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What is Dyscalculia?

Last updated on 21st April 2023

The British Dyslexia Association describes Dyscalculia as “a learning difficulty involving the most basic aspect of arithmetical skills. The difficulty lies in the reception, comprehension or production of quantitative and spatial information.

Students with Dyscalculia may have difficulty in understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers and have difficulties learning number facts and procedures. These can relate to basic concepts such as telling the time, calculating prices, handling change, estimating and measuring such things as temperature and speed.”

The National Numeracy Strategy offers the following definition “Dyscalculia is a condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence.” (DfES, 2001, p2).

Many people compare the effects of dyscalculia with numbers to that of dyslexia with words; however, whilst there are many characteristics that overlap, there is no proven link between the two. Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty, a term that refers to a difference or difficulty with particular aspects of learning.

The most common specific learning difficulties are:

  • Dyslexia – Difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols.
  • Dysgraphia – Difficulty with spelling and/or trouble putting thoughts on paper.
  • Dyspraxia – A condition affecting physical co-ordination.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – A condition that affects people’s behaviour.
  • Dyscalculia.

An individual may have one of these independently or they can co-exist as part of a wider profile. Specific learning difficulties exist on a continuum from mild to moderate through to severe. There are common patterns of behaviour and ability, but there will be a range of different patterns of effects for each individual.

Young girl struggling with dysalculia

How common is Dyscalculia?

Approximately 1 in 20 people have dyscalculia and 50% of people with dyscalculia also have dyslexia. As both language and maths use symbols and both also rely on working memory, specific long-term memories and on speed of processing, the two specific learning difficulties might be present in the same individual. However, they may differ in the subject matter they affect.

Although research suggests that dyslexia affects more males than females, there are not any significant gender differences found with dyscalculia. The condition is present in about 11% of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and while figures vary, the estimated prevalence of dyscalculia in school populations is between 3% and 6%.

Signs and symptoms of Dyscalculia

The signs and symptoms of dyscalculia differ from person to person. Each individual with the condition will have a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. An early sign of dyscalculia can be a reliance on counting with fingers when peers have ceased the practice.

One of the biggest signs of a specific learning disorder is a notable discrepancy between ability and aptitude. A child with dyscalculia may perform well in other subjects such as English or languages but get very low marks in maths and maths-based subjects.

What is Dyscalculia in children?

Dyscalculia starts to become noticeable during preschool years when the child begins to develop mathematical learning skills, and continues into childhood, adolescence and even adulthood. The most common problem is with ‘number sense’. This is an intuitive understanding of how numbers work, and how to compare and estimate quantities on a number line.

Preschool children may have trouble:

  • Recognising numbers.
  • Learning to count.
  • Remembering one or more numbers in a series.
  • Keeping track when counting.
  • Counting without using visual aids such as their fingers to help.
  • Connecting numerical symbols (4) with their corresponding words (four).
  • Connecting numbers to objects.
  • Recognising patterns.
  • Placing things in order.

Children of school age with dyscalculia are likely to:

  • Have significant difficulty learning basic maths functions like addition and subtraction, times tables etc.
  • Have difficulty grasping concepts like more and less, and larger and smaller.
  • Have difficulty making number comparisons such as 12 is greater than 10.
  • Have difficulty understanding the order of numbers in a list, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
  • Be unable to grasp the concepts behind word problems and other non-numerical maths calculations.
  • Have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a task.
  • Struggle with maths homework assignments and tests.
  • Have difficulty keeping up with the class and SATs levels in maths.
  • Struggle to process visual-spatial ideas such as graphs and charts.
  • Have trouble remembering numbers such as post codes, phone numbers, or game scores.
  • Struggle with money matters such as giving change, counting notes, calculating a tip, splitting a bill or estimating how much something will cost.
  • Have difficulty judging the length of distances and how long it will take to get from one location to another.
  • Struggle to remember directions.
  • Have a hard time telling left from right.
  • Get easily frustrated by games that require consistent score keeping, number strategies or counting.
  • Have difficulty reading clocks and telling time.

