What is Dyscalculia?

You’ve been on the hunt for information around ‘what is dyscalculia’ and found yourself going down the rabbit hole of dyscalculia search results. Many articles tell you these bits of information:

  • How common is dyscalculia?
  • What causes it?
  • How is testing done for dyscalculia?

But ultimately leave you wondering:

  • Where do we go to get testing?
  • What can I do to help my child with dyscalculia?
  • What treatments are effective?
  • What will life be like in the long term for a person with dyscalculia?

You, my friend, are in luck! We are going to cover it all. Use the table of contents below to jump right to your most burning question.

How do you say dyscalculia?

Let’s start off with this question…how in the world do you even say dyscalculia? Click the video below to hear.

Dis-kal-kyoo-lee-uh

The kyoo is often a Q sound. Many people omit the “lee-uh” and shorten it to just “uh” (even our CEO struggles to keep the pronunciation of dyscalculia accurate). It’s totally okay to struggle with this, we can work on getting it right together as we continue to bring awareness to this learning difference.

Dyscalculia Definitions

You’ll be surprised to learn that the dyslexia definition at one time did include difficulties with mathematics (Chinn, 2017, p.4). This makes sense as more than 50% of students with math struggles also had difficulty learning to read (Geary, LD Online). We’ve provided several different definitions to help you from simple (easy to share with a friend) to complex.

Simplified Definition of Dyscalculia

Our favorite simplified definition comes from Laura Jackson, a parent raising a child with dyscalculia. She defines it as, “a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to access and apply mathematical skills (Jackson, 2022).

Dyscalculia is not a result of low intelligence, poor educational experience, or math anxiety. A person is born with this disability. It is a beautiful part of human variation.

APA 2013

The American Psychiatric Association defines dyscalculia as, “A specific learning disorder that is characterized by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude, and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and must not be caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.”

DSM 5

The DSM 5 is a diagnostic manual for mental disorders. Learning differences such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and autism are listed. However, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are specified under a category called Specific Learning Disorder which is defined as, “A neurodevelopmental disorder of biological origin manifested in learning difficulties and problems acquiring academic skills markedly below age level and manifested in early school years, lasting for at least 6 months; not attributed to intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, or neurological or motor disorders”.

The neuropsychologist or psychologist makes a diagnosis with this label along with the specific academic area impacted. Dyscalculia is called Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Mathematics along with a severity rating of mild, moderate, and severe.

You can also watch our previously recorded webinar all about dyscalculia below.

how common is dyscalculia

How common is dyscalculia?

Research on dyscalculia is far behind what we know about reading disabilities like dyslexia. Most studies are focused on studying how many students struggled with basic number and arithmetic skills. As of right now, we know that about 6-7% of school-age children show struggles with mathematics that are not related to their IQ and are below same-age peers.

In a class of 30 students, one to two students would be considered to have a math learning disability or dyscalculia.

What is the cause of dyscalculia?

There are two possible causes of dyscalculia:

  1. Genetics and Hereditary
  2. Brain Development

Genetics and Hereditary

Now hold up, you might be thinking…how are genetics and hereditary different?! Often the word genetic and hereditary are used interchangeably but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. For example, cancer is a genetic disease that can be caused by exposure to the sun or tobacco but might not be a trait inherited from parents.

This means that it could be your child has dyscalculia in their genetic code even if there isn’t a closer relative with dyscalculia. But it could be that a parent or grandparent struggled with math and did pass on this human variation to your child.

Brain Development

Thanks to imaging research, we’re learning that people with dyscalculia do have marked differences in brain wiring compared to people without dyscalculia.

See cool brain imaging here.

What are the Signs of Dyscalculia?

You’re most likely here because you suspect your child is struggling with math much more than they are showing. Hover over the top of these images to reveal the common signs of dyscalculia:

Difficulty counting backwards

🔙 Difficulty Counting Backward

Counting

✌️ Counting is Main Solving Strategy

Slow calculation

🐢 Slow Calculations

mental math

🧠 Weak Mental Math Skills

Poor Number Sense

🎲 Poor Number Sense

Place Value

💯 Place Value Misunderstanding

Forgets Steps

⏭️ Forgets Steps When Solving

directional confusion

🗺️ Directional Confusion

Basic Math Facts Practice

🔁 Can’t recall basic facts even with hours of practice

Calculation right or wrong

😔 No sense if answers are correct

Time

🗓️ Struggles with Time, Calendars, and Money

math

😟 High Levels of Math Anxiety (MA)

Testing for dyscalculia

After skimming through the common signs of dyscalculia above, all the alarms in your head might be going off! Do not be distressed, we’ll walk you through the next steps.

1️⃣ Dyscalculia Screener
A dyscalculia screener is a set of questions aimed at helping you quickly assess if dyscalculia could be the source of your child’s struggles with math. There are a few readily available in the market. Dr. Schreuder created one that is online-based and easy to administer. You can learn more about this screener here. Dr. Steve Chinn also has a screener that is more like a checklist of issues that can be accessed here.

After you receive your results, print them out to use to help you advocate during various meetings.

