Dyscalculia is an uncommon, lifelong learning disability that greatly impairs the mathematical ability of children, adolescents and adults. It also causes difficulties in understanding, processing and learning simple number concepts.
Read on to learn more about this intriguing maths learning disability. This article will discuss its main signs and symptoms, potential causes, risk factors, its prevalence, diagnosis and treatment options.
Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects a person’s mathematical skills and arithmetic skills (working with numbers). People with dyscalculia find it difficult to work with numbers because their brains process mathematical concepts differently to people without dyscalculia. However, this does not mean that they are any less intelligent, capable, or worthy than people without the disorder.1
Dyscalculia can sometimes be confused with another learning disorder called dyslexia. Whilst dyscalculia primarily affects a person’s mathematical ability, dyslexia affects a person’s reading ability. Interestingly, it is possible for people to have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Both disorders are diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s.
Causes of dyscalculia
- Genetics: Dyscalculia tends to run in families, suggesting that it has a genetic-basis
- Structural and functional changes in brain development: compared to people without dyscalculia, people with dyscalculia have been shown to have less development and fewer connections in the brain areas that are important for mathematics
Signs and symptoms of dyscalculia
Young children (Kindergarten)
- Trouble with counting upwards
- Trouble with recognising and organising numbers
- Trouble with connecting numbers to quantities they represent (e.g. connecting the number 4 to 4 marbles)
- Trouble with learning using money
School-age children (primary school)
- Trouble with organising numbers by scale or decimal place
- Trouble with understanding word problems and/or advanced maths symbols
- Trouble with counting on fingers with small numbers
- Trouble with memorising multiplication tables
- Trouble with doing basic maths calculations from memory
- Trouble with recognising maths problems when their order is changed
- Trouble with recognising the number of a few items without counting (subitising)
Teenagers (secondary school) and adults
- Trouble with counting backwards
- Trouble with measuring quantities
- Trouble with measuring items
- Trouble with understanding and converting fractions
- Trouble with solving word problems
Diagnosis of dyscalculia
Currently, no diagnostic tests are available to confirm dyscalculia. However, a healthcare provider will diagnose a person with dyscalculia by:
- Checking for the existence of at least one of the two DSM-5 criteria (under ‘’specific learning disorder’’) for a minimum of six months:
- Difficulties with mathematical reasoning
- Difficulties with mastering calculation, number sense or number facts
- Ruling out any brain-related or mental disorders
- Ruling out any vision and hearing problems
Management and treatment for dyscalculia
Treatment for dyscalculia
The treatment and outcome of dyscalculia depends primarily on the age of the affected individual. Dyscalculia is treatable in children because their brains are not fully developed, making it possible for them to improve their arithmetic and mathematical skills.1
Children with dyscalculia should start treatment as soon as possible to decrease the severity and impact of the disorder, not only on their mathematical ability but on their mental health as well. Despite not being dangerous, dyscalculia can predispose individuals to mental disorders, including depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, as well as self-harm.
In contrast, dyscalculia cannot be treated in adults unless they have acquired dyscalculia. Acquired dyscalculia occurs later in life due to brain damage (brain lesions) in areas important for mathematical processing.
Management for dyscalculia
The main management strategy for adults with acquired dyscalculia is to compensate for the disorder by using technology, such as smartphone apps, to assist with mathematics. Specific apps or tools may be recommended by a healthcare provider.
Is dyscalculia curable?
Dyscalculia currently has no cure. Dyscalculia is a lifelong learning disorder that people do not outgrow.1
How can I prevent dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia cannot be prevented nor can its risk be decreased because it is believed to happen unpredictably.1
Who is at risk of dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia can affect anyone. However, primary school children (children aged between 6 and 9 years) appear to have the highest risk of presenting with the condition.1
How common is dyscalculia?
According to a recent German study, dyscalculia affects approximately 3-7% children, adolescents and adults worldwide, making it an uncommon learning disorder.3
When should I see a doctor?
If you suspect that your child or you have dyscalculia and you want to get a diagnosis as well as discuss available management and treatment strategies, seek help from your healthcare provider.
Dyscalculia is an uncommon, lifelong learning disability that impairs a person’s mathematical ability and arithmetic skills. 6 to 9 year-old children are the most affected.
Although symptoms vary primarily on age, dyscalculic learners mainly have trouble grasping simple number concepts, performing basic maths skills and completing basic mathematical calculations. The exact cause of dyscalculia is unknown. However genetics and brain developmental issues are thought to be the biggest risk factors.
Dyscalculia cannot be prevented or cured, nor can it be treated in adults. However, a healthcare provider may offer specific management and/or treatment strategies for children (such as specialised one-on-one learning programmes) and adults with acquired dyscalculia (for example smartphone apps).
- Szűcs D, Goswami U. Developmental dyscalculia: Fresh perspectives. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. 2013 June;2(2):33-37. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2013.06.004
- Bugden S, Ansari D. When Your Brain Cannot Do 2 + 2: A Case of Developmental Dyscalculia. Frontiers for Young Minds. 2014 Apr 24;2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273518127_When_Your_Brain_Cannot_Do_22_A_Case_of_Developmental_Dyscalculia
- Haberstroh S, Schulte-Körne G. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Dyscalculia. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2019 Feb 15;116(7):107-114. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6440373/pdf/Dtsch_Arztebl_Int-116_0107.pdf