Dyscalculia is a childhood disorder that affects the ability to learn arithmetic and mathematics in someone of normal intelligence, as compared with those of the same age who are receiving identical instruction. It is not a mental health disorder, but rather a nonverbal learning disability that causes difficulty with counting, measuring quantity, working memory for numbers, sequential memory, ability to recognize patterns, time perception, telling time, sense of direction, and mental retrieval of mathematical facts and procedures. To someone with dyscalculia, learning and performing math is like trying to understand a foreign language. Dyscalculia may also be referred to as math learning disability, acalculia, developmental dyscalculia, math anxiety, math dyslexia, or numerical impairment.
A child with dyscalculia has difficulty adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers, is slow at performing mental math, and is likely to have trouble with monetary tasks, such as making change, leaving a tip and general money management. It is difficult for a child with dyscalculia to understand and remember basic mathematical facts and formulas. The child’s math ability is often inconsistent; they may be able to perform calculations one day but then forget how to on a test the following day. Overall, a child with dyscalculia may appear absent-minded, with a tendency to get lost, lose things, lose track of time, or easily become disoriented. it is also difficult for a child with dyscalculia to remember names or associate faces with names.
No one knows for sure what causes dyscalculia, other than its relationship to impaired development in the area of the brain that processes numerical information. Researchers continue to tool out the differences between someone whose problems with math stem from deficits in brain processing and someone whose problems are related to external factors, such as poor instruction, poverty and coexisting behavioral/attention conditions, or other cognitive deficits.
Researchers have also found that, for those who suffer math anxiety, the anticipation of having to do math activates the same centers in the brain that register visceral threats and physical pain. Since this was not observed during the actual performance of math problems, researchers suspect the mere anticipation of mathematics is more anxiety-provoking than the math itself, and can cause those affected to try to avoid mathematic problems altogether.
Children with dyscalculia are best served by early intervention and specialized coaching in all skills related to basic arithmetic and mathematics. After observation and an initial assessment of the child’s listening and learning skills, motivation levels by teachers and other school professionals, as well as considering factors such as visual or audio impairment, school attendance, or emotional or motor difficulties that could interfere with learning, the academic accommodations necessary for improvement can be put into place. These interventions may include specialized teaching, such as using estimates as a way to solve math problems and working on graph paper to help with organization. Children may require additional tutoring and reinforcement in and out of the classroom, individual and appropriate workspaces, and help in understanding their academic strengths, as well as weaknesses, and learning to use them to their best advantage. Treatment therapies may vary with the nature and degree of dyscalculia.
Sudha P and Shalini A. Dyscalculia: A specific learning disability among children. International Journal of Advanced Scientific and Technical Research. March-April 2014;4(2):912-918.
Lyons I, Beilock SL. When math hurts: Math anxiety predicts pain network anticipation of doing math. PLOS One. Published online October 31, 2012.
Price GR and Ansari D. Dyscalculia: characteristics, causes and treatments. Numeracy. Published online January 2013;6(1)
Dyscalculia.org website. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Last reviewed 03/05/2018