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Dyscalculia: When Numbers Are Hard to Define

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

What is dyscalculia?

What is dyscalculia?

New Student, New Learning Disability

Missy was a new student in my special education program, and when she arrived, I thought her Individual Education Plan (IEP) was somewhat questionable. It stated on the eligibility page that she had a specific learning disorder and nothing else. Poorly written IEPs are nothing new; however, this student was being placed in special education courses based on a vague designation from this document. On top of that, she had only a single goal/objective—improvement in math.

Later that week, a psychological report (which was supposed to have been included with the IEP but somehow got separated while being transferred from her previous school) arrived that provided some clarity. The paper indicated that she had something that nobody at my school site or district had heard of. Her official diagnosis was dyscalculia.

The student with this learning disorder may mentally mix up numbers.

Dyscalculia (or mathematics disorder) is not a common term used by special education teachers. In fact, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, It is often "overlooked as a disorder."

There is a reason for this—it's a diagnosis usually given to students who show weakness in math but don't seem to have any other common learning disability (such as visual or auditory processing disorders).

However, this term is often applied when other disabilities such as a processing disorder cannot be determined as the cause of a student's learning disability. Still, the diagnosis is real—it's just not as common as difficulties in reading and writing are.

Of all the learning disabilities, dyscalculia is perhaps the most ambiguous definition. It is a condition in which an individual has difficulties with mathematical calculations. Mathematical disabilities are often the cause of different learning disorders—mostly visually related disabilities such as visual processing or visual-spatial.

Why the Ambiguity?

According to the website for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there is a wide range of learning disabilities that can affect a person's ability to understand math. They also claim there is no single form of math disability. Difficulties may vary from person to person. If a person has language processing difficulties, for instance, that person may have difficulties reading math problems or understanding the symbols used in math.

On the other hand, if a person has problems with memory (long and/or short-term), they may struggle to remember facts and keep sequences of steps in the proper order.

The ambiguity of the categorization of this particular learning disorder often makes it difficult for a special educator to determine if a student will need special education services. If a student is determined to need these services, it's not always clear what types of accommodation or modifications are needed.

A Visual Processing Disorder?

What is known is that visual processing appears to be the culprit in most cases. Often, students with dyscalculia have a difficult time visualizing numbers and situations involving word problems or applications.

Students with this learning disorder may also mix up numbers mentally. Other problems that have been associated with dyscalculia include sequencing—the ability to put things or tasks in order—and having difficulties remembering specific facts or formulas for completing math concepts.

Diagnosing Dyscalculia

So how are those with dyscalculia diagnosed? Diagnostic professionals may look for a number of symptoms. A person with this disorder may . . .

  • have spatial problems and difficulties aligning numbers into columns.
  • have trouble with sequences of numbers and concepts (left/right orientation).
  • confuse similar numbers (in sound or appearance).
  • have difficulties understanding word problems.
  • have difficulties using a calculator.
  • have difficulties with abstract concepts of time and direction.
  • have difficulties recalling schedules or keeping track of time.
  • lack "big picture/whole picture" thinking (like the ability to grasp or picture mechanical processes).
  • produce inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
  • be unable to grasp concepts, rules, formulas, sequences, orders of operation, and basic addition.
  • have difficulties with memory (e.g., long-term memory or concept mastery).

The Difficulty of Diagnosis

Still, dyscalculia is not often the first designation a psychologist or a special educator may give a person with this condition. If it can be proven, a person may be diagnosed with a learning disability such as visual processing disorder (since it appears that this condition may be associated) or something else. When there's nothing else there to definitively prove it's one of those learning disorders, dyscalculia may be written down as the person's learning disability if the one area affected happens to be math skills.

Dyscalculia may affect students of different ages in different ways. In early childhood, a child's disability may affect the learning of numbers; the sorting of objects by shape, size, or color; the recognition of groups and patterns; and the comparison of concepts using descriptors like "smaller/bigger" and "taller/shorter" (NCLD, 2006).

School-age children may have difficulties solving basic math problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Also, they may have problems with math facts (e.g., the multiplication table) (NCLD, 2006).

If mastery of math concepts is not taken care of in the early stages, teens and adults with dyscalculia may be unable to move on to advanced concepts. Also, if a math disorder is also a language processing disorder, an individual may struggle with math vocabulary.

Academic Strategies

There are strategies that can be used to help an individual with dyscalculia. A teacher or parent accommodating an individual may do the following:

  • Use graphic organizers (pictures, charts, or graphs) to help the student "visualize" the math concepts.
  • Have students read problems aloud as a means of triggering their auditory skills.
  • Relate problems to real-life situations.
  • Have them use graph paper to organize numbers for the problems and answers.
  • Provide uncluttered worksheets.
  • Allow extra time (especially for processing) for students to memorize math facts.
  • Use repetition (repeat a question) as often as possible.
  • Apply more one-on-one instruction if possible.
  • Allow for flexible times and settings for tests.
  • Allow for verbalization of answers by the student.

Dyscalculia is not the most common learning disability out there. It's rarely used—and is sometimes avoided—by psychologists and special educators because of its lack of clear, measurable criteria. Still, this condition exists despite not being fully understood.

Any More Out There?

In nearly two decades of teaching, Missy was the only student I had that was designated with dyscalculia. This is a testament to how rare and confusing this condition is. Still, it's just one of many conditions that's worth mentioning for special educators to be wary of when they are dealing with students with learning disorders that don't seem to add up.

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Dean Traylor


jgshorebird on June 23, 2016:

I learned something. Thanks.