However, not all children that have trouble doing mathematics have dyscalculia disorder, and it is essential to identify the frequency of symptoms before seeking a diagnosis. As children with dyscalculia continue to grow, their difficulties become more pronounced, so it is essential to seek help early on.

The most important thing with dyscalculia is early identification, and for this reason, parents, as well as teachers, should be alert in order to detect the difficulties and symptoms as early as possible.

Girl in a maths lesson

What is Dyscalculia in adults?

Adolescents and adults with dyscalculia display many of the issues experienced in childhood such as:

  • Trouble applying maths concepts to money.
  • Difficulty counting backwards.
  • Slow to perform calculations.
  • Weak mental arithmetic skills.
  • Poor sense of numbers and estimation.
  • High levels of maths anxiety.

If you have dyscalculia as an adult, you may have had it from birth, or it may be the result of a brain injury or stroke. Either way, symptoms can present themselves in a wide range of ways.

You may perform some maths-related tasks without problems while struggling with others or you may have challenges across the board.

In their home and work life, adults with dyscalculia can:

  • Find it difficult to remember names.
  • Need to write down a phone number immediately to remember it.
  • Get lost easily or misplace objects around the house frequently.
  • Struggle to keep score in games, often losing track of whose turn it is.
  • Have a poor memory for anything number-related such as dates or facts.
  • Be frequently late, occasionally missing important events altogether.
  • Frequently run out of time while doing a task, or fail to plan enough time for all the things that need to be done.
  • Find it difficult to use Excel formulas.
  • Get several different answers to the same maths problem, needing to check work over and over again.
  • Have trouble handling money or keeping track of finances.
  • Get anxious at the thought of having to do maths unexpectedly at work.

Getting an accurate evaluation is the first step to overcoming these challenges and setting up the support you need for this learning difficulty.

Possible causes of Dyscalculia

Unlike dyslexia, very little is known about the prevalence, causes or treatments for dyscalculia. Current thinking suggests that it is a congenital condition, meaning it is present from birth, caused by the abnormal functioning of a specific area of the brain.

Researchers in this area have indicated that some of the causes of dyscalculia correspond to:

  • Cognitive deficit in numeric representation – This is a neuronal dysfunction that prevents the correct mental representation of numbers. It makes numeric decoding more difficult and it affects the comprehension of the meaning of coursework or maths problems.
  • Cognitive deficit that impedes ability to store information in the brain – Children with dyscalculia show a dysfunction in a specific neural connection that prevents them from easily accessing numeric information. Their neural connection networks use alternative routes that a person without this disorder does not use.

According to other researchers, although there is less genetic evidence available for dyscalculia than for other learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, studies have shown that it does run in families.

Dyscalculia has also been linked to exposure to alcohol in the womb. Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role in dyscalculia. All of these may cause delayed brain development.

Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain can result in what researchers call “acquired dyscalculia”.

What part of the brain is affected by Dyscalculia?

Recent work in the field of dyscalculia has used brain-imaging techniques to study the brains of people performing a number of tasks. These techniques have allowed researchers to generate high-resolution images of participants’ brains, making it possible to observe brain activation patterns during number processing.

This technique allows for a live visual of brain activity and the central nervous system. Thanks to these representations, researchers can see that the deficit in the neural connections associated with dyscalculia is found specifically in the brain module in charge of numeric processing, which is located in the parietal lobe of the brain.

Additionally, other areas such as the prefrontal cortex, the cingulate cortex, the back of the temporal lobe and numerous subcortical regions also form part of the proper functioning of mathematical or arithmetic skills. This research has given us a clearer picture of what happens in our brains during number processing and calculation.

Dyscalculia presents itself as a neuronal dysfunction in the intraparietal sulcus of the brain.

