Dyscalculia: An Overview

By Eve Kessler, Esq.

AT A GLANCE

Experts believe that approximately 7% of the population has symptoms of dyscalculia, comparable to percentages for dyslexia • But dyscalculia—often referred to as “the forgotten learning disability”—is neither well-researched nor entirely understood


Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability that impacts the ability to perform and make sense of mathematics. A life-long developmental disorder present from birth, dyscalculia is much more than a dislike of math: it is a difference in how the brain processes math. While many children may find math demanding or boring, for those with dyscalculia, learning math is overwhelming, confusing, frustrating, and painful.

Is This Your Child?

The hallmark of dyscalculia is a persistent inability to retrieve arithmetic facts from memory. Kids with dyscalculia find it difficult to acquire basic mathematical concepts and to understand and process math-related tasks – from counting, calculating, and memorizing to reasoning mathematically. They may not understand quantities or concepts such as bigger or smaller/biggest or smallest; they may fail to understand that the numeral 5 is the same as the word five.

Dyscalculia often co-exists with other disabilities, such as developmental dyslexia or ADHD. When a child with dyscalculia has dyslexia or ADHD, it becomes even more grueling for her to focus on mathematical formulas or to attempt complex multi-step problems that require a strong working memory.

There is no specific blood test or brain imaging procedure for detecting dyscalculia. However, risk factors can be identified early in a child’s life, long before she learns—or fails at—arithmetic.

Diagnosing Dyscalculia

If you suspect your child has symptoms of dyscalculia, speak with your child’s teacher about how she is doing in math compared with her peers. Ask your child’s school to conduct a formal evaluation, or get a referral from your primary-care physician for an independent psycho-educational evaluation.

If your child is diagnosed with dyscalculia, the evaluator will include her specific learning difficulties (e.g., fractions, long division, geometry, etc.).

Addressing Dyscalculia

While there is no cure or medication for dyscalculia, identifying signs early will help your child dramatically. Long-term, the goal is for your child to develop the calculation and reasoning skills necessary to solve math problems successfully.

Based on the assessment, a learning specialist will develop a plan to target your child’s individual needs, help her build core readiness skills and connections between different concepts, and assist her in developing strategies she can implement throughout her life.

If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan, schools must provide appropriate accommodations and modifications for students struggling with dyscalculia. Intervention options include:

  • Extra time on tests
  • Frequent classwork checks
  • Step-by-step instructions for multi-step problems
  • Sample problems on the board and in a reference notebook
  • Calculators
  • Straightforward reference charts, diagrams or three-dimensional representations
  • Uncluttered, easy-to-read worksheets
  • Fewer assigned problems to assess understanding
Signs & Symptoms of Dyscalculia
 
  • Struggles to learn to count; uses fingers to count out math solutions, long after peers have stopped using this method
  • Cannot memorize simple numbers; has trouble recalling basic math facts
  • Does not understand the “vocabulary” of math; struggles with word problems
  • Avoids answering math-related questions during daily conversations
  • Is unable to tell time on an analogue clock
  • Has difficulty linking numbers and symbols to concrete objects (brings you three blocks when you ask for five; has trouble forming equal teams or separating into groups)
  • Has difficulty associating symbols with quantities and then using the association in number comparison tasks
  • Has difficulty making sense of money; cannot stick to a budget
  • Has trouble estimating how much something will cost or how long a task will take
  • Resists playing number-based games/board games
  • Does not seem to understand the passage of time; has no concept of when the school day begins or ends
  • Has difficulty immediately sorting out right from left, recognizing patterns, sequencing numbers and sorting objects by color, shape or type
  • Cannot make sense of bar graphs or pie charts
  • Still relies on calculators for simple math functions, like adding and subtracting
  • Remains significantly behind peers in math skills; struggles to master basic concepts as other students move on to more advanced courses
  • Does not line up numbers correctly when adding or subtracting by hand
  • Is anxious about changing classrooms many times during the day; mixes up which classrooms he’s supposed to be in when
  • Cannot remember home phone number or address or, as he gets older, his friends’ phone numbers or addresses
  • Is frequently late for class
Source: ADDitude magazine: What is Dyscalculia? and What Does Dyscalculia Look Like in Children? by Devon Frye  

This article is based on ADDitude Magazine’s webinar, Understanding Dyscalculia: How to Recognize & Address Math Learning Disabilities, given by Daniel Ansari, PhD; and articles about dyscalculia, by Devon Frye, in ADDitude Magazine. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities. 

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