What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math. People who have dyscalculia struggle with numbers and math because their brains don’t process math-related concepts like the brains of people without this disorder. However, their struggles don’t mean they’re less intelligent or less capable than people who don’t have dyscalculia.
The symptoms of this disorder usually appear in childhood, especially when children learn how to do basic math. However, many adults have dyscalculia and don’t know it. People who have dyscalculia often face mental health issues when they have to do math, such as anxiety, depression and other difficult feelings.
There’s also a form of dyscalculia that appears later in life. This form, acquired dyscalculia, can happen at any age. This usually happens for other reasons like a medical condition (see more about this under the Causes and Symptoms section below).
What is the difference between dyslexia and dyscalculia?
Dyslexia and dyscalculia are both learning disorders, but they have key differences. In the most general terms, these two break down as follows:
- Dyscalculia: This learning disorder affects a person’s ability to do math.
- Dyslexia: This learning disorder affects a person’s ability to read.
While they’re different, the two conditions fall under the same diagnosis, “Specific learning disorder,” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). It’s also possible for people to have both dyscalculia and dyslexia.
Who does dyscalculia affect?
Dyscalculia can happen to anyone, but it’s common for it first to draw attention when children are in their first few years of elementary school (between ages 6 and 9).
How common is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is uncommon but widespread. Experts estimate it affects between 3% and 7% of people worldwide.
How does dyscalculia affect my brain?
People who have dyscalculia are neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is a term that describes how no two people have the same brain, and everyone’s brain forms and develops in a completely unique way. For people with dyscalculia, that means their brain works differently from the brain of someone who doesn’t have disorders or conditions that affect how their brain works.
Solving a math problem like “2+2=?” might seem simple, but it takes several different skills — and the areas of the brain that manage them — working together to do it. Some of those include:
- Visual processing: Your eyes see the entirety of the math problem and send the components back to your brain for processing.
- Short-term memory: You use your short-term memory to hold onto the specifics of the math problem as you work on it. For example, the number amounts, the symbols and the order in which they appear.
- Language: You use this part of your brain to translate the symbols in the math problem into what those symbols mean. That’s how you know what the plus sign, equal sign and question mark mean in this context.
- Long-term memory: You access this kind of memory to remember the process of how to solve a math problem. In this case, your brain identifies that this is an addition problem based on the plus sign and the equals sign.
- Understanding of quantities and amounts: Your brain translates the symbol “2” into the understanding that it represents a specific amount or quantity. Children usually learn this principle by giving them examples like fruits or animals.
- Calculation: This process unites all of the above, helping you solve that 2+2=4.
For a neurotypical person, the above processes all work as expected. Depending on how severe their case is, people with dyscalculia may struggle with certain parts of the process.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of dyscalculia?
The symptoms of dyscalculia depend on which parts of the process a person struggles with most. It can also depend on the person’s age and the situations they encounter most often.
Young children (up to the pre-K and kindergarten levels)
For very young children, the most common symptoms include trouble with:
- Counting upward.
- Connecting a number to that many of an object (for example, connecting the number 4 to that many marbles in front of them).
- Recognizing numbers and math symbols.
- Organizing numbers, such as largest to smallest or first to last.
- Recognizing and using number lines.
- Learning using money (such as coins or bills).
School-age children (primary/grade/elementary school)
The symptoms of dyscalculia often draw attention when children start school around age 6. For these children, the symptoms include trouble with:
- Counting on fingers with small numbers (especially at an age where that seems unnecessary).
- Identifying small quantities of items just by looking (this looks like needing to count each one by one).
- Doing simple calculations from memory.
- Memorizing multiplication tables.
- Recognizing the same math problem when the order of the numbers or symbols changes (struggling to understand that 1+7=8 is the same as 8=7+1).
- Understanding word problems or more advanced symbols (such as > meaning “greater than” or < meaning “less than”).
- Organizing numbers by scale (10s, 100s, 1,000s) or decimal place (0.1, 0.01, 0.001).
Teenagers (secondary school- or high school-age) and adults
The symptoms in teenagers and adults often look like trouble with the following:
- Counting backward.
- Solving word problems.
- Breaking down problems into multiple steps to solve them.
