Dyscalculia, more than “bad at math”
When it’s time to split a bill or calculate a tip, lots of people confess to “not being a math person.” But when does struggling with math mean something more?
On this week’s show, hosts Lexi Walters Wright and Amanda Morin discuss dyscalculia, a specific learning disability in math. Expert Daniel Ansari, PhD, explains why kids with dyscalculia have trouble understanding number-related concepts, like time and directions.
We also spend time with Lily, a teen with dyscalculia. We hear how math challenges pop up at expected times — like when she makes grilled cheese sandwiches for her family.
And of course we hear from callers about their experiences with dyscalculia and why being “bad at math” often gets overlooked.
Amanda Morin: [00:00:01] Hey, "In It" listeners. Before we get started today, we have a small but important ask: Please take our quick survey about who you are, what you like about our show so far, and what you want to hear more of. Head to U.org/podcast. Take a three-minute survey — really just three minutes. That's U dot org slash podcast. And thanks. Your input means so much.
Amanda: [00:00:27] Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a writer for Understood.org and parent of kids with learning and thinking differences.
Lexi Walters Wright: [00:00:32] And I'm Lexi Walters Wright, community manager for Understood.org. And we are "In It." "In It" is a podcast from Understood for Parents. On our show, we offer support and practical advice for families whose kids are struggling with speech and language, executive functioning, and other learning and thinking differences.
Amanda: [00:00:51] Today, we're talking about helping our kids who struggle with math — like really struggle with math.
Lily: [00:00:59] So sometimes when I'm doing a certain problem, my brain — it just kind of gets stuck.
Amanda: [00:01:07] This is Lily. She's 13, and she's had a hard time with math for as long as she can remember.
Lexi: [00:01:13] Amanda, lots of people have a hard time with math. I definitely did as a kid, and I still clam up the moment I need to calculate a tip. I know some adults who feel allergic to Excel documents.
Amanda: [00:01:25] So you've met me and my Excel document allergy. And lots of us have those moments. That's called "math anxiety." But what Lily's dealing with is different. It's a learning disability often called dyscalculia, which you'll hear pronounced in a number of different ways. No matter which way you hear pronounced, you can sort of still hear the word "calculate" in there. And dyscalculia, at its most basic, is about difficulty with number sense — adding, multiplication — and sometimes visual-spatial skills things, like where you don't know left from right very easily.
Lexi: [00:01:56] The thing is, compared to something like dyslexia, dyscalculia is not widely known. So it can leave kids like Lily, who have it, feeling dumb.
Lily: [00:02:05] Yeah. I just kind of thought that I was bad at math, until I was 12.
Amanda: [00:02:09] We're going to hear more from Lily in a bit, and from her mom, Tracie.
Lexi: [00:02:12] But first, we asked you what dyscalculia looks like in your family. And here's what you had to say.
Caller 1: [00:02:22] For my daughter, when she was in elementary school, she really struggled with reading the clock, being on time for her classroom. Adding and subtracting is super difficult. And then math homework took hours and hours and caused a lot of anxiety.
Caller 2: [00:02:38] Long division — that was literally a nightmare. She just could not handle keeping track of every step and where to put each and every one of the numbers.
Caller 3: [00:02:53] A bigger trigger for us in noticing something was wrong, though, was his inability to connect with the idea of time and the passage of time. For him, everything was now. The idea of tomorrow or yesterday really didn't register for him at all. And when you started talking about longer spans of time, like weeks or months, he was just completely bewildered by that. Once he started kindergarten, he also really struggled with the idea of money. And while other kids were picking up the idea of penny, dime, quarter, or nickel, he couldn't associate the different values with those coins in any way.
Amanda: [00:03:44] So as we're hearing, Lexi, dyscalculia can play out in many ways.
Lexi: [00:03:47] Yeah, this sounds like a very complicated topic.
Amanda: [00:03:50] It really is, and it's not exactly my specialty. So we're turning to someone else to help us really get a grasp of what it's all about.
