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 money-related tasks. 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 do so 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 can also be difficult for a child with dyscalculia to remember names or to associate faces with names.
Researchers do not know for sure what causes dyscalculia, but 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.
Research has also found that, for people with 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 math is more anxiety-provoking than the math itself and can cause those affected to try to avoid math 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 and motivation levels by teachers and other school professionals, as well as considering factors such as seeing or hearing 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 and working on graph paper to help with organization. Children may require additional tutoring and reinforcement in and out of the classroom and help in understanding their academic strengths and weaknesses—and how to use them to their advantage. Treatment therapies may vary with the nature and degree of dyscalculia.