UWindsor Blog Post by: Thomas A. Duda, M.A.
The diagnosis of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often conjures to mind an image of a child who doesn’t pay attention during school, is very talkative, acts without thinking, and appears to be constantly on the move as if powered by a motor. In addition to these cardinal features of ADHD, those with ADHD also tend to present with other differences compared to those without ADHD, including problems with motor control. In particular, the handwriting of those with ADHD is often described as illegible and less organized than those without ADHD. However, looking at what’s written down on paper isn’t the only way to think about handwriting. For example, other kinds of research has identified differences in the handwriting of those with ADHD at the actual movement level. Said another way, there are differences not only in what handwriting looks like, but also in the movements during handwriting. As one example, scientists in Australia found that how forcefully children with ADHD wrote was related to symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are several different ways to conduct these kinds of studies, but scientists have most frequently used digitizing tablets (think “iPad”) to study handwriting motor movements.
Researchers at the University of Windsor have been studying handwriting movements in children and adults with ADHD since about 2011. During this time, several interesting discoveries have been made. For example, parents and educators talk about children with ADHD as having a problem “doing what they know” rather than “knowing what to do.” They also show a lot of variability in performance such that the only thing that is consistent is their inconsistency! They may do really well on one assignment, but on the next one, although similar, do very poorly. They may complete chores satisfactorily sometimes, whereas on other occasions, these chores are completed haphazardly. This variability isn’t limited to these kinds of activities. Compared with adults without ADHD, Windsor researchers found that the handwriting movements of adults with ADHD were significantly more variable on average. Interestingly, this was only the case when learning a new symbol and it didn’t matter if they were on or off their medication for the treatment of ADHD. It was also shown that these adults with ADHD didn’t become as fluent in reproducing the new symbol as quickly as the adults without ADHD. This could mean that it takes more practice for adults with ADHD to become fluent when learning how to write.
The next question might be, why is this important? Good question! First, these findings show that certain characteristics of ADHD (i.e., differences in handwriting motor movements) are not limited to childhood and continue into adulthood. In addition, the observation that adults with ADHD may take more time to become fluent at a motor task could have implications for accommodations. What’s more is that within the greater scope of psychology, researchers are trying to come up with new ways to identify and diagnose different kinds of psychological and neurodevelopmental disorders. Needed are more objective measures of functioning and this type of research can help with developing new methods to do this! Researchers at the University of Windsor are currently investigating if differences in variability and learning how to write that were observed in adults can also be found in children with ADHD, how different “thinking” abilities might be related to developing fluent handwriting in those with and without ADHD, and whether or not an objective measure of handwriting fluency development can successfully identify those who have ADHD.
Thomas A. Duda, M.A.
University of Windsor