Lexi: [00:03:57] First I have to ask your professional opinion: Is it dis-CAL-coo-li-a? Dis-cal-CYOO-li-a? What do you say?
Daniel Ansari: [00:04:06] I say developmental dis-cal-CYOO-li-a. But you know, people vary in the way they pronounce it. Yeah.
Amanda: [00:04:14] Daniel Ansari is a professor of psychology and education at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He studies how children develop numerical and mathematical skills — and why for some children it can be such a struggle.
Lexi: [00:04:27] Daniel says there are other names for dyscalculia, like math learning disability or mathematics disorder.
Daniel: [00:04:35] I think they can be used pretty much interchangeably, because they point to the same thing. I find dyscalculia useful because we hear so much about dyslexia. The contrast to dyslexia helps, I think, some people to better understand what it is.
Lexi: [00:04:52] And how would you explain dyscalculia to someone who's never heard of it before?
Daniel: [00:04:59] I would say dyscalculia is a severe difficulty in acquiring basic numerical and mathematical skills. Being able to judge which of two numbers is numerically larger. They will also have great difficulties in learning their math facts.
Lexi: [00:05:19] Daniel says that long after their peers have figured out which two numbers add up to 10 and they can do simple calculations in their head, kids with dyscalculia may still be counting on their fingers. And sure, that makes math class tricky. But dyscalculia doesn't just shut off when kids walk in the door from school.
Lily: [00:05:38] I guess I'll just make my grilled cheese.
Lexi: [00:05:41] That's 13-year-old Lily again. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri. She has an older sister, a younger brother, and a pet guinea pig, Fezzy, who is named after Fezzik from "The Princess Bride."
Amanda: [00:05:53] Lily and her mom said it was OK to come to her house to see what dyscalculia looks like for her.
Lexi: [00:05:58] It comes up when she's doing her math homework, but also when she's trying to make lunch for the family.
Lily: [00:06:03] I have to put the butter in here and melt it in the microwave so it doesn't take forever.
Amanda: [00:06:08] When you're making a grilled cheese sandwich, you're probably not thinking about all the steps it requires. But for people with dyscalculia, going through a long sequence of steps in a row can be a real challenge.
Lily: [00:06:18] First you have to do this, then you have to do this, and it just kind of makes my brain tired.
Lexi: [00:06:22] Lily was diagnosed with dyscalculia two years ago. Before that, she just knew that math was really hard for her — which was confusing, because reading and writing have always come easily to her.
Lily: [00:06:33] I can read like a 300-page book in less than a day.
Lexi: [00:06:37] But Lily's math troubles go back as far as first grade.
Lily: [00:06:40] So a really long time ago, when I was having trouble with even addition, it just took so long — just takes longer for my brain to calculate things.
Amanda: [00:06:51] She understands that about herself now. But when she was younger, those math struggles made her really upset.
Lily: [00:06:57] I would usually cry about it, because that's what I do. Yeah, and I'd yell, because I was just so mad that I couldn't get it right. And then I'd kind of start thinking about like, "Oh, other people can do this, so why can't I?"
Tracie (Lily's mom): [00:07:17] She would say things to me those times when she was upset.
Amanda: [00:07:23] That's Tracie, Lily's mom.
Tracie: [00:07:24] And I won't repeat them because they're not true. But just really down on herself, and that no mom wants to hear her daughter, who is, you know, at that point 10, 11, to have that view of herself, you know, it's starting to go into all areas. And I didn't want her to think that just because there is a struggle in one area that means that she's an awful person.
Lexi: [00:07:51] All this was hard on Tracie, too.
Tracie: [00:07:53] I can remember one instance where she brought home a math paper and it was, you know, she had gotten like half of them wrong. I just felt so deflated because 45 minutes a night we were spending on math. And I just thought "Oh my gosh," you know. And then getting the next chapter's homework and I'm like, "Wait a minute, we're not getting it." And I kind of thought, "What is this going to look like in two or three years?"
