What is dyscalculia?

“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater.” Albert Einstein

Dyscalculia is a disability resulting in difficulty learning or comprehending  arithmetic, such as difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, performing mathematical calculations and learning facts in mathematics.

Dyscalculia is associated with dysfunction in the region around the intraparietal sulcus and potentially also the frontal lobe. Dyscalculia can occur in people from across the whole  IQ range, along with difficulties with time, measurement, and spatial reasoning. Estimates of the prevalence of dyscalculia range between three and 6% of the population. In 2015, it was established that 11% of children with dyscalculia also had ADHD. Dyscalculia has also been associated with people who have Turner syndrome and people who have spina bifida.

Mathematical disabilities can occur as the result of some types of brain injury, in which case the proper term, acalculia, is to distinguish it from dyscalculia which is of innate, genetic or developmental origin.

Signs and symptoms

The earliest appearance of dyscalculia is typically a deficit in the ability to know, from a brief glance and without counting, how many objects there are in a small group. Children as young as five can subitize six objects, especially looking at a die. However, children with dyscalculia can subitize fewer objects and even when correct take longer to identify the number than their age-matched peers. Dyscalculia often looks different at different ages. It tends to become more apparent as children get older; however, symptoms can appear as early as preschool. Common symptoms of dyscalculia are, having difficulty with mental math, trouble analysing time and reading an analogue clock, struggle with motor sequencing that involves numbers, and often they will count on their fingers when adding numbers.

Common symptoms

Dyscalculia is characterised by difficulties with common arithmetic tasks. These difficulties may include:

Difficulty reading analogue clocks;

Difficulty stating which of two numbers is larger;


Sequencing issues;

Inability to comprehend financial planning or budgeting, sometimes even at a basic level; for example, estimating the cost of the items in a shopping basket or balancing a chequebook;

Visualising numbers as meaningless or nonsensical symbols, rather than perceiving them as characters indicating a numerical value (hence the misnomer, “math dyslexia”);

Difficulty with multiplication, subtraction, addition, and division tables, mental arithmetic, etc.;

Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division;

When writing, reading and recalling numbers, mistakes may occur in the areas such as: number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals;

Poor memory (retention and retrieval) of math concepts; may be able to perform math operations one day, but draw a blank the next; may be able to do book work but then fails test;

Ability to grasp math on a conceptual level, but an inability to put those concepts into practice;

Difficulty recalling the names of numbers, or thinking that certain different numbers “feel” the same (e.g. frequently interchanging the same two numbers for each other when reading or recalling them);

Problems with differentiating between left and right;

A “warped” sense of spatial awareness, or an understanding of shapes, distance, or volume that seems more like guesswork than actual comprehension;

Difficulty with time, directions, recalling schedules, sequences of events, keeping track of time, frequently late or early;

Difficulty working backwards in time (e.g. What time to leave if needing to be somewhere at ‘X’ time);

Difficulty reading musical notation;

Difficulty with choreographed dance steps;

Having particular difficulty mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance (e.g., whether something is three or six metros (10 or 20 feet) away);

Inability to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences; and

Inability to concentrate on mentally intensive tasks.

Mistaken recollection of names, poor name/face retrieval, may substitute names beginning with same letter.

may substitute names beginning with same letter.

Dyscalculic Errors

  • Reading one number but saying a different one.
  • Copying errors.
  • Reading errors.
  • Operational mix-ups (seeing the subtraction sign, but adding anyway). 
  • Reasoning errors (finding the difference between two digits, instead of subtracting). 
  • Knowing exactly which number to write, but writing a number not intended (e.g. 1,000 instead of 100,000). 


Both domain-general and domain-specific causes have been put forth. With respect to pure developmental dyscalculia, domain-general causes are unlikely as they should not impair one’s ability in the numerical domain without also affecting other domains such as reading.


Evaluation should be conducted by a school psychologist or special education professional. School supports may be provided by special education professionals and/or your child’s classroom teacher.

Dyscalculia in Children

Young children struggle with these:

  • Left and right
  • Directionality
  • Counting reliably
  • Number-amount associations
  • Memory of numbers and quantitative information
  • Memory of instructions
  • Short-term memory (working memory)
  • Time awareness, telling time, time management, schedules, organisation, sequencing
  • Procedures for arithmetic
  • Place value
  • Memory of addition and multiplication facts
  • Memory of math rules, mental arithmetic
  • Nasalisation
  • Name-face memory
  • Visual memory
  • Visual-spatial discrimination, interpretation, processing, and memory
  • They make unconscious errors with numbers and symbols when reading, listening, thinking (reasoning), copying, writing, and speaking.
  • When doing math, they think slowly and carefully, and operate without confidence.
  • When tasked in their deficit areas, children may demonstrate agitation, distress, anxiety, anger, avoidance, and resistance.
  • Children grow into dyscalculic adults who exhibit the same problems, but become better at hiding and managing their difficulties.


  • Calculator A calculator allows the student to focus on problem-solving. Calculation is hindered by poor and inconsistent retrieval of facts, and unconscious errors when thinking and writing. A calculator cannot fix unconscious errors in reading, writing, and reasoning (ex. number and sign mix-ups). Allow the use of calculators.
  • Monitor It helps to have an external editor or monitor to catch and point out unconscious errors.
  • 1:1 performance Because of the need for a monitor, it is essential to have the student perform individually with the instructor, instead of in a group situation.
  • Authentic assessments Instead of traditional paper math tests, the dyscalculic should demonstrate understanding by teaching the concepts adequately and successfully. Adjust the difficulty of the task. A demonstration will show what, why, how, and when, with these forms of explanation: verbal (focus on key vocabulary), visual (physical, colour, illustrations). Examples: video, illustrated study guide, book, show-and-tell.
  • Remove time constraints The dyscalculic is quickly overwhelmed by compounding demands. Allow more time on assignments and tests.

The awareness of time running out, adds additional stress, and further impairs functioning.

Deficiencies that compound to impair performance: retrieval of learned facts and procedures; ability to apply learned facts and procedures to new situations; processing speed; working memory; visual-spatial-directional-sequential processing; procedural memory; and monitoring.


Separate complicated problems into smaller steps

Use posters to remind students to basic math concepts

Tutor to target core, foundational skills

Provide supplemental information via

computer-based interactive lessons

hands-on projects

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” - Albert Einstein

Source: Could it be a learning disability?

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