• Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects how the brain understands basic calculations and internally processes numbers.
  • This disorder is comparable to dyslexia: While people with dyslexia struggle with words and letters, people with dyscalculia struggle with numbers.
  • In a world full of numbers, having a distorted understanding of math can be frustrating; not only can it cause trouble in school, but in everyday life too.
  • There are several potential causes of dyscalculia, including environmental, genetic, and biological factors.
  • Repetition and review are two crucial means for becoming more familiar with numbers and how to apply them correctly.

2 + 2 = 4. Easy math for most of us, right?  We learn simple math problems like this early on in school and continue to build that foundation of knowledge.  Next, we learn subtraction, then multiplication and division, and so on. But what happens when someone doesn’t, or maybe can’t, understand these simple equations?

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects how the brain understands basic calculations and internally processes numbers.  Think about the more widely known learning disorder dyslexia, which affects how someone understands words and in turn their reading and writing abilities.  Dyscalculia is similar, only the individual struggles with numbers instead of words.

In a world full of numbers—telephone numbers, street numbers, pin numbers, the amount owed on a bill—having a blurred understanding of math can prove difficult to daily living.

What’s It Like to Have Dyscalculia?

Charissa Andreotti, Ph.D. has expertise in diagnosing learning disorders, and has experience with dyscalculia.  She details what it’s like for these individuals:

 “People with dyscalculia often have difficulty understanding basic math concepts, such as quantities, “more’ vs. ‘less’ or how the number 7 is related to the word “seven.” They often have trouble memorizing basic math facts, like multiplication tables and have trouble relating math symbols (like the division sign) to the process of division. This not only can become a challenge to academic success but also make basic activities, like keeping score at a sports game or calculating a restaurant bill, very difficult.”

Imagine having difficulty calculating whether or not you could afford a new toy as a child, or a new car as an adult.  These processes that many of us take for granted can be extremely trying for someone struggling with dyscalculia.

What Causes Dyscalculia?

As with many other disorders, there are several potential causes of dyscalculia, rooted in environmental, genetic, and biological factors. Andreotti explains:

“While dyscalculia has been linked in some cases to brain injury and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, in most cases it is thought to have a mix of genetic, biological, and environmental causes that are still not well-understood. Children who exhibit difficulty acquiring basic math concepts and understanding ideas like “more” and “less” may benefit from neuropsychological testing to understand if they have dyscalculia or if another issue, like ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, is hindering their learning.”

Dyscalculia is unidentified by many people.  When you don’t experience an issue yourself, it is easy to push the information to the backburner. But it is important to stay mindful of the causes and risk factors associated with dyscalculia and other learning disorders.

Help for People with Dyscalculia

Those who struggle with learning disorders in school typically need individualized help. “Ultimately, children diagnosed with dyscalculia will benefit from specialized tutoring that includes multi-sensory instruction of math, assistive technology, and extended test time,” says Andreotti. 

Repetition and review are extremely helpful tools for those learning with dyscalculia.  Becoming familiar with numbers and building upon each added piece of knowledge are crucial for success. Once something sticks, move forward to a new piece of information.  Math-based learning games, reading house numbers as you go down the road, and practicing simple math problems with snacks or toys are more entertaining and effective ways to work with a child on improving their math skills, rather than reading a book or completing work sheets. In summary, the more efficient one becomes with numbers and how they work, the better off they’ll be in the long run.