This dysfunction develops a pattern of cognitive deterioration that usually manifests itself with skills deficits such as:

  • Focus – A concentration skill related to the pattern of cognitive deterioration linked to dyslexia. The structural deficit in these connections of neural networks is also related to inhibition, which affects the mind’s sharpness, making it more difficult for the child to learn maths.
  • Divided attention – This skill is important as it allows for multitasking. Children with maths difficulties present problems when responding to a stimulus because they are unable to focus, they get distracted with irrelevant stimuli, and they tire easily.
  • Working memory – This cognitive skill refers to temporary storage and the ability to manipulate information in order to complete complex assignments. Some difficulties as a result of this may be trouble following directions, forgetting instructions and tasks, low motivation, incomplete memories, being easily distracted, not remembering numbers, and delayed mental arithmetic.
  • Short-term memory – The capacity to retain a small amount of information during a short period of time. This mental deficit explains the inability to carry out maths assignments. The problems present themselves when they calculate or attempt maths problems. This is also related to the inability to remember numbers or multiplication tables.
  • Naming – The ability to recall a word or number and use it later. Children with dyscalculia have difficulties remembering numbers because their ability to process information is deficient.
  • Planning – Low levels in this cognitive skill means difficulties in planning and making sense of numbers and exercises. This inability to anticipate events or outcomes prevents people from correctly completing the exercise.
  • Processing speed – This corresponds to the time it takes for our brain to receive information such as a number, a mathematical equation or a problem, understand it, and respond to it. Children that do not have any learning difficulties complete this process quickly and automatically, while children who have dyscalculia need more time and energy in order to process the information.
Teacher leading an assessment

How is Dyscalculia diagnosed?

The earlier dyscalculia is diagnosed, the better, as learning supports can be put in place. For dyscalculia, if there were concerns about the child’s progress in maths, a meeting with the child’s parents/carers, teacher and the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) would be arranged. If there are ongoing symptoms, then the family can also visit their GP.

The GP can rule out any condition that may be affecting this, such as visual problems, hearing problems or other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

If there are still concerns, the child may be referred to an educational psychologist or other specialist for an assessment. This involves a series of tests regarding mathematical ability, logical reasoning, memory, processing speed, organisational skills, and their approach to learning.

A report of the child’s difficulties will be provided, and then an educational plan will be put in place. If left undiagnosed, dyscalculia could leave sufferers at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining access to higher education and their future workplace success.

Diagnosis can also occur in adulthood, where the process is similar. Following a GP appointment to rule out other conditions that may have an effect on their reading and maths ability, adults may also be referred to a specialist.

The assessment for adults looks at their educational background, performance tests in different areas, and may also look at the co-occurrence of dyslexia, dyspraxia and visual stress disorder.

Treatments for Dyscalculia

There is no medication that treats dyscalculia; however, treating any co-occurring issues such as ADHD or anxiety can be helpful. There are recommendations that can help manage the condition, and educational interventions may be put in place at school or further education. Assistive technology (AT) can also help; there are many AT tools for maths that children can use at school and at home.

These include graphing tools, maths notation tools and graphic organisers for maths. There are also apps that work on basic number concepts.

Whether you know your child has dyscalculia, or you think your child may have dyscalculia, there are ways to help. Professionals both in and out of school can work with your child to build math skills, and there are adjustments that can make it easier for your child to work at the same level as their peers.

It is important for struggling maths learners to have a full evaluation for learning differences so that strategies can be put into place.

There are many ways that you can help your child build maths skills at home, for example, using objects to see quantities and how they change provides a concrete way of understanding how certain maths concepts work.

Technology such as calculators and maths apps can also help to make maths easier to navigate. As there is no cure for dyscalculia, the aim of treatment is to fill in as many gaps as possible and to develop coping mechanisms that can be used throughout life.

Dyscalculia isn’t a lack of intelligence or effort; there are even scientists, mathematicians, business and world leaders who have it, such as Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and Benjamin Franklin who was a writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat, printer, publisher, political philosopher and statesman.

Child having maths help from teacher

In conclusion

There are a number of organisations that can help with more information and advice about dyscalculia:

Supporting Children with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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