Lexi: [00:08:21] Tracie had studied to become an elementary school teacher. And while it was never her plan to homeschool Lily, she and her husband decided that might be best.
Amanda: [00:08:30] So now Tracie was the one trying to teach Lily math. But no matter how hard they worked on it, it didn't seem to be getting any easier.
Tracie: [00:08:37] I just kept telling myself "I haven't found the right curriculum yet." So we would start with something that was new, and I would get really, really excited, like "We are going to get through this hurdle. The answer is going to be in the curriculum." And then after a couple months, we're still stuck in the same — in the same place. And I think both of us were kind of feeling — we would get very emotional, not just with each other but... I know I would cry and worry about, you know, are we ever... what's this going to be like for her, you know, as she's an adult. Because that's what moms do — we always go to that place. So, you know, it just felt like, you know, August rolls around every year and I'd have hope, and then by October that feeling in my gut would sink. You know, I would just think, "Oh gosh here we go again."
Lexi: [00:09:31] Even though she's an educator, Tracie had never heard of dyscalculia. She says she came across it while reading up on dyslexia online.
Tracie: [00:09:39] And then I went down the rabbit hole. So it was all new to me.
Amanda: [00:09:43] For Lily, discovering there was such a thing as a math disorder was a big deal.
Lily: [00:09:47] It was a relief knowing that there was really nothing wrong, and that I just need to learn differently. Like I had always worried that once I got to adulthood, I wouldn't be able to do things because I was so bad at math.
Amanda: [00:10:04] Lily started working with an educational therapist — a specialist who's trained in working with kids with learning and thinking differences. Together they figured out techniques to make math easier and more accessible for her.
Lily: [00:10:15] Once I started going to Mrs. McCormick's and I started figuring things out, I realized that with more work I could go into a store and be like, "Hey, 20 percent off — this means I can get this for so much," and not have to think about it so much.
Amanda: [00:10:34] Daniel, can you talk a little bit about some of those methods that can help children learn math?
Daniel: [00:10:40] Yeah. I mean, there's no proven method for, you know, for helping somebody with developmental dyscalculia. But I think it's good educational principles that run across different educational subjects, such as giving students who struggle more time, repeating things more often, providing them with opportunities to strengthen their basic understanding of numbers. Making sure that they understand that, for example, the Arabic numeral 5 represents all possible sets of five objects. That's quite an abstract thing to understand, and it may take children with math difficulties more time to learn.
Amanda: [00:11:18] So like five means five cookies and five blocks and five more minutes and... so five means five, right?
Daniel: [00:11:24] Exactly.
Lexi: [00:11:30] Tracie tells us they've found some really effective ways to work with Lily on math.
Tracie: [00:11:35] So one of the things that we found was when she was first tackling things like multiplication, that what worked best for her was to have some manipulatives, so that she could touch it, move it around.
Lexi: [00:11:51] Wait. Amanda, what are manipulatives?
Amanda: [00:11:54] So manipulatives are when you use objects that you can move around in order to connect those abstract ideas of groups, sets, or patterns to visuals, so you can actually see and, well, manipulate the numbers.
Lexi: [00:12:05] Got it.
Tracie: [00:12:05] And a dry erase board worked wonders for calculations. And we still use that because erasing is really fast and it's not so labor intensive when you make a mistake. And that's kind of what — it's OK to make a mistake, it's OK to struggle — so we just wipe it away and start fresh.
Lexi: [00:12:25] So here's one game Lily learned to work on visual-spatial skills. On a chalkboard, Tracie draws a figure 8.
Tracie: [00:12:33] It's not too wonky, is it?
Lily: [00:12:36] No, it looks fine.
Amanda: [00:12:38] Then Lily starts tracing over it.
Tracie: [00:12:39] Left, right, ready, begin.
Amanda: [00:12:42] As she traces left, she has to say left. As she traces right, she says right.
Lexi: [00:12:46] And then her mom starts firing off questions. Math questions or something else related to numbers.
Tracie: [00:12:53] When's your birthday?
