Mathematics disorder was first described as a developmental disorder in 1937. Since then, it has come to encompass a number of distinct types of mathematical deficiencies. These include:
- difficulty reading and writing numbers
- difficulty aligning numbers in order to do calculations
- inability to perform calculations
- inability to comprehend word problems
The range and number of mathematical difficulties that have been documented suggests that there are several different causes for mathematics disorder.
In addition, several known physical conditions cause mathematics disorder. Turner syndrome and fragile X syndrome, both genetic disorders that affect girls, are associated with difficulty in mathematics. Injury to certain parts of the brain can also cause inability to perform calculations.
These conditions appear to be independent of other causes of mathematics disorder. Mathematics disorder is often associated with other learning disorders involving reading and language, although it may also exist independently in children whose reading and language skills are average or above average.
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.[3,4]
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 to 7 percent of elementary school children may have dyscalculia. It’s not uncommon for kids to have more than one learning issue.
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.
Causes and symptoms
The causes of mathematics disorder are not understood. Different manifestations of the disorder may have different causes.
Symptoms of the disorder, however, can be grouped into four categories: language symptoms; recognition or perceptual symptoms; mathematical symptoms; and attention symptoms.
People with language symptoms have trouble naming mathematical terms; understanding word problems; or understanding such mathematical concepts as “greater than” or “less than.”
People with recognition symptoms have difficulty reading numbers and such operational signs as the plus or minus signs, or aligning numbers properly in order to perform accurate calculations.
Mathematical symptoms include deficiencies in the ability to count; to memorize such basic arithmetical data as the multiplication tables; or to follow a sequence of steps in problem solving.
Attention symptoms are related to failures in copying numbers and ignoring operational signs. Sometimes these failures are the result of a person’s carelessness.
At other times, however, they appear to result from a lack of understanding of the factors or operations involved in solving the problem.
In practical terms, parents and teachers may see the following signs of mathematics disorder in a child’s schoolwork:
- problems counting
- difficulty memorizing multiplication tables
- inability to grasp the difference between such operations as addition and subtraction
- poor computational skills; many errors in simple arithmetic
- slowness in performing calculations
- difficulty arranging numbers in order (from smallest to largest, for example)
- inability to grasp information on graphs
- difficulty copying numbers or problems
- inability to grasp the concept of place value
- inability to align two or three digit numbers to do calculations
- difficulty understanding word problems
- inability to understand mathematical symbols
These symptoms must be evaluated in light of the person’s age, intelligence, educational experience, exposure to mathematics learning activities, and general cultural and life experience.
The person’s mathematical ability must fall substantially below the level of others with similar characteristics. In most cases, several of these symptoms are present simultaneously.
What skills are affected by dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia affects more than your child’s ability to handle math class and homework. Math skills and concepts are used everywhere from the kitchen to the playground to the workplace.
It’s understandable if you’re concerned about the long-term impact of dyscalculia on your child’s life. But once you identify your child’s weaknesses, you can find ways to work around them by building on strengths.
Here are some everyday skills and activities your child may find difficult:
Social skills: Failing repeatedly in math class can lead your child to assume failure is inevitable in other areas too.
Low self-esteem can affect your child’s willingness to make new friends or participate in afterschool activities. He might also avoid playing games and sports that involve math and keeping score.
Sense of direction: Your child might have trouble learning left from right. He may have trouble getting places by reading maps or following directions.
Some kids with dyscalculia can’t picture things in their minds. Does your child have trouble imagining how a building or other three-dimensional object would look if viewed from another angle?
If so, he may worry about getting lost when changing classes, riding a bike or driving a car.
Physical coordination: Dyscalculia can affect how the brain and eyes work together. So your child may have trouble judging distances between objects. He may seem clumsier than other kids the same age.
Money management: Dyscalculia can make it difficult to stick to a budget, balance a checkbook and estimate costs. It can also make it hard to calculate a tip and count exact change.