2️⃣ Schedule a Meeting with the Pediatrician
If you suspect your child has a learning difficulty, head to the pediatrician to rule out physical issues that could be causing problems such as vision, hearing, fine motor skills, or even possibly attentional issues. In preparation for this meeting with your pediatrician, use the screeners listed above and print the results to bring with you to the office visit.

Share with your pediatrician that you suspect a math learning disability and advocate for a referral to a psychologist or neuropsychologist. Don’t be surprised if your pediatrician is not familiar with the learning disability but don’t be afraid to speak up and get help. Ask the doctor to write a letter recommending a comprehensive educational evaluation be performed.

3️⃣ School Evaluation for Dyscalculia

With a screener in hand and clearance from your pediatrician, it’s time to reach out to the school to request that comprehensive educational evaluation. Begin by emailing the principal, current teacher, and the special education lead teacher. In this email, make sure to attach your dyscalculia screener and recommendation from the pediatrician.

If this is towards the end of a school year, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything back. Follow up at the beginning of a school year. The key is to continue to follow up.

At a minimum, the special education team can put a 504 in place to provide support such as extra time on tests, math facts chart, copy of notes, etc as you wait for the evaluation.

The process of school evaluations is slow in nature and requires a lot of follow-up on your part. The goal of this evaluation is not to provide a diagnosis. The school evaluation is used to identify if your child is eligible to receive special education services through an Individualized Education Plan or IEP.

If you were hoping to receive a diagnosis, we highly recommend that you do the step below, and seek a private assessment for dyscalculia. There is no need to wait for the school evaluation to be complete before scheduling a private evaluation. Both of these processes can take a while, so you may want to get them started simultaneously.

4️⃣ Private/Independent Assessment for Dyscalculia

A private/independent assessment for dyscalculia is formal in nature and conducted by a certified diagnostician, psychologist, or neuropsychologist. They look at the whole child and run a battery of tests to look at not only academics but how your child thinks. If you’d like to hear more about what this process is like, make sure to check out our interview with Dr. Karen Wilson here.

Search for a neuropsychologist in your area. Here are a few we know of as well:

How do you treat dyscalculia?

We subscribe to the same opinion as Dr. Katherine Lewis that dyscalculia is a cognitive difference, not a deficit (2014). All of this is to say that we don’t see dyscalculia as something to fix but rather adjust how we are teaching the student. Traditional methods of teaching math have made it inaccessible.

So what makes math more accessible to students with dyscalculia? Multisensory Math.

Multisensory Math: A Different Approach

We believe that students with dyscalculia need a totally different approach that is customized to their individualized brain-wiring. Multisensory means that we are using various senses simultaneously to increase the likelihood that we find a path to learning the math topic at hand.

To be clear, these are not learning styles (those have been debunked). All learners use multiple senses to access information. Our goal is to use many senses at the same time to enhance memory and recall of information.

Our approach uses what is called the Concrete-Representational-Abstract.

Concrete: think things you can touch
Representational: things you can draw or see
Abstract: numerals, variables, and symbols

We move from things you can touch with your hands to pictures and then onto the abstract making sure not to move too speedily away from a method that is working for the student. Our goal is to get students to the abstract so they can work with numbers efficiently.

Concrete Math Facts 2

Concrete

Representational Math Facts 2

Representational

2 x 5

Abstract

Social/Emotional Support

Your child is experiencing a wide range of emotions from the experiences of repeated failure around math. You might see internalized messages about their performance turn into math anxiety, depression, and low confidence. Behaviors can also pop up such as crying, avoidance of math, and bursts of anger.

“Kids do well if they can” (Greene, 2010) when they have the skills to cope. Work to become a safe place your child can go. Avoid saying things like:

🙅‍♂️ “It’s just math, deal with it.”

🙅  “It’s okay, I suck at math too.”

🙅‍♂️  “Stop your crying. This will only take a few minutes.”

Instead, make an effort to create a non-stressful environment to work on math together. If anxiety runs high, take a break and return to it when your child is more regulated. For more ideas, make sure to listen to our CEO Adrianne Meldrum discuss with Dr. Karen Wilson ways that parents can support their child during homework.

Accommodations

An accommodation is an item that can be added to a 504 or IEP, and it adjusts both how the student receives instruction and how they demonstrate their learning. Your child is still learning the same material as other students, but the accommodations support how they learn best. An example of an accommodation is an audiobook in addition to a printed book.

You may have heard of modifications. These are added to an IEP to adjust what students learn. For example, children with modifications may be assigned less homework than their peers or given different leveled work instead. These students are not expected to learn the same material as their peers.

Often accommodations are focused on outputs such as more time on a test, copy of notes, or use of a calculator. We think input accommodations are more helpful. An example of an accommodation that is input based is the use of beads on a string to teach math facts.


strings and beads

String with beads helps with number sense!

Here is a short list of ideas for accommodations:

  • Having math word problems read aloud
  • Use of a hundred chart while problem-solving
  • Use of a near-point reference such as a math fact chart
  • Color coding
  • Limit homework problems given
  • Increase font size for worksheets and space for writing
  • Manipulatives such as dice, beads, craft sticks

There are SO many more than these. Want a custom list for your child? Head to our accommodations generator here.