Lily: [00:12:54] Right. March 21st. Left.
Tracie: [00:12:57] When is my birthday?
Lily: [00:12:58] Right. I think it's May 9th. Left.
Tracie: [00:13:04] Oh no!
Lily: [00:13:04] Sorry! Is it May 7th?
Tracie: [00:13:04] Yes.
Lily: [00:13:05] OK. Sorry.
Amanda: [00:13:06] It's that combination of keeping multiple things in our working memory that she's developing there. Some of that's a muscle memory thing, where Lily is learning to recognize the feeling of going left with where left is, and the feeling of going right with where right is. But some of it's about being able to access that information quickly while there are other things going on in the background. So for example, if she were going to start driving, she'd need to be able to listen to the GPS and know right and left automatically. That's the kind of thing this is starting to work on for her.
Lexi: [00:13:35] Another thing they do to help Lily is to put lots of number-related information around the house.
Tracie: [00:13:40] See that up there? It's on our chalkboard. We have all of the squared numbers — one times one equals on, two times two equals four — to give her an anchor. So if she's got six times eight and she's stuck and she can't remember, she has six times six to go off of. And then she can do the math from there. She has a multiplication chart, too. It's the multiplication table, one through 12. And I give that to her any time that she needs it. Just the more she can see them visually, the better it's going to stick in her head.
Lexi: [00:14:19] Lily has made incredible progress in the last two years. But some things are still hard for her, like going to the store.
Lily: [00:14:26] So I'm kind of trying to work on that, and sometimes I think it's more of a — I don't know — fear of social issue. But paying is a little hard for me. Yeah. So the store is kind of one of the main places.
Tracie: [00:14:46] One of the things that I notice is when there's a lot of people and she's in line, that's kind of off-putting for her. You know the stress of "Oh my gosh, I have to do this and I have to do it fast." She doesn't want them to get mad at her. So I've noticed that.
Caller 1: [00:15:14] Now that my daughter is a teenager, dyscalculia looks a lot different. The things we struggle with are helping her manage her money, so her wallet is a complete disaster. There's bunches of dollars rolled up in it. There's too much change in there, because she struggles with continuing to add and subtract money, as well as to identify what the money denominations really are.
Caller 4: [00:15:39] The driving — a lot of times he would get lost, and that is a huge anxiety issue, because he would not know where he was, because he would try to follow somebody's directions of turning right or left. So I would teach him to look for landmarks, so that when he would call us and he was upset and didn't know where was and was mislocated, so we could determine his location. The GPS "find me" apps that we can put on a smartphone for tracking are really useful for that too. That's it. Thank you.
Andrea Tudhope: [00:16:16] Is there any advice that you would give to parents who are just learning that their child has dyscalculia or are going through some of what you guys have gone through?
Lexi: [00:16:26] That's Andrea, the reporter we sent to spend some time with Tracie and Lily.
Tracie: [00:16:30] I would just say to not worry so much about if your child is working at whatever grade level they're supposed to be in. Really, it's just important to have the master number sense and those things that are their struggle. And I know it's really hard to do that, because that's just not how — that's not how we operate with school. But it's just so important to meet them where they're at and to work on the things that they're struggling with, so that they can overcome those — so that they're not always a struggle. And just to be patient and trust the process.
Amanda: [00:17:23] Why isn't it more well-known? Why aren't math issues sort of more widely discussed the way dyslexia is?
Daniel: [00:17:31] I think, at least in the West, we have a tolerance for being bad at math. It's not something that people feel shy about admitting. I often — when I meet new people and they ask me what I do, and I tell them, you know, "I do research into math learning difficulties," it's like, "Oh my God, I wish I'd met you when I was young."
Amanda: [00:17:55] I think we have this conception that math doesn't — sometimes doesn't matter. You always use our smartphone or a calculator. But how do we use it in everyday life?
