Dyscalculia – Identifying and Addressing it in Daily Life

Are you wondering why your child struggles with numbers and finds it difficult to solve the seemingly simple tasks?

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Understanding Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is usually perceived as a specific learning difficulty for mathematics, or, more appropriately, arithmetic. In isolated dyscalculia, there are no deficits in reading or writing. Dyscalculia is classified under WHO ICD-10, a classification system for diseases and mental disorders, as:


“The deficit concerns mastery of basic computational skills of
addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division rather than of the more
abstract mathematical skills involved in algebra, trigonometry,
geometry, or calculus.”


The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes dