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Dyscalculia

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects the ability to learn arithmetic and mathematics in someone of normal intelligence, as compared with those of the same age who receive identical instruction. It may cause 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. Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition that can hinder academic progress and self-esteem; however, it can be managed with treatment, especially that which is initiated in early childhood.

Dyscalculia may also be referred to as “math learning disability,” “developmental dyscalculia," “acalculia” (if it is acquired later in life), “math anxiety,” “math dyslexia,” or “numerical impairment." In the DSM-5, it is typically classified as "specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics."

Symptoms

Dyscalculia typically first presents in childhood, though it may go undiagnosed until adulthood. Symptoms can include:

  • difficulty adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers, or getting inconsistent results when doing so
  • problems understanding the rules of math or memorizing mathematical facts and formulas
  • trouble identifying which quantity is largest or smallest
  • difficulty reading analog clocks
  • challenges performing mental math
  • a persistent need to count on one’s fingers after peers have ceased to do so
  • trouble with money-related tasks such as making change, calculating tips, or estimating sale prices
  • difficulty estimating values like speed, time, or distance
  • difficulty telling right from left or orienting oneself in space
  • frequent lateness or poor time management

These symptoms, along with someone’s general ability to understand math concepts, may appear inconsistent; an individual with dyscalculia may seem able to perform calculations one day but then forget how to do so on a test the following day. Other, subtler symptoms—such as difficulty remembering names or associating faces with names—may also be present.

More broadly, someone with dyscalculia may appear absent-minded, with a tendency to get lost, lose things, lose track of time, or easily become disoriented; because of this, it is possible for them to be diagnosed with ADHD rather than dyscalculia. Dyscalculia can also trigger feelings of anxiety or poor self-esteem. A child may, for example, become anxious at the thought of doing math, make an effort to avoid activities that require it, or label themselves as “stupid” because they struggle to keep up with their peers.

How common is dyscalculia?

The prevalence of dyscalculia is not well-documented. However, most estimates suggest that between 5 and 10 percent of schoolchildren meet the criteria for dyscalculia.

How is dyscalculia diagnosed?

There is no single test for dyscalculia. The disorder is typically diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation that tests specific math skills and general cognitive abilities; reviews family history, standardized test scores, and past academic performance; and rules out other, related disorders, such as generalized anxiety or ADHD.

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Causes

Researchers do not yet know for sure what causes developmental dyscalculia. But as with other learning disabilities, a combination of genetics and environmental factors are thought to play a role. Experts continue to try to work out the differences between those whose problems with math stem from deficits in brain processing and those whose problems are related to factors such as poor instruction, poverty, or coexisting conditions.

It is also possible, though rare, for someone to acquire dyscalculia as the result of a brain injury or stroke. This form of the disorder typically stems from damage to the parietal lobe of the brain and may be referred to as “acalculia." Sudden problems with math may also be a sign of dementia.

Is dyscalculia genetic?

Dyscalculia, like other learning disabilities, is thought to be strongly influenced by genetics. Individuals with dyscalculia are significantly more likely than the general population to have family members with dyscalculia, research finds.

Is dyscalculia caused by anxiety?

Dyscalculia is sometimes called “math anxiety,” though the nickname isn't quite accurate. Someone can feel persistently anxious at the thought of doing math but not have dyscalculia; on the other hand, for some individuals with diagnosable dyscalculia, anxiety may worsen the difficulties they experience. And regardless of dyscalculia, math anxiety can be serious and lead to long-term math avoidance; some research has found that for some people who struggle with math anxiety, the anticipation of having to do math activates the same centers in the brain that register visceral threats and physical pain. 

Treatment

Children with dyscalculia are best served by early intervention and specialized coaching in skills related to basic arithmetic and mathematics. Treatment typically involves personalized math instruction, as well as in-classroom accommodations that allow children to better keep up with their peers. The specific therapies and accommodations used may vary with the nature and degree of dyscalculia.

Adults with dyscalculia may also benefit from treatment, though there is unfortunately little research on the efficacy of interventions specifically designed for adults. Adults who are diagnosed with dyscalculia may be able to secure workplace accommodations, which could help them better manage their symptoms and be more effective at their jobs. Individualized psychotherapy may also help adults overcome lingering self-esteem issues caused by their lifelong math difficulties.

How is dyscalculia treated in children?

Treatment typically begins with an assessment of the child’s learning skills and motivation levels by teachers and other school professionals to identify approaches and accommodations that may help; factors such as seeing or hearing impairment, school attendance, or emotional or motor difficulties that could interfere with learning will be incorporated as well. Then, apart from specialized math instruction tailored to a child’s needs, children with dyscalculia will usually receive accommodations to help them compensate for their most challenging symptoms. 

What are the best accommodations for students with dyscalculia?

Common accommodations for dyscalculia include: extra time on tests; reduced math homework; the ability to use a calculator when possible; frequent check-ins during classwork; and the use of “cheat sheets” that allow students to reference common formulas during tests. Parents, teachers, and school psychologists typically collaborate to identify the accommodations that would be most useful to a particular child; the process often requires some trial and error.

References
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. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Last updated: 09/07/2021