Daniel: [00:18:04] We use numbers all the time without actually thinking about the fact that we're using numerical information. Just think about waking up in the morning, and let's say you open your computer or you look at your smartphone, and you look at your favorite news site. You're immediately processing numerical information. You go to your office, you look at your bank statement, you're trying to understand the transactions, you're trying to understand how it is that you've got this balance, and you're trying to add up the different expenditures and things that came into your account. Again you need numerical information.
Lexi: [00:18:44] So Amanda, imagine — say 10 or 15 years from now — that dyscalculia is as well-known and as readily diagnosed as dyslexia is. That could really bring about a profound shift in how parents and educators respond to students with math disorders.
Amanda: [00:19:01] Totally. And you know we're still getting there with dyslexia and ADHD. If we get there with dyscalculia, it would probably also bring about a profound shift in how those students think about themselves. According to Tracie, that seems to be the case with Lily.
Tracie: [00:19:16] I know her therapist and I always say, "You can't say you're bad at math anymore — you can say it's a challenge and that you work harder at it than some people." We try to say that repeatedly to her, so that that internal dialogue changes. And so when she does come against the struggle again with math, to not have that initial reaction of, "Oh I'm really bad at this." To just stop and say, "This is hard. I need to fall back on, you know, the strategies that I use in order to figure this out."
Lexi: [00:19:49] As her sense of her abilities has shifted, Lily's gotten more confident in other areas too — like cooking. In fact, she has become something of a grilled cheese expert.
Lily: [00:20:00] It usually takes less time to cook on the other side than it does the first side, because the pan's already hot and all that. So yeah, it should probably only be about three more minutes.
Amanda: [00:20:10] And she offers these words of wisdom, which I fully support.
Lily: [00:20:13] If you use a lot of butter, it's better. Like that's the secret to a good grilled cheese: butter.
Amanda: [00:20:29] You've been listening to "In It," a podcast from Understood for Parents. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids with learning and thinking differences.
Lexi: [00:20:40] We also want to hear what you think of our show. "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to find resources. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot o r g slash podcast.
Amanda: [00:20:57] We heard from several of you after "Episode 2: How to Deal With 'Is ADHD Real?'" And we wanted to play some of your awesome voice memos to let you know we are listening.
Caller 5: [00:21:09] I'm calling about the question of "Is ADHD real?" It's hard for me to sometimes respond to that question because I feel I don't have the emotional energy or the courage to do that. And then I realize that if I don't, I'm putting it on my first-grade son to be the one to have to respond to that as he gets older, and that's not fair to him. But I also feel like it shouldn't be just on the parents of children with ADHD to answer that question, and that schools and pediatricians and all the people that are important part of children's lives need to do a better job of communicating what is ADHD and what are other forms of learning differences and attention issues and disabilities. So it's not just on the individual to negotiate that, to be the ones to explain themselves.
Amanda: [00:22:00] Please keep your voice memos coming. This is, after all, a show for and about families like yours — and mine. If you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it. Maybe share it with your child's math teacher even. You can also go to Apple podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about "In It."
Lexi: [00:22:18] You can subscribe to "In It" on Apple podcasts, follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you listen to podcasts. Between episodes, you can find Understood on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube. Or visit our website: U — that's the letter U — dot o r g.
Amanda: [00:22:35] Come back next episode when we'll be talking about the unique challenges of raising kids who are gifted and who have learning and thinking differences.
Penny Williams: [00:22:43] I mean, he was really severely affected by the fact that he couldn't meet expectations and that people didn't understand him.
Lexi: [00:22:52] If you have stories about raising twice-exceptional kids, you can call and leave a voice message that we just might use on the next episode of "In It." You'll find that number at U.org/podcast.
Amanda: [00:23:04] "In It" is a production of Understood for Parents. Our show is produced by Blake Eskin of Noun and Verb Rodeo, Julie Subrin, and Julia Botero. Mike Errico wrote our theme music, and Laura Kusnyer is our director of editorial content. Thanks also this week to reporter Andrea Tudhope.
Lexi: [00:23:20] And thanks to all of you for listening and for being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.