A Quick Guide to Dyscalculia: Symptoms, Impact, and Treatment

Do you know the differences between dyscalculia and other learning disabilities? This article will address your most pressing questions about dyscalculia, including what it is, what causes it, and what treatment options are available.

By Ability Central

28 November, 2023

An anxious boy with dark skin, curly hair, and a blue striped shirt holds his head in both hands while struggling to make sense of a math test

About 3–7% of the population has dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes math challenging and difficult to understand. Dyscalculia is not a sign of low intelligence, nor does it mean someone “isn’t trying hard enough” at math. Instead, dyscalculia is a significant learning disability, typically developed in childhood, that can have a long-lasting impact on someone’s life.  


This article will answer your biggest questions about dyscalculia, including: 

  • What is dyscalculia? 
  • What causes dyscalculia? 
  • What are the different types of learning disabilities that are associated with dyscalculia? 
  • What are the early signs and symptoms of dyscalculia? 
  • What are the symptoms of dyscalculia in adults? 
  • What are the dyscalculia treatment options? 
  • Where can I find help for dyscalculia? 


What is dyscalculia? 

Often referred to as math dyslexia or number dyslexia, dyscalculia is a learning disorder (LD) affecting a person’s ability to do math. This learning disability isn’t just about struggling with math problems on a paper—it's also related to quantifying numbers, understanding sizes, and other things that are “second nature” for someone without dyscalculia. 


Among other symptoms, dyscalculia affects a person’s ability to: 

  • Tell time. 
  • Count money.
  • Perform mental calculations.
  • Manipulate numbers.
  • Perform math-related tasks.
  • Learn number-related concepts.
  • Reason and problem solve.
  • Remember the steps in a sequence. 
  • Read graphs or charts.
  • Remember dates and deadlines.


So, is dyscalculia just being “bad at math”? 

No. Processing mathematical concepts uses a larger percentage of our brains than you may realize. Consider a simple calculation we see early on in school: 2+2 = ?  


Although for many of us, the mental math required to solve this problem is so simple we do it automatically, we’re using multiple parts of our brain to hold, process, and understand that calculation. For example, we need to know: 

  • Language and visual processing: That the symbol “2” represents the number “two.” 
  • Processing quantities: What it means to “have 2 of” something, as well as what it means to have “more” or “less” of something. 
  • Working memory: How to compare those numbers and quantities at the same time. Where a person who is neurotypical might look at the calculation “2+2” and immediately grasp that the answer is “4”, someone who has dyscalculia struggles to make these so-called “simple” connections.  


Dyscalculia is not simply "forgetting” math or “not trying hard enough” to understand it; it involves a disconnect between your brain and the fundamental concepts of quantity, change, and sequence. 


What causes dyscalculia? 

There are two kinds of dyscalculia: developmental and acquired. Each has a different cause.  


Developmental dyscalculia refers to the specific learning disability related to math and math concepts that reveal itself in early childhood. Research indicates that developmental dyscalculia may be caused by issues during brain development or passed down through genetics. Without appropriate intervention, this form of dyscalculia may continue into adulthood. 


Acquired dyscalculia results from a disturbance, like a brain injury. Acquired dyscalculia has the same symptoms as developmental dyscalculia, but the difference is that someone loses these skills, rather than struggling to learn them in the first place.  


While acquired dyscalculia itself cannot be cured, it often results from a different underlying condition, and treatment of that condition can lead to a restoration of math skills with therapy. 


There is also a condition called acalculia, the complete inability to understand math skills and concepts, even the most basic. Acalculia is an acquired disability, not something a person is born with.  


While acalculia is most often associated with head trauma and brain tumors, it can also be a symptom of Gerstmann’s syndrome, a rare condition associated with strokes and brain injuries. 


What are the different types of learning disabilities that are associated with dyscalculia? 

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability (SLD). SLDs are disorders in one or more of the basic learning processes. In addition to dyscalculia, six of the most common SLDs are: 

  • Dyslexia, a language-processing disorder that impacts reading, writing, and comprehension. About 50% of people with dyscalculia also have dyslexia. 
  • Dysgraphia, which relates to a person’s ability to express themselves in written language. 
  • Auditory processing disorder (APD), where someone confuses the order of sounds or the ability to filter different sounds. 
  • Language processing disorder (LPD), a type of APD in which the individual has difficulty processing spoken language.  
  • Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD), or difficulties decoding nonverbal behaviors or social cues. 
  • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit, referring to difficulties in hand-eye coordination. 


