Blog, Learning Disorder

Dyscalculia: When the Numbers Don’t Add Up


Do you dread math class – or have a really hard time understanding your math teacher, even though you breeze through subjects like science or geography?  Do you avoid counting games like Chutes and Ladders because they are just too hard?  If so, you might have a learning disability called dyscalculia, which affects your ability to understand and do math.

Read on to learn more about this learning disorder.

What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a specific kind of learning disability that affects who well you are able to do math problems and understand ideas involving math or numbers in general.  This is not as well-known as the learning disability called dyslexia, but many researchers now think that it might be just as common.  Around 6-7% of school-aged kids have dyscalculia – as do around 67% of children already diagnosed with dyslexia.

This condition is also called “mathematics disorder” or, by kids and parents, “math dyslexia”.

What Causes Dyscalculia?

There are many things which can cause dyscalculia, including:

  • Genetics
  • Medical conditions (including restricted growth in the uterus, fetal exposure to alcohol or drugs, low birth weight)
  • Head injuries
  • Abnormal brain development
  • Maternal exposure to toxins like mercury or lead

How Do You Know if You Have Dyscalculia?

Although signs and symptoms can vary from one person to another, some of the most common ones include:

  • Trouble recognizing or counting numbers
  • Trouble recognizing mathematical symbols like “+” or “-“
  • Trouble understanding phrases like “greater than” or “less than”
  • Trouble telling time, counting out or managing money
  • Direction trouble, or difficulty telling “right” from “left”
  • Trouble understanding the concepts or ideas behind mathematics
  • Trouble connecting numbers to reality
  • Difficulty in math class, even if performance in other classes is good
  • Difficulty understanding the idea of time
  • Difficulty doing math homework or needing a lot of help to get the assignments done
  • Avoiding activities or games that involve numbers (such as counting games)
  • Acting hostile or defiant in order to avoid doing math
  • Excessive stress, anxiety or emotions in regards to mathematics work

How Does Someone Get Diagnosed with Dyscalculia?

Unlike many conditions, your family doctor cannot diagnose you with dyscalculia. You will have to go to a specialist like a psychologist or a neuropsychologists who has experience with learning disorders.  They will do tests to rule out other possible causes for your problem, such as problems with vision or hearing first. After that, they will go on to specialized tests to help determine your abilities in math, including the following:

  • The Dyscalculia Screener
  • The Neuropsychological Test Battery for Number Processing and Calculation in Children.

All of these tests can help them come up with a diagnosis of dyscalculia.

How Do You Treat Dyscalculia?

Treatment for dyscalculia can vary, but most experts agree that the earlier a child is diagnosed and treated, the better off the child will be. This is because if basic mathematical concepts are not understood in the lower grades, a child will only get further and further behind as they get older and this can seriously affect their schoolwork. Treatment might be including:

  • Extra math tutoring
  • Coming up with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a formal contract with your school which outlines what services the school will offer you to help overcoming this learning impairment.
  • Physical, occupational or other kind of therapy if indicated.
  • Medications to treat complications like anxiety or depression that can sometimes go along with dyscalculia.
  • Modifying lesson plans or learning math in a different style to make it easier to understand.
  • Complementary/alternative medicines, which used things like herbs or techniques like acupuncture to treat a variety of conditions.

Why is Treatment so Important?

Treatment of this learning disability is so important because if left untreated, children can suffer from:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Lack of coordination
  • Poor money and time management later in life

It is also important to be aware that there are other conditions that are associated with dyscalculia, including:

  • Dyslexia
  • ADHD
  • Genetic disorders like Fragile X, Gerstmann’s, or Turner’s syndrome

In short, dyscalculia may be as well-known as dyslexia, but it is still a serious learning disorder – and can have serious consequences if it left untreated.  Diagnosis  and early intervention are key – and parents who are concerned about their child’s performance in math should make an appointment with the family doctor to discuss their concerns sooner rather than later so that their child can get the help that they need.

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