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Understanding Dyscalculia

What Is Dyscalculia | Math Learning Disabilities Symptoms
What You’ll Learn

If you’ve been told your child may have dyscalculia, or if you suspect your child has it, you may wonder how to help him. Dyscalculia is a learning disability that causes serious math difficulties. It isn’t as well-known as dyslexia. However, some researchers now think it may be almost as common.

Fortunately, there are many ways you and teachers can help your child. Whether it’s strengthening math skills or boosting his self-esteem, there are steps you can take.

What Is Dyscalculia?Dyscalculia is a brain-based condition that makes it hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts. Some kids with dyscalculia can’t grasp basic number concepts. They work hard to learn and memorize basic number facts. They may know what to do in math class but don’t understand why they’re doing it. In other words, they miss the logic behind it.

Other kids understand the logic behind the math but aren’t sure how and when to apply their knowledge to solving problems.


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Dyscalculia goes by many names. Some public schools refer to it as a “mathematics learning disability.” Doctors sometimes call it a “mathematics disorder.” Many kids and parents call it “math dyslexia.”

Your child’s struggle with math can be confusing, especially if he’s doing well in other subjects. This can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem. But parents have the power to change that equation.

There are many tools and strategies that can help with dyscalculia. The trick is finding the ones that work best for your child. Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition, but that doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful.

Number Sense and Other Difficulties

Dyscalculia can affect many different areas of math learning and performance. Different kids have different challenges.

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. Most researchers agree that number sense is at the core of math learning. If kids don’t understand the basics about how numbers work, learning math and using it every day can be very frustrating.

Studies show that even babies have a basic sense of numbers.[1] Dr. Brian Butterworth, a leading researcher in dyscalculia, compares number sense to being color-blind. He says some people are born with number blindness. This makes it hard to tell the difference between quantities.[2]

Number blindness is one reason many kids have trouble connecting numbers to the real world. They can’t grasp the idea that “five cookies” has the same number of objects as “five cakes” and “five apples.”

How Common Is Dyscalculia?If you hadn’t heard of dyscalculia until recently, you’re not alone. It isn’t as widely discussed as dyslexia, and it’s not as well understood. However, some researchers are beginning to think it may be almost as common as dyslexia.[6, 7]

It isn’t clear how often kids identified with dyslexia would also meet the criteria for dyscalculia. Both conditions can affect a child’s ability to understand math-related words.

Scientists can’t say for sure how many children or adults have dyscalculia. This is partly because different groups of researchers use different criteria for what counts as severe math difficulties. There is no central data bank for the research data on dyscalculia. That makes it hard to estimate how many people it affects.

An estimated 6–7 percent of elementary school children have dyscalculia. It’s not uncommon for kids to have more than one learning disability. In fact, 56 percent of kids with a reading disorder also have poor math achievement. And 43 percent of kids with a math disability have poor reading skills.[8]

The good news is that all of these children can excel in other areas.[9]

What Causes Dyscalculia?Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But they’ve identified certain factors that indicate it’s a brain-based condition.

Here are some of the possible causes of dyscalculia:

  • Genes and heredity: Studies of dyscalculia show it’s more common in some families. Researchers have found that a child with dyscalculia often has a parent or sibling with similar math issues. So dyscalculia may be genetic.[10]
  • Brain development: Researchers are using modern brain imaging tools to study the brains of people with and without math issues. What we learn from this research will help us understand how to help kids with dyscalculia. The study also found differences in the surface area, thickness and volume of parts of the brain. Those areas are linked to learning and memory, setting up and monitoring tasks and remembering math facts.[11]
  • Environment: Dyscalculia has been linked to exposure to alcohol in the womb.[12] Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role in dyscalculia.[13]
  • Brain injury: Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain can result in what researchers call “acquired dyscalculia.”

For children with dyscalculia, it’s unclear how much their brain differences are shaped by genetics and how much by their experiences.

Researchers are trying to learn if certain interventions for dyscalculia can “rewire” a child’s brain to make math easier. This concept is known as “neuroplasticity” and has been shown to work in people with dyslexia.[14]