What is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia, math learning disorder (MLD), is caused by anomalies in brain areas responsible for numbers, procedural memory, and visual-spatial processing. In the math center, dyscalculics show little or no activation and less gray matter.
MLD affects 6 people in every 100, yet on the 2017 international math test, over half of all US 4th and 8th graders were not proficient in math, and in 2015, 72% of US 12th graders were incompetent in math.
In severe MLD, there’s delay and inflexibility in key aspects of development: counting; comparison; association of digits with amounts; combining amounts physically and symbolically; and awareness of patterns and relationships.
In milder dyscalculia, basic knowledge develops, but with obvious difficulty memorizing and recalling math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Although able to follow patterns, there’s shallow understanding of decimal place value, and the why of facts and procedures.
With advanced instruction, one is quickly overwhelmed by compounding cognitive demands: symbol recognition + association of meaning + interpretation of visual-spatial-directional-sequential information + recall of rules, patterns, and procedures + visualization + problem-solving + translation + encoding into speech, action, and writing.
Math learning disorder is caused by a combination of impairments in the specific faculties involved in processing quantitative information. Dyscalculics cannot quickly interpret math symbols and syntax, math vocabulary, and complex visual-spatial information. A breakdown in cognition often occurs when concepts go from concrete to abstract. While these faculties are adequate for many things, they can be uniquely inadequate for quantitative demands.
Dyscalculia is characterized by insufficient comprehension, problem-solving, and strategies. For example, unable to envision and mentally manipulate numbers to calculate, fingers and tally marks serve as auxiliary memory, reinforced by touch and thinking aloud. Unable to consistently recall math facts, dyscalculics may count out even small numbers, add repeatedly to multiply, and subtract repeatedly to divide. On the spot, they’re unable to quickly figure change due, when paying with cash. Talking to themselves helps to keep ideas in mind.
Real Life Impacts
Dyscalculics can be brilliant at reading, writing, speaking, and socializing, yet may secretly struggle with clocks, time, management, and money. Daily calculations are daunting- figuring percentages for tips, taxes, and discounts; estimation and comparison; and navigation inside buildings and through town.
- Was it Exit 102 or Exit 201? Did I write it correctly?
- Turn east or west? Left or right? Oh, no! GPS signal lost!
- My phone died! What’s my husband’s number?
Simple tasks are complicated by unconscious errors in number sequence and recall, making a nightmare of PIN numbers, locker combinations, passwords, dates, and accounts. The pressure of the moment makes even well-practiced numbers evaporate.
- Is the appointment at 4:30 or 3:40?
- Is her birthday on 12-10 or 10-12?
- Is my PIN number 3450 or 3540 or 5430? Oh no! The machine ate my card!
Without intention and strategic financial discipline to plan, evaluate, budget, save, and spend, they may bump through life in debt or nearly broke. Over a lifetime, dyscalculics earn significantly less than their non-MLD peers.
Dyscalculics avoid situations which result in frustration, error, and embarrassment. It’s hard to remember the rules for complicated games, so instead of having to relearn each time and risk looking stupid, they just bow out. They may be easily overwhelmed by long division, map reading, keeping up with an aerobics instructor, or rapid action on the field.
They’re barred from participation in sports talk – that popular banter about teams, players, odds, and statistics. They often end up sitting on the sidelines, bystanding, instead of participating fully in technical careers, leadership, social sports, dancing, and investing.
In grades 1-12, they mask math difficulties and often receive mercy grades for earnest effort, positive teacher relationships, and overachievement. They practice more and study longer, yet flunk tests or barely pass. Somehow, they work through material without deep understanding or lasting memory of essentials. Eventually, they reach an insurmountable obstacle – like, college algebra – and frustrated persistence becomes defeat, delay, and lost opportunity.
Attention Deficit, Learning Disorder, or BOTH?
I test and treat students with learning difficulties (dyscalculia, dyslexia, dysgraphia), and also watch for ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder, where, in spite of adequate hearing, there’s difficulty following, comprehending, and remembering what’s heard.
It is hard to separate LDs and ADD, because symptoms overlap. Both manifest as the circumstantial inability to keep up, comprehend, remember, sustain attention, organize, persist, and complete work consistently, successfully, and within the time expected.
