What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. People with have trouble with math at many levels. They often struggle with key concepts like bigger vs. smaller. And they can have a hard time doing basic math problems and more abstract math.

Snapshot: What dyscalculia is

Dyscalculia is a condition that makes it hard to do math and tasks that involve math. It’s not as well known or as understood as . But some experts believe it’s just as common. That means an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people might have dyscalculia.

It’s not clear whether dyscalculia is as common in girls as in boys. Most experts think there’s no difference. (It’s also a myth that boys are better at math than girls.)

There are different terms for dyscalculia. Mathematics learning disability is one. Mathematics learning disorder is another. Some people call it math dyslexia or number dyslexia. This can be misleading. Dyslexia is a challenge with reading. Dyscalculia is a challenge with math.

People don’t outgrow dyscalculia. Kids who have a hard time with math may continue to struggle with it as adults. But there are strategies that can help them improve math skills and manage the challenges.

Difficulty with math happens at all levels. It can be as hard to learn addition as it is to learn algebra. Basic concepts like quantities can also be a challenge.

That’s why dyscalculia can make it hard to do everyday tasks. Cooking, grocery shopping, and getting places on time all involve these basic math skills, which are known as number sense.

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Dyscalculia signs and symptoms

People with dyscalculia can have trouble with math in different ways. Signs may vary from person to person. And they can look different at different ages.

Problems with number sense may show up as early as preschool in some people. In other people, the challenges become clear as math gets more complex in school.

Common signs of dyscalculia include trouble:

  • Grasping the meaning of quantities or concepts like biggest vs. smallest

  • Understanding that the numeral 5 is the same as the word five, and that these both mean five items

  • Remembering math facts in school, like times tables

  • Counting money or making change

  • Estimating time

  • Judging speed or distance

  • Understanding the logic behind math

  • Holding numbers in their head while solving problems

Some people overlook dyscalculia as just being “bad at math.” But it’s a real challenge that’s based in biology, just like dyslexia is.

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Possible causes of dyscalculia

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But they believe it’s at least partly due to differences in how the brain is structured and how it functions.

Here are two possible causes of dyscalculia:

Genes and heredity: Dyscalculia tends to run in families. Research shows that genetics may also play a part in problems with math.

Brain development: Brain imaging studies have shown some differences between people with and without dyscalculia. The differences have to do with how the brain is structured and how it functions in areas that are linked to learning skills.

Researchers aren’t just looking into what causes dyscalculia. They’re also trying to learn if there are strategies that can help “rewire” the brain to make math easier. 

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How dyscalculia is diagnosed

The only way to get a diagnosis is through an evaluation. This can happen at any age. Evaluators use different tests for adults than for kids.

Kids can get an evaluation for free at school. There are also specialists who do private evaluations of kids and adults. Private evaluations can be costly. But there are local resources that offer free or low-cost evaluations.

Evaluators use a set of tests just for dyscalculia. But evaluations also involve testing for other challenges. That’s partly because people with dyscalculia often also struggle in other areas, like reading or working memory. But evaluations don’t just point out challenges. They also show strengths.

A diagnosis (schools use the word identification) lets kids get supports and services at school. For example, kids might get special instruction in math. The school might also give accommodations to make learning math easier.

Adults with dyscalculia may get accommodations at work. The law requires employers to give supports to people with disabilities. That includes people with learning disabilities.

A diagnosis of dyscalculia can sound scary. But many people find it a relief to know that their challenges with math are real. Plus, getting the right supports can help them thrive in school, work, and everyday life.

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Parents and caregivers: Is your child struggling with math, or has your child been diagnosed with dyscalculia?

Educators: Do you have a student who’s struggling with math or who has an IEP for dyscalculia?

Do you think you might have dyscalculia?

Key takeaways

  • Dyscalculia is common.

  • Dyscalculia is a brain-based learning difference.

  • Signs of dyscalculia can vary from person to person and are often overlooked.


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