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and SLDs often co-exist. Nearly 35% of people with ADHD also have a math learning disability, like dyscalculia. 


What are the early signs and symptoms of dyscalculia? 

A young child with dyscalculia may: 

  • Be delayed in learning to count. 
  • Struggle to connect the number symbols (2) with their corresponding words (two).
  • Have difficulty recognizing patterns.
  • Lose track when counting.
  • Rely on finger counting long after their peers have moved on to mental math.


What are the symptoms of dyscalculia in adults? 

Adults with dyscalculia may: 

  • Have trouble remembering zip codes or phone numbers.
  • Struggle with money.
  • Have difficulty judging distances.
  • Struggle to understand how long it will take to get from one place to another.


How does dyscalculia affect communication? 

Like many SLDs, dyscalculia often has a social impact. Someone with dyscalculia may feel embarrassed, frustrated, or isolated by the condition. People with dyscalculia are often targets for discrimination or bullying, especially due to the harmful misconception that dyscalculia is a sign of low intelligence. 


For people with dyscalculia, especially for children with dyscalculia, “math anxiety” can severely impact daily life. Math anxiety, the fear or phobia of math, causes significant stress in school or at work. 


People with dyscalculia may have symptoms of poor mental health, including: 

  • Anxiety or panic, particularly in situations that require using math.
  • Agitation, anger, or aggression, often related to the frustration many people with dyslexia experience. 
  • Fear of going to school or work, taking tests, or tasks with a time limit.


Is dyscalculia a protected disability? 

Like other disabilities, dyscalculia may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prevents discrimination in hiring, compensation, and job tenure based on someone’s disability. The ADA protects people with dyscalculia’s right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Here are a few adjustments you can request or implement to make the workplace more accessible for people with dyscalculia. 

  • Minimize on-the-spot demands, especially if these demands involve numbers.  
  • Present numbers using visual tactics, like color-coding or “chunking” (using bullet points to divide info into smaller “chunks”). 
  • Follow up all verbal instructions with written instructions. 
  • Encourage taking breaks during numbers-heavy work, like transferring data on a spreadsheet. 


What are the dyscalculia treatment options? 

There are no medications that specifically treat dyscalculia, but medication can help other coexisting issues, like ADHD and anxiety. 


Dyscalculia treatment is different for children than it is for adults. In children, the goal is to start immediate learning intervention, giving a child’s developing brain the best chance to build neural pathways for math comprehension skills.  


For adults, whose brains are fully developed, these tactics don’t help as much. While some adults with dyscalculia benefit from math exercises and education materials, the vast majority focus on learning tools, habits, and accommodations that can make life easier with dyscalculia. 


Treatment goals for both adults and children should include: 

  • Removing obstacles to learning 
  • Teaching calculation techniques or shortcuts 
  • Increasing the reasoning skills needed to solve math problems 
  • Training on assistive technology or other accommodations 
  • Making math easier to use quickly and more accurately 


Assistive technology (AT) tools for dyscalculia may include: 

  • Calculators 
  • Math notation tools and symbols 
  • Graph paper 
  • Graphing tools 
  • Drawing tools 
  • Equation-solving tools 
  • Manipulatives (objects that let you solve math problems in alternative ways, like using blocks to add and subtract) 
  • Graphic organizers 
  • Text-to-speech (TTS) software 
  • Dictation apps or software 


In addition, Ability Central offers a searchable database of smartphones with accessibility options designed to help people with SLDs like dysgraphia.  


Where can I find help for dyscalculia? 

An educational psychologist can assess and diagnose dyscalculia. If you want to try a self-assessment first, home screening options like online quizzes or worksheets can help identify the early symptoms of dyscalculia.  


The results of these screeners can help you decide whether it’s time to see an educational psychologist, but if you’re concerned, you should always talk to your doctor.  


Home screening tools include: 


Your primary care provider or pediatrician is a great place to start. They may be able to refer you to a trusted specialist. In addition, Ability Central offers a searchable database of nonprofits specializing in SLDs like dyslexia. Use our Service Locator to find an organization that can help with everything from diagnosis to treatment.


Where can I get more information?

To learn more about other learning disabilities, see: 

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