Almost everyone is capable of focusing, attending, and persisting when engaged in interesting activities (video games, watching movies, drawing, reading, writing, conversing). However, like interest and ability, attention is personal and specific. Since deficits are usually circumstantial, we cannot conclude that the whole person is defective and incapable. Instead, harness individual interests and abilities to inform and transform approaches to daunting situations.
ADHD, anxiety, and LDs often coexist. When students encounter difficulties not overcome with effort and available resources, they become self-conscious, frustrated, and anxious. Prolonged stress – and deficits in a variety of essential microskills – all interfere with comprehension, engagement, reasoning, and performance. Boredom results when material is easy, repetitive, and unengaging. Inattention and off-task behaviors are consequences, not usually primary causes, of learning difficulties.
Dyscalculia and ADHD Strategies
The brain is not fixed, it changes with experience! To reverse innumeracy, proceed differently. Instead of trying to remember, strive to experience and understand deeply. If you teach newly learned ideas to others- using explanations, illustrations, and demonstrations (the what, why, how, and when – with explicit focus on the language involved), lasting memory will naturally result.
Develop these deficient microskills with deliberate daily exercises: attention, working memory, visualization, directionality, sequential memory, digit-span, visual-spatial skills, and number sense. Try these apps.
To quickly acquire a sense of direction (essential for arithmetic), immediately pay attention to signs and your compass. Constantly state your directions aloud: “I turn left out of the driveway and head south to the stop sign. Then, I turn right, heading west into the sunset. When I reach the mall, I turn right, heading north for 1 block, and turn right, east, in the direction of the sunrise, into the parking structure.” Text yourself a note: “I’m parked near the NE side of the lot on the 3rd floor, in the 2nd row, 5 spots E of the elevator.” Text yourself a picture of your car. Note the street names and landmarks when you exit. Make an association, like, “Congress and Learned Streets. I Learned that Congress has a 3-floor parking lot!”
To quickly develop understanding of decimal place value and money, play with money for 20 minutes daily. Count bills and coins into recognizable patterns and practice trading 10 for the next denomination, up and down. Soon, you’ll be calculating mentally using visual patterns- even tips and discounts! Use a place value chart for easy unit conversions and calculations. See these resources.
Use digital tools to stay organized. Dictate text messages and reminders. For accuracy, ask for an email recap of important information. Have others enter their own contact information + dates (birthday, anniversary, children’s names and birthdates). In the calendar, enter schedules, annual and monthly reminders, events, lists, and locations. Set text notifications for all financial transactions and due dates. Auto-decline activity that will overdraw your account. Set up early and automatic bill payments. Minimize interest. Set and meet financial goals.
Stop avoiding, and instead, practice skills privately, then publicly, until you’re comfortable and competent. Approach math as a foreign language – symbols, vocabulary, number prefixes, and syntax – then, use it or lose it! Appreciate math and share your new knowledge with enthusiasm!
Turn “I can’t,” into, “I’ll figure out how, and will practice until I can!” Get out of the passenger seat and into the driver’s seat. You must get yourself from where you are, to where you want to be.
Renee Hamilton-Newman has masters degrees in special education and instructional design, and has certifications in distance education, and dyslexia and dyscalculia diagnosis and therapy. She is a school board president, educational diagnostician, and specialist in LD remediation, assistive technology, and academic planning. She’s been a classroom teacher and special ed coordinator, and is an executive board member of several church and civic organizations. Renee, herself dyscalculic, founded and leads Dyscalculia.org, a nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of those with LDs. With husband, Wes, a brilliant dyslexic, they have four successful children who have triumphed over dyslexia, Aspergers, and dysgraphia. Renee resides in the Detroit area, but serves an international clientele. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Limitless Mind by Jo Boaler
A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley
It Just Doesn’t Add Up: explaining & overcoming dyscalculia by Paul Moorcraft
Jo-Ellen Bosson has illustrated 33 children’s books, using colored pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, and gouache (opaque water-based paint). She does realistic wildlife, whimsical picture books, and bright, lively education materials. She is a musician and singer living in New York, and recently discovered she is dyscalculic.
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