What Is Dyscalculia?
If you or your child struggles with mathematical formulas, shapes, and spatial awareness, it could be dyscalculia — a learning disability that makes it challenging to process and understand math.
“All learning occurs because the brain develops specialized structures for different tasks,” says Glynis Hannell, a family psychologist and author of Dyscalculia: Action Plans for Successful Learning in Mathematics. “Some of us are blessed with brains that quickly develop networks that make math easy, obvious, and interesting. Students and adults with dyscalculia find math puzzling, frustrating, and difficult to learn. Their brains need more teaching, more targeted learning experiences, and more practice to develop these networks.”
Learning disabilities related to math are called dyscalculia. Estimates vary, but most experts believe 3 to 6 percent of the population has symptoms of dyscalculia. It has a strong association with females who have Turner Syndrome — a condition where one X chromosome is partially or completely missing — though the exact reason for the link is not fully understood.
Symptoms of Dyscalculia
Educator and dyscalculia specialist Ronit Bird lays out the symptoms of dyscalculia in The Dyscalculia Toolkit, a book written to help teachers and parents whose children are struggling with the disorder. Bird advises caregivers to watch for many subtle indicators, including:
- Using fingers to count out math solutions, long after peers have stopped using this method
- Trouble recalling basic math facts
- Difficulty linking numbers and symbols to amounts and directions
- Difficulty making sense of money (handing a cashier a fistful of bills and change rather than counting it out, for example)
- Unable to tell time on an analog clock
- Difficulty immediately sorting out right from left
- Troubles with recognizing patterns and sequencing numbers
Like other learning disabilities, dyscalculia has no cure and cannot be treated with medication. It’s not a phase you or your child will outgrow — it’s the way your brains process math. By the time most children (or adults) are diagnosed with dyscalculia, they have a shaky math foundation. The goals of diagnosis and treatment are to fill in as many gaps as possible and to develop coping mechanisms that can be used throughout life.
Types of Dyscalculia
Most dyscalculia is developmental, meaning it was present from birth. However, it is possible for an adult to be diagnosed with acquired dyscalculia — usually as the result of a serious brain injury or a stroke.
An adult who suspects she has dyscalculia should start by talking to her primary care physician — he or she can offer a referral to a neuropsychologist or other learning specialist. In some states, young adults (ages 18 to 26) can seek an evaluation from their local public school system; check your state’s laws to see if you’re eligible.
If you suspect that your child has dyscalculia, the process can start with the school, rather than with a doctor. Begin by talking with your child’s teacher. She should be able to tell you how well your child is doing in math, and how she compares to her peers. If your child’s teacher isn’t familiar with dyscalculia, don’t be discouraged. The disorder is not well known or understood, and many teachers don’t know the signs. They may attribute problems in math to the child not being “math-minded,” or occasionally just to laziness. “If the teacher initially says nothing is wrong, don’t give up until your child’s math abilities have been evaluated by the teacher or a learning specialist,” Hannell says.
Though schools and private testing centers use different approaches to determine dyscalculia, any good test will compare a child’s math ability and skills to those of other children his age. Every child with dyscalculia has different strengths and weaknesses; a competent professional will recognize this and try a combination of tests to identify the specific areas where your child struggles. Common tests for dyscalculia include:
– Counting: Though it seems deceptively simple, one of the most telling parts of a dyscalculia test asks your child to practice counting backwards, counting dots, or completing other straightforward exercises designed to reveal how she relates to numbers and groups them together. One common version of this test is called the Neuropsychological Test Battery for Number Processing and Calculation in Children, or NUCALC.
– Drawing shapes: Visual-spatial skills play a huge role in math, and copying shapes or drawing them from memory is a good way to measure a child’s challenges in this area. If your child struggles to draw a trapezoid from memory, or can’t identify a known shape when it’s shown from a different angle, visual-spatial deficiencies may be affecting his ability to learn common math skills.
– Classroom observation: Most diagnostic professionals will want to watch your child interact with math in a “real-world” setting. Talk to your child’s school about setting up an observation day.
Treatment Options for Dyscalculia
After determining the patient’s needs, a learning specialist will develop a plan to target them. “I tailor the lesson to the individual needs of the child, focusing on any misconceptions he may have, and finding the gaps in understanding that need to be filled,” Bird says. “The goal is to create a stable foundation on which to build more skills.”
Math worksheets aren’t usually the best way to help a child with dyscalculia. Kids need a hands-on approach to learning math skills. Bird has written several books focused on games that use concrete materials, like colored glass stones, dice, or dominoes, along with a multi-sensory approach. For example, using glass stones, a child can begin to look at numbers differently by breaking them into sets and rearranging them on colorful mats. Six dots on a domino can be grouped into 2 sets of 3, 3 sets of 2, or 1 set of 2 and 1 set of 4. Grouping and regrouping is important; it helps a child see numbers in workable ways. She can take this new skill and apply it to simple math problems. The long-range goal is to teach calculation techniques and reasoning that use math principles to solve math problems.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adults with dyscalculia are entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employer to compensate for their challenges. These can include the use of calculators on any math-related tasks, prominently posted mathematical tables or charts, or the use of scratch paper during meetings to work out any math issues that arise. Discuss with your employer what strategies would work most effectively for you.
Adults can also brush up their math skills, either on their own or with the help of a trained educational psychologist. We doubt that sounds like fun to you — but even the most basic improvements in your math skills can have long-lasting impacts on your day-to day life.
“When we think of struggling with reading, most adults would not think of going back and listening to the sounds of language,” says Dr. Edward Hubbard, an assistant professor with the University of Madison-Wisconsin. “Similarly, if you recognize that you’re struggling with math, your first thought isn’t probably that you should go back to trying to see how much stuff is out there, use this basic sense of number that I have, and try to link that to basic number symbol. People would probably try to work at a higher level. What you should really be doing is going back and looking at these foundational skills, things that most teachers, most parents, and most people assume we all just have.”