- Measuring items.
- Measuring quantities (such as for cooking/baking recipes).
- Using money (coins and bills) to pay for items, exchanging bills for coins (and vice versa) and making change.
- Understanding and converting fractions.
In addition to symptoms that directly relate to someone’s ability to do math, people with dyscalculia may show emotional symptoms when faced with situations where math is necessary. Those emotional symptoms often include:
- Anxiety (including test anxiety) or even panic.
- Agitation, anger or aggression (such as temper tantrums in younger children).
- Fear (including a fear or even phobia of going to school).
- Physical symptoms of any of the above (nausea and vomiting, sweating, stomachache, etc.)
What causes dyscalculia?
In most cases, especially in children, experts don’t know why dyscalculia happens. There’s evidence that learning disorders — including dyscalculia — may run in families. However, more research is necessary to confirm this.
Experts do know that people with dyscalculia are more likely to have certain differences in some areas of their brain. These differences seem to indicate less development and fewer connections between brain cells in those areas. The affected areas are ones your brain uses when doing anything that involves numbers and calculations. However, experts don’t know why these differences happen and how they influence this disorder’s symptoms.
Dyscalculia often happens alongside other conditions. While these aren’t causes, they can be a clue to help healthcare providers recognize and diagnose dyscalculia. Conditions that often happen alongside dyscalculia include:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Dyslexia, dysgraphia or non-verbal learning disorders.
- Sensory processing disorders.
- Autism spectrum disorder.
People with dyscalculia also have a higher risk of mental health disorders. Experts don’t know if these are more likely to happen because a person has dyscalculia, but these are still important factors that healthcare providers will consider when making a diagnosis and recommending treatment.
- Anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
- Behavior disorders (such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder).
- Bipolar disorder.
There are some reasons why a person would develop dyscalculia (or even acalculia, a complete inability to do math) later in life. This form, known as acquired dyscalculia, isn’t a learning disorder. Instead, it usually involves brain damage that disrupts areas related to math skills. Lesions, which are areas of brain damage, can happen for many reasons (see the Brain Lesions article to understand more about how this damage can happen).
Is it contagious?
Dyscalculia isn’t contagious, and you can’t catch it from or spread it to others.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is dyscalculia diagnosed?
Education professionals (usually teachers) and parents are most likely to be the first to notice the symptoms of dyscalculia. If a teacher notices it, they’ll be able to offer resources and guidance on next steps. Parents who notice dyscalculia can also talk to their child’s pediatrician to learn more about the process of diagnosing and treating dyscalculia.
There are two main criteria that the DSM-5 lists for math-related symptoms of specific learning disorder (with more about those criteria immediately below). At least one of these two criteria must exist for at least six months, even with trained, expert help to try and overcome it.
- Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts or calculation.
- Difficulties with mathematical reasoning.
What tests will be done to diagnose dyscalculia?
There are no lab, imaging or diagnostic tests that can confirm dyscalculia. Instead, the focus will be on testing a child’s specific math-related skills and ruling out other possible causes, such as vision or hearing problems, other brain- or mental health-related conditions, etc. Different tests can help with this. A healthcare provider is the best person to explain what kind of skills tests they recommend.
Management and Treatment
How is dyscalculia treated, and is there a cure?
Dyscalculia is treatable in children because their brains haven’t yet finished developing, making it possible for them to learn skills and develop abilities they need to adapt to this condition. Treatment usually takes the form of one-on-one learning programs.
The programs are symptom-specific and focus on what a child struggles with most. Treatment should also start as soon as possible. The sooner the treatment starts, the better the chances for children to adapt to this condition and limit the impacts.
Unfortunately, dyscalculia isn’t considered treatable in adults unless it’s acquired dyscalculia. That’s because their brains are fully developed, meaning treatments like learning programs are less likely to help them. For adults, the focus is on helping them compensate for dyscalculia using technology or other methods.
For acquired dyscalculia, there are possible treatments. The available treatments depend on many factors, especially the underlying cause of the dyscalculia. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the treatment options and which they recommend for your case.