⚙️ Accommodations Generator

What can I do to help my child with dyscalculia?

Begin with getting an evaluation (see the above advice on how to get started). The easiest thing you can do to get started is to begin playing simple math games with your child no matter their age. We find that no matter the age of the student, often our starting point is at the very beginning of math which is to understand how numbers work.

Games

Here is a short list of resources with games you can use to get started:

Hire Professional Help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of working on math with your child, consider hiring a professional to help your child work with their unique brain-wiring through multisensory math. Made for Math offers all online math services. You can learn more about how to get started here.

Check Out Made for Math Solo Lessons

What will life be like in the long term for a person with dyscalculia?

The future is bright and full of potential for your child. Living with dyscalculia long-term requires your child to learn how to advocate for themselves, allow others to be wrong about them, and find ways to accommodate for their unique brain wiring.

One inspiring story that we love to share is the Statistician with Dyscalculia, Dylan Lynn. She is clearly bright and capable of so many things however, mathematics had been a lifelong struggle. She discovered in college that dyscalculia was at play. Listen to her share her story and how she successfully graduated with a degree in statistics.

You came to the right place to explore all there is to know about that small phrase ‘what is dyscalculia’. Your journey is just beginning! If you’re ready for more, head to our Unlocking Dyscalculia page to discover more from the researchers, diagnosticians, interventionists, and people living with dyscalculia. 

Whew!

You went super deep into this rabbit hole of dyscalculia information.

We’re so proud of you for sticking with this hunt for ‘what is dyscalculia. 💪

🎲 Is multisensory math right for your child? 🎲

 

There’s no need to wait for a diagnosis to receive help for dyscalculia. We have a team of experts ready to help. To assist you in making sure the multisensory approach would be helpful, take this handy quiz.

FAQ

Is dyscalculia a form of autism?

No. However, some people with autism also experience struggles with mathematics. 

Is dyscalculia a learning disability or a difficulty?

Dyscalculia is defined as a learning disability and has many names according to various sources such as math learning disability, and specific learning disability in mathematics. 

Is dyscalculia related to ADHD?

The science is not clear on this. Many people with ADHD also struggle with mathematics due to the heavy use of executive function.

Can dyscalculia be cured?

No. We believe dyscalculia is not a deficit but rather a brain-wiring difference. It’s part of natural human variation. To cope with this difference, people need a different approach for learning mathematics such as multisensory math.

Where can I learn how to provide treatment to students?

Made for Math hires qualified teachers to work with students, all training is included. See our career page here.

If you’d like to learn the method independently, please visit Marilyn Zecher.

I’m nervous to take action on getting a diagnosis for dyscalculia, help!

We understand how overwhelming this can be. You don’t have to wait for a diagnosis to receive services from Made for Math. 

Check out multisensory services here.

Consider joining a parent group to discuss your fears and get support around this journey. Visit Laura Jackson’s website to learn how to do just that.

Have more questions?

Reach out to our customer service or visit our in-depth FAQ page here.

REFERENCES

Beilock, S. (2011). Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press.

Berch, D. B. (2005). Making sense of number sense: Implications for children with mathematical disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(4), 333-339.

Boaler, J. (2014). Research suggests timed tests cause math anxiety. Teaching Children Mathematics, 20(8).

Boaler, J. (2015). Fluency Without Fear. Youcubed. https://www.youcubed.org/evidence/fluency-without-fear/

Chinn, S., & Ashcroft, R. (2017). Mathematics for dyslexics and dyscalculics: A teaching handbook. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, LTD.

Clements, D. (1999). Subitizing: What is it? Why teach it? Teaching Children Mathematics, 5, 400-405.

Emerson, J., & Babtie, P. (2014). The Dyscalculia Solution. London, UK: Bloomsbury Education.

Feifer, S. G. (2017). The Neuropsychology of Mathematics: An Introduction to the FAM. Middletown, MD: School Neuropsych Press.

Gray, E., & Tall, D. (1994). Duality, ambiguity, and flexibility: A “proceptual” view of simple arithmetic. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 25(2), 116-140.

Parish, S. (2014). Number talks: Helping children build mental math and computation strategies, Grades K-5, Updated with Common Core Connections. Math Solutions.

Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E., Levine, S., and Beilock, S. (2013). Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School. Journal of Cognition and Development. 14 (2): 187–202.

Schwartz, L. (2001). A mathematician grappling with his century. Birkhäuser

Supekar, K.; Swigart, A., Tenison, C., Jolles, D., Rosenberg-Lee, M., Fuchs, L., & Menon, V. (2013). Neural predictors of individual differences in response to math tutoring in primary-grade school children. PNAS, 110, 20 (8230-8235).

Steeves, J. (1979) Multisensory math: an instructional approach to help the LD child. Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, 1 (2), 51-62

Zecher, M. (2013). Multisensory math: A resource manual of hands-on strategies for teaching all kinds of learners. Rockville, MD: The Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center.