What Is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is an umbrella term for lifelong math learning disabilities. The severity and specific challenges of dyscalculia vary from person to person. There are two primary areas of weakness that contribute to dyscalculia: visual processing (understanding what the eye sees) and language processing (understanding what the ear hears). 

Causes of Dyscalculia:

There is no definite root cause for dyscalculia. Studies have shown that certain genetic disorders, like Turner Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, Velocardiofacial Syndrome, and Williams Syndrome make it more likely for a person to have dyscalculia.

Read more about Turner Syndrome.

Read more about Fragile X Syndrome.

Read more about Velocardiofacial Syndrome.

Read more about Williams Syndrome.

Environmental factors like fetal alcohol syndrome or pre-term birth also contribute to the development of dyscalculia. Scientists suspect that it is a combination of environmental and genetic factors affecting brain development, which might also explain why many with dyscalculia also have dyslexia, dyspraxia and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Cognitive neuroscience is just beginning to study dyscalculia, but early findings indicate there is less activity in the frontal and parietal areas of the brain associated with math.

Read more about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Read more about ADHD.


Symptoms of Dyscalculia:

The main symptom of dyscalculia is a lack of "number sense". People with number sense "see" small amounts without having to count, estimate how big a room is easily and are able to solve math problems mentally.

Challenges associated with dyscalculia by age level:

In children younger than first grade:

  • Difficulty learning to count
  • Difficulty recognizing printed numbers
  • Difficulty matching numbers with amounts
  • Trouble organizing objects by shape, size or color
  • Trouble recognizing groups or patterns
  • Trouble comparing and contrasting things that are bigger/smaller, taller/shorter
  • Hard time with finger counting, unable to immediately recognize finger configurations

In children between first and seventh grade:

  • Difficulty remembering math facts like times tables
  • Trouble understanding the math operations signs: +, -, x, /
  • Hard time developing math problem solving skills
  • Trouble measuring things
  • Difficulty remembering math vocabulary
  • Avoid strategy games
  • Trouble remembering sequence and/or putting numbers in sequence
  • Hard time decomposing numbers - understanding that 11 is made from 5 and 6, for example
  • Forgets concepts mastered the previous week

In teenagers and adults:

  • Difficulty estimating costs, such as those for groceries
  • Trouble learning math concepts beyond basic facts
  • Hard time with mental math
  • Difficulty with time concepts like following a schedule and/or knowing how long things will take
  • Trouble balancing a checkbook
  • Poor sense of direction

Diagnosis of Dyscalculia:

Just as there is no one size fits all description of dyscalculia, there is no one size fits all test to diagnose dyscalculia. Students can struggle with math for a variety of reasons, such as poor prior instruction or low academic ability.

To diagnose dyscalculia, parents and teachers should have the child or teenager evaluated by an educational psychologist, often known as a school psychologist. The psychologist will assess math skills as well as reading skills, attention and even vision to pinpoint the student's issues.The psychologist may use paper and pencil math tests as well as computerized screening tests to assess the student's math skills. Parents and teachers may also fill out observational checklists that describe dyscalculia symptoms at the student's age level.

Treatment for Dyscalculia:

Identifying the student's specific strengths and weaknesses within mathematics is the first step towards treating dyscalculia. And while dyscalculia can never be completely cured, students with dyscalculia can be academically successful. Parents and teachers should provide students the opportunity to practice math concepts extensively and learn new concepts more slowly. Extra help after school is an effective way to accomplish this.

More specific ways to help include:

  • Completely mastering a concept before moving on to the next
  • Estimating the answer to a problem before attempting to solve it
  • Teaching new concepts using concrete examples first (using unifix cubes to teach addition and subtraction, for example)
  • Using graph paper to help organize information
  • Frequent opportunities to review previously mastered material, such as through fun computer games
  • Reinforce math vocabulary through picture books and frequent class discussions
  • Provide extra time to complete math work
  • Ask lots of questions to help students clarify thinking

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Learning Disabilities

Special Needs Parenting


How to Help a Parent With a Special Needs Child

Turner Syndrome 

Fragile X Syndrome 

Velocardiofacial Syndrome 

Williams Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


Additional Resources for Dyscalculia:

Science Daily- Article gives a great overview of dyscalculia.

National Center for Learning Disabilities- Summary of specific symptoms and treatments.

About Dyscalculia - A more academic look at dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia.org - Another overview of dyscalculia, with a list of math practice programs for those with dyscalculia.

LD Online - A list of articles covering dyscalculia and ways to diagnose and treat it.

School Library Journal - A list of picture books to help teach math concepts.

Home School Math - A list of math game websites.