What is dyscalculia?

math bead boardPrior blog posts have focused on the different kinds of learning disabilities (LDs) that often affect preemies (as well as children born full term). Today’s post focuses on a learning disability in math, also known as dyscalculia. Although it is not noticeable in babies or toddlers, your preemie may still be affected by this kind of LD, so it is good to know about it and keep an eye out for warning signs.

Every child has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. But some have more intense problems (learning disabilities) in a particular area such as reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia) or math. For my daughter, her most difficult struggle was in math. “I hate math! Why do I have to do this?!”  I can’t tell you how many times I heard these words from my daughter. I can’t say I ever loved math, but I just didn’t understand the intensity of her dislike. But once she was diagnosed (through testing) with a math LD, it all became clear to me.

What is a math disability?

The experts at NCLD (National Center for Learning Disabilities) explain it best: “Individuals with dyscalculia have significant problems with numbers: learning about them and understanding how they work. Like other types of LD, the term dyscalculia does not capture the specific kinds of struggle experienced in such areas as math calculations, telling time, left/right orientation, understanding rules in games and much more.”

Dyscalculia is not a one-size-fits-all disability. There are varying degrees (mild to severe) and various kinds of math difficulties that may be present. No two kids with dyscalculia are exactly alike.

Similar to the other kinds of LDs, dyscalculia does not go away. Your child will not “outgrow it.” It is a lifelong disability; however, it CAN be managed. With the right kind of teaching methods, supports and/or accommodations, your child with dyscalculia CAN learn math.

Early warning signs of a math learning disability include difficulty…

• recognizing numbers or symbols

• remembering your phone number

• counting

• sorting items

• recognizing patterns of numbers

Later warning signs include difficulty…

• telling time

• knowing left from right

• estimating

• visualizing a number line

• counting by 2’s, 3’s, etc.

• reading a map

• memorizing multiplication facts

• counting change

• keeping score in a game

• experiencing intense anxiety when doing any kind of math work in school or at home

• retaining information (learning a concept one day but not recalling it the next)

• understanding word problems

• understanding formulas

See NCLD’s warning signs by age (from young children through adults).

Is a math LD common?

Although you may never have heard of dyscalculia, the NCLD reports that it is the next most common form of learning disability after dyslexia. As many as one in every seven kids may have a math learning disability.  That’s a lot of kids!

What can help your child?

Knowing what kind of learner your child is can make a huge difference. For instance, if your child learns best through visual and kinesthetic teaching, then seeing and touching/feeling or manipulating math items will be the best way for her to learn a concept. If a child learns best through auditory modes, then be sure that the teaching method includes verbal instructions. Many kids with LD (like mine) learn best through a combination approach – visual, kinesthetic and auditory. Attack the senses from all angles to help her understand and internalize the information presented.  The good news is that once she learns the concept the way her particular brain learns, she is unlikely to forget the information. (Yay!) Here are other strategies that may help:

• Getting extra time on tests or eliminating timed tests

• Using manipulatives (such as a bead counting board, magnets in the shape of numbers, or any other kind of object that your child can touch, hold, feel and work with.)

• Drawing pictures of word problems

• Using assistive technology (such as a calculator or a specialized math computer program)

As with other LDs, getting a clear diagnosis is key in knowing how to help your child. You can either ask the school district to test your child, or have her see a specialist for private testing. Once you have the results you will know where to focus treatment. NCLD has a full page of resources that may help.

Keep in mind that a child with a math learning disability may also have dyslexia or dysgraphia or other disorders that complicate learning. When this occurs, it becomes even more challenging for your child to learn. For instance, how can a child do a math word problem when she struggles with reading and understanding language? For this reason, getting help as early as possible and monitoring progress is very important.

Bottom line

Usually, a learning disability in math can be managed successfully. It takes getting the proper diagnosis as early as possible, getting the right program in place, continually advocating for your child, and providing plenty of positive reinforcement.

Have questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.

Note:  This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started in January 2013 and appears every Wednesday. Go to News Moms Need and click on “Help for your child” on the Categories menu on the right side to view all of the blog posts to date (just keep scrolling down). As always, we welcome your comments and input.


  • comment-avatar
    cindy carriger March 23, 2014

    I have always known i had a problem with numbers. I dropped out of collage because of this. I am in my 50’s, is it to late to fix it?

  • comment-avatar
    Barbara March 25, 2014

    Hello Cindy,

    Many people who have struggled with math (or reading or writing) all of their lives later learn that they have a learning disability in one or more area. Testing by a clinical psychologist will give you answers as to whether you have an LD in one or more area. Usually the testing also lets you know the kind of recommendations or interventions that may help. It is never “too late” to work on challenges. Perhaps there is a tutor who is a specialist in learning disabilities (such as a special education teacher) who can help you. If you wish to pursue this, I suggest you start the conversation with your health care provider and perhaps ask for a recommendation to a specialist for possible testing.

    For older adults, often just getting a diagnosis helps in understanding why you faced such difficult struggles all these years.

    I wish you the best of luck.

    March of Dimes