What Is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a math learning disability or mathematics learning disorder.
It's not unusual for a child to have a tough time with math homework now and then. But if they have problems with numbers or low math test scores but do well in other subjects, dyscalculia could be the reason.
Up to 7% of elementary school students have dyscalculia. Research suggests it's as common as dyslexia, a reading disorder, but not as well understood. People sometimes call it math dyslexia, but this can be confusing because dyscalculia is a different condition.
It can be associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- up to 60% of people who have ADHD also have a learning disorder. It also tends to run in families.
Dyscalculia isn’t something children grow out of. It can affect them in adulthood. Numbers are involved in several aspects of adult life, including:
- Grocery shopping
- Money management
- Getting places on time
Symptoms are different depending on the child. They can start as early as preschool.
Kids with dyscalculia may lose track when counting. They may count on their fingers long after kids the same age have stopped doing it. They may find it hard to know at a glance how many things are in a group. That’s a skill called "subitizing" that helps you see a 5 and a 3 after you roll the dice without really counting.
Even their basic understanding of numbers, or “number sense,” may not work well. This can make it hard to quickly tell, for example, if the number 8 is a bigger number than 6. A child with dyscalculia also may have a lot of anxiety about numbers. For example, they may panic at the thought of math homework.
School-aged kids with dyscalculia may find it hard to:
- Understand math word problems
- Learn basic math, like addition, subtraction, and multiplication
- Link a number (1) to its corresponding word (one)
- Understand fractions
- Understand graphs and charts (visual-spatial concepts)
- Count money or make change
- Remember phone numbers or ZIP codes
- Tell time or read clocks
- Judge speed or distance
- Hold numbers in their head while problem-solving
- Estimate things, like how long something takes or the ceiling height
Any numbers- or math-based activity -- even outside school -- can frustrate kids with dyscalculia. For example, a child with this learning disability may get upset with games that require constant counting or scorekeeping.
Causes of Dyscalculia
Experts aren’t sure what causes dyscalculia. More research is needed. But they think the structure of your brain and how it operates might have something to do with it.
Potential causes include:
Brain development. Researchers are using brain imaging tools on people with dyscalculia and those without it to study possible causes. They’ve found differences in the gray matter and changes in the surface area, thickness, and volume of the brain in the areas responsible for learning, memory, and making decisions.
Genetics. If your parent or sibling also has issues with math related to dyscalculia, you’re more likely to have it, too. Genetic disorders that increase your odds for dyscalculia include:
- Turner’s syndrome
- Fragile X syndrome
- Velocardiofacial syndrome
- Williams syndrome
Environment. Research shows that dyscalculia might be linked with exposure to alcohol when you’re still in the womb. Premature birth and low birth weight might also play a role as they’re linked with delays in brain development.
Brain injury. Studies show that if you get hurt or have serious injury in certain parts of your brain, it might cause you to have trouble understanding math problems and numbers. This is called acquired dyscalculia.
In some cases, your trouble with math might not be related to dyscalculia. It may be a side effect of other things like:
- Anxiety or math-related anxiety
- Lack of proper math instructions
- Lack of learning opportunities
- Other mental health issues
If your child has a hard time with numbers, see their doctor to rule out any vision or hearing problems that might affect their ability to learn.
Then talk to your child's math teacher to understand where they are having trouble. Also talk to other teachers to find out if they are struggling in other areas.
If you think your child may have dyscalculia after speaking with their doctor and teachers, make an appointment to see a learning specialist. They'll talk with you and your child and test their math abilities to help determine if they have it. Getting a diagnosis opens the door for accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
But be aware that private evaluations can be expensive. The good news is that your child can also get one for free at school. Ask their teacher or the school’s counseling department how to get started. Local universities and teaching hospitals also offer free or low-cost evaluations. The Learning Disabilities Association of America can help you find free or low-cost options in your area as well.
Testing is the only way to know for sure if your child has the condition. The testing is sometimes called educational or psychoeducational testing. The tests look at four main things:
Computational skills. The ability to do math operations. Younger kids may get addition or subtraction problems, and older kids might get harder problems like multiplication, division, and fractions.
Math fluency. The ability to easily recall basic math facts, like 5x3 = 15, or how to multiply fractions.
Mental computation. The ability to do math problems in your head.
Quantitative reasoning. The ability to understand and solve word problems.
An expert can look at these tests and put together a report that can help you address the needs of your child.
Learning specialists, educational psychologists, and neuropsychologists who specialize in dyscalculia recommend the following to help a child's understanding of math:
- Specially designed teaching plans
- Math-based learning games
- Practicing math skills a lot more often than other students
My Child Has Dyscalculia. How Can I Help?
Here are some things you can try to help your child better learn and understand math and lower their anxiety:
- Let them use their fingers and paper when they count.
- Make sure they have the right tools, like an easy-to-use calculator and plenty of erasers.
- Use graph paper. It helps keep columns and numbers straight and neat.
- Use rhythm and music to teach math facts and steps.
- Get an experienced math tutor to help.
- Draw pictures of math word problems.
- Schedule computer time to play math games.
- Praise their hard work, not the outcome.
- Talk with them about their learning disability.
- Teach them ways to manage anxiety.
Talk to teachers privately about your child's condition and educational needs. You may want to ask for the following:
- A quiet work space
- Use of a calculator during math class and tests
- Extra time to complete tests
- The option to record lectures
Dyscalculia in Adults
Dyscalculia in adults is much the same as it is in children. The settings and responsibilities are just different. For example, you might be more likely to make mistakes with numbers or have anxiety when math-related tasks come up at work. Help is available for adults, too. Look into private, low-cost, or free evaluations near you. A diagnosis may allow for accommodations that can make your job easier.