Time management: Dyscalculia can affect your child’s ability to measure quantities, including units of time. Your child may have trouble estimating how long a minute is or keeping track of how much time has passed.
This can make it hard to stick to a schedule.
Other skills: A child may have trouble figuring out how much of an ingredient to use in a recipe. He might have a hard time estimating how fast another car is moving or how far away it is.
Mathematics disorder is not usually diagnosed before a child is in the second or third grade because of the variability with which children acquire mathematical fluency.
Many bright children manage to get through to fourth- or fifth-grade level in mathematics by using memorization and calculation tricks (such as counting on fingers or performing repeated addition as a substitute for multiplication) before their disability becomes apparent.
Requests for testing usually originate with a teacher or parent who has observed several symptoms of the disorder.
To receive a diagnosis of mathematics disorder according to the criteria established by the American Psychiatric
Association, a child must show substantially lower than expected ability in mathematics based on his or her age, intelligence, and background.
In addition, the child’s deficiencies must cause significant interference with academic progress or daily living skills.
In addition to an interview with a child psychiatrist or other mental health professional, the child’s mathe matical ability may be evaluated with such individually administered diagnostic tests as the Enright Diagnostic Test of Mathematics, or with curriculum-based assessments.
If the results of testing suggest mathematics disorder, such other causes of difficulty as poor vision or hearing, mental retardation , or lack of fluency in the language of instruction, are ruled out.
The child’s educational history and exposure to opportunities for learning mathematics are also taken into account.
On the basis of this information, a qualified examiner can make the diagnosis of mathematics disorder.
What conditions are related to dyscalculia?
It isn’t unusual for kids to be diagnosed with dyscalculia and another medical condition. Doctors refer to co-existing conditions as being “comorbid.”
Certain conditions can easily be confused for dyscalculia because they have some of the same symptoms.
Conditions that often exist with—or are misdiagnosed as—dyscalculia are:
Dyslexia: Children are often diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Researchers have found that 43–65 percent of kids with math disabilities also have reading disabilities.
ADHD: Children are often diagnosed with dyscalculia and ADHD. But some math errors can be explained by inattention to detail and other characteristics of ADHD.
So some experts recommend reevaluating math skills after getting ADHD symptoms under control.
Math anxiety: Children with math anxiety are so worried about the prospect of doing math that their fear and nervousness can lead to poor performance on math tests. Some kids may have both math anxiety and dyscalculia.
Genetic disorders: Dyscalculia is associated with several genetic disorders including fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome and Turner’s syndrome.
Children who receive a diagnosis of mathematics disorder are eligible for an individual education plan (IEP) that details specific accommodations to learning.
Because of the wide variety of problems found under the diagnosis of mathematics disorder, plans vary considerably.
Generally, instruction emphasizes basic mathematical concepts, while teaching children problem-solving skills and ways to eliminate distractions and extraneous information.
Concrete, hands-on instruction is more successful than abstract or theoretical instruction. IEPs also address other language or reading disabilities that affect a child’s ability to learn mathematics.
Progress in overcoming mathematics disorder depends on the specific type of difficulties that the child has with mathematics, the learning resources available, and the child’s determination to work on overcoming the disorder.
Some children work through their disability, while others continue to have trouble with mathematics throughout life.
Children who continue to suffer from mathematics disorder may develop low self-esteem and social problems related to their lack of academic achievement.
Later in life they may be more likely to drop out of school and find themselves shut out of jobs or occupations that require the ability to perform basic mathematical calculations.
There is no known way to prevent mathematics disorder.
What can make the journey easier?
Whether you’re just starting out or well on your way, this site can help you find more ways to support your child. Our experts have put together a list of strategies that can help in and out of the classroom.
These include tips on time management, social skills, handling anxiety and boosting self-esteem. You also may want to check out assistive technology tools and math games.
Consider connecting with other parents of kids with dyscalculia. Hearing from other parents will remind you that you’re not alone—and that there are many ways to help kids succeed and thrive.