Math has long been a nasty, four-letter word for frustrated students everywhere, but for some, the difficulty extends beyond basic aversion. Dyscalculia is dyslexia's lesser-known mathematical cousin, and an explanation for why many very intelligent people can be so bad at math.
Dyscalculia, sometimes called "math dyslexia" or "number blindness," is a learning disability that affects a person's ability to understand numbers and math concepts. This can include difficulty recognizing patterns, sequencing information or events, or even understanding everyday math skills, like counting money or telling time.
One of the biggest markers for dyscalculia is a lack of number sense, a normally-intuitive skill which is at the heart of any math concept. An example of number sense could be seeing five rocks and counting to five, or visualizing the difference between 10 dollars and three. You can see why a deficiency here would cause problems.
While dyscalculia is not as well known as dyslexia, they seem to affect about the same percentage of people — between 6 to 7 percent of the school population, according to Understood.org. In addition, approximately half of the people who have a reading disability also struggle with math, and roughly vice versa. This makes it difficult to sort out which problem came first, since much of math problem solving involves vocabulary and reading comprehension, and reading involves a certain amount of grasping symbols and sequence. A similar dilemma arises for kids with ADHD, who also typically struggle with math.
The origins of dyscalculia, as with many other learning disabilities, are still mostly a mystery. There is some indication that this disability is genetic. According to the authors of "Developmental trajectories of grey and white matter in dyscalculia", modern brain imaging demonstrates a physical difference in the brain matter between people with and without dyscalculia, particularly in the portions of the brain that deal with learning and memory. Dyscalculia has also been linked to exposure to alcohol in the womb, premature birth, and low birth weight, according to the Center for Educational Research and Innovation, but there is still plenty of research that needs to be done in this area.
There is a great deal of discussion about what exactly constitutes "math difficulty," so you won't find a specific set of criteria. This is particularly true since dyscalculia may vary widely among kids and age groups. The overarching theme, though, is a smart kid who just can't get it. Kids with dyscalculia may struggle with a variety of math-related daily activities, such as sense of direction, managing money, telling time, or counting objects.
Not every school recognizes dyscalculia by that name, but may refer to it as a learning disability in math and address it as such — with targeted interventions and accommodations. To meet special education criteria (which is different from diagnostic criteria), a student would fall into the bottom 15 percent of his class or demonstrate a significant discrepancy between math scores and other skill areas. A school would likely administer an educational evaluation in order to compare these scores.
If you want an official diagnosis, consider taking your child to see a medical professional, who may refer you to a learning or testing specialist. The specialist will administer some assessments, like counting dots or spatial reasoning tasks, and will give you strategies for you and your child's teacher to use.
For more information, read our parents guide to the special education evaluation process.
If you have a more informal curiosity about dyscalculia, or you'd like to know more before you take it to the professionals, you can take a test developed by Johns Hopkins University at Panamath.
While a self-test or parent-test would not qualify a student for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), it would be a good tool to see if a formal evaluation is merited. You may not necessarily need a physician's diagnosis, but you would still need test results from qualified administrators (usually a teacher, psychologist, and/or speech and language pathologist) in order to be eligible for an IEP.
Whichever route you take, identifying dyscalculia will allow you to develop an individualized education plan with the school team in order to address the difficulty. And it may be reassuring to your child to finally put a name to the struggle.
You can use Noodle to search for local math tutors in your area if you're looking for out-of-school help for your child.
Just like dyslexia, dyscalculia will stick with the child through adulthood, but there are plenty of strategies to get through math class — and life — with dignity intact, beginning with this list of ways to master math with dyscalculia.
Schools will commonly allow students with dyscalculia to use hands-on materials whenever possible, with extra time for assessments. Instruction may include room for a lot of repetition and real-life examples of math concepts, as well as teaching kids to talk through a problem and look at it from multiple angles.
Using technology is an engaging way to get the extra practice in, with quick feedback and the opportunity to see and manipulate the concepts they are struggling with. There are even dyscalculia-friendly games: The Number Race from neuroscience researchers at INSERM and a collection of games teaching number sense from the Institute of Education at London University.
For more information on dyscalculia, refer to Understood.org.