Meet Dyslexia’s Math Counterpart: Dyscalculia

Meet Dyslexia's Math Counterpart: Dyscalculia


If your child is academically on target in most of his subjects, but math is a constant nightmare, he may have dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a math learning disability where severe difficulties in learning about numbers and arithmetic are present. It is about as common as the reading disorder dyslexia but far less understood. “Within the field of learning disabilities, dyscalculia is referred to as the “red-headed stepchild” to dyslexia, says Heather Bragg, teacher and author of Learning Decoded: Using Your Child’s Unique Learning Style to Improve Academic Performance. It gets less attention but affects millions of children and adults,” says Bragg.

When Emerson* was five, he understood the concept of a number, but couldn’t count to 10 without making a mistake. He would either skip a number or change the order of numbers. His mother recalls putting up number posters in his bedroom to help him. According to Bragg, these are common, early signs of dyscalculia in young children. Others include difficulty with: skip counting, using a number line, concepts with “more” or “less” and counting spaces while playing board games. A neuropsychologist found Emerson had visual-spatial integration problems that made learning math and reading difficult. “By second grade he was struggling with addition and subtractions and word problems,” says Georgia, Emerson’s mom and a university professor. “In third grade he could not learn multiplication tables. Emerson’s parents worked with him by using flash cards, computer programs and multiplication charts to no avail. By fifth grade, his teacher blamed him for not being able to learn math and said he was oppositional. In sixth grade, things finally began to change for the positive. Emerson left private school and enrolled in a public school, with a strong Special Education program. Advised by his former second grade teacher, Emerson’s parents enrolled him at a nearby Kumon Math and Reading Center. In just a couple of months, his self-confidence and academic progress got a boost. “He finally had teachers who understood him and his stress level went way down,” says Georgia.

How is Dyscalculia Diagnosed?

“There is some subjectivity to a diagnosis of dyscalculia,” says Bragg. “It is rarely a black-and-white, easily-diagnosed issue. There are diagnostic criteria, but it is still a shades-of-gray kind of thing.” There are definitely varying degrees. Many people with more subtle difficulties often never receive support in school because they are not outright “failing” so they struggle along, get C’s in math, etc. and never really know that they may have a specific learning disability in math.” A comprehensive evaluation that includes a physical and learning profile is used to diagnose dyscalculia. Math issues are common in children with certain genetic disorders, born prematurely or children with ADHD. As in Emerson’s case, it’s not uncommon for a child to have both dyslexia and dyscalculia.

Dealing with dyscalculia can be very frustrating and embarrassing for children and parents alike. It can negatively affect other areas outside the classroom. “Boost your child’s confidence by using his/her strengths to aid and circumvent areas of weakness,” recommends Bragg. Be open and honest about the difficulties dyscalculia can cause. For example, like having a hard time counting when paying for a toy. Acknowledge her struggles and praise her accomplishments but help her recognize individual strengths. Does she have a sizeable sense of humor or a talent for writing short stories? Offer them plenty of positive feedback. Helping your child understand their learning disability can give your child the tools and confidence they need to manage dyscalculia and have a happy and successful school and social life. If your child is diagnosed with dyscalculia or other learning disability, consult your child’s school about obtaining an Individualized Education Program (IEP) so he or she can benefit from special education services.

Have You Noticed This at Home?

A child with dyscalculia may exhibit one or all of the following:

> A delay in learning to count

> Counting on his fingers

> Loses track when counting

> Difficulty recognizing numbers

> Struggles with a variety of math-related daily activities, such as telling time, counting money, sense of direction, measuring ingredients, reading clocks

> Struggles to connect numerical symbols (7) with their corresponding words (seven)

> Has difficulty recognizing patterns and placing things in order

> Struggles with playing games that require number strategies, counting and consistent score keeping

> Anxiety doing math homework or taking tests

  • Rebecca Bax

    As a person with red hair, I do not appreciate the use of red-headed stepchild in correlation with a learning disability that has been all but dismissed by educators and educational institutions.

  • Brian M. Freer

    We regret that you feel insulted by the red-headed stepchild quote. It was a direct quote from the source and was not meant to offend. Who exactly has dismissed dyscalculia? Don’t you think that is insulting to all the individuals suffering from this learning disability? Some of which I’m sure are red heads.

  • Heather Leneau Bragg

    My apologies if you found this offensive. I meant the term as the context of the common expression and not as an insult to red-headed people or stepchildren.
    As a veteran teacher and learning specialist, I find no shame in having a learning challenge. So it did not occur to me that this would be a shameful connection.