already, and my ability to form written words, sentences, and ideas grew exponentially. And after I had learned how to think and write using the computer, I became better at doing it by hand, too. My growth in this way reminds me of how some non-verbal or minimally verbal children begin to speak more with their own voices after they have begun to use a communication device – once you get past the challenge: forming words, you can get to the communication part. The ability is probably there, waiting to be nurtured, and if one way to express it isn’t working, try another, don’t just write it off. If you read writing samples from me 10 years ago, from middle school, you would NEVER guess that we are the same person. In my case, poor handwriting was a major barrier to my (written) communication abilities. That doesn’t mean it is for every young Autistic child, but I contend that trying multiple options for ultimately developing the desired skillset is very important. Is the goal for the person to write perfectly clearly with pen and paper, or is the goal for the person to be able to convey their thoughts and feelings and communicate through writing? I would like to think that it’s the latter.
Does anyone else share my experience of rotten handwriting? People used to tease me that I should be a doctor, since I already had the bad handwriting. I never understood why it would be good for doctors to have bad handwriting, since don’t people need to know what their diagnoses are? Ironically, I am going to be a doctor… just no, not THAT kind of doctor. I’m going to be the “Professor of <Science*>” kind of doctor.
*by <science> I mean of my academic field, which definitely falls under the umbrella of “science”.