Treatment for related conditions
In addition to learning programs for dyscalculia, children with this condition may need additional treatment for other conditions they have. The treatments for those conditions depend mostly on the condition themselves. They can include medication, psychotherapy and more. A healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the possible treatments, including what they recommend for the specific needs in question.
How can I prevent dyscalculia or reduce my risk of developing it?
Dyscalculia happens unpredictably. That means it isn’t preventable, and there’s no way to reduce the risk of developing it.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have dyscalculia?
Depending on the specific symptoms, dyscalculia can make it harder to do even simple math-related tasks like paying bills, following recipes for cooking and baking, and more. With early treatment, children can often adapt to this condition and limit its impact on their lives. Adults who have it are more likely to struggle with the effects if they don’t receive treatment earlier in life. It’s also common for people with this disorder to feel embarrassed about this condition, and many experience anxiety, shame and depression because of it.
How long dyscalculia lasts
Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition. There’s no cure, but early treatment can help reduce the effects later in life.
The only exception to this is acquired dyscalculia, which may be a temporary condition. Whether or not it’s temporary depends on factors like why it happened and how severe it is. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you if acquired dyscalculia could be temporary and how long it may last.
What’s the outlook for this condition?
Dyscalculia isn’t a dangerous condition. However, people who have it are more likely to struggle with mental health conditions that happen alongside it. Conditions like depression and anxiety can have greater effects — including a risk of self-harm or suicide — so treating these when necessary is essential.
How do I take care of myself or manage the symptoms?
Dyscalculia isn’t a condition that you can self-diagnose or treat. In children, it’s important that they see a healthcare provider to diagnose and treat this condition as soon as possible. Waiting makes it less likely that treatment programs can help.
For adults who have dyscalculia, it isn’t possible to treat dyscalculia directly. For them, the focus is on compensating for the disorder. Technology and other tools, such as smartphone apps, can help with this. A healthcare provider can recommend specific apps or tools that can help. For those with acquired dyscalculia, a healthcare provider can also recommend possible treatments or ways to help with this condition.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does dyscalculia affect a person’s intelligence?
No, dyscalculia doesn’t affect intelligence directly. While some people with dyscalculia might also have intellectual disabilities, having dyscalculia doesn’t automatically make a person less intelligent. In fact, it’s common for people with dyscalculia to have an above-average score on IQ tests. People with dyscalculia are also often gifted in other areas, especially creative skills (especially the arts), problem-solving and more.
Is dyscalculia a form of autism?
No, dyscalculia and autism spectrum disorder are two different conditions. They both fall under the same category, neurodevelopmental (brain development) disorders, in the DSM-5 but are still very different.
Is dyscalculia related to ADHD?
Yes, dyslexia and ADHD have strong connections. ADHD is one of the more common conditions that happens alongside dyscalculia. However, most people who have one don’t have the other.
What can I do to help my child if I suspect they have dyscalculia?
Some things you can do include:
- Seek out resources. Education professionals and healthcare providers may be able to provide guidance and direction on more resources that can help. Take advantage of their expertise to help your child.
- Find what works and use it. There are many strategies and approaches to pick from that might help a child with dyscalculia. Some children benefit from using games, music or other approaches. Once you find something that works, use it. That will help your child learn in a way that works for them.
- Be patient. Children with dyscalculia have a recognized condition that disrupts their ability to do math like children without this condition. This isn’t something they can help, but they can learn to overcome it. They’re more likely to succeed at learning to overcome it if they feel they have someone backing them along the way.
- Be supportive and encouraging. It’s important to offer support and encouragement to children who have this issue. Without that support, children are prone to having low self-esteem issues, and many struggle with anxiety or depression related to this condition. However, children who have encouragement and support are more likely to succeed and learn how to work through their condition, keeping it from limiting them in the future.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that disrupts a person’s ability to understand numbers and math-related concepts. Children usually show symptoms between the ages of 6 and 9 (or even sooner). It’s also common that people who have dyscalculia will also have other conditions, including learning and mental health disorders.
With treatment and specialized learning programs, many children can develop skills and abilities that limit how much this disorder impacts their lives. For adults who learn they have this condition, treatment isn’t possible. However, there are tools and ways to compensate for this condition and keep it from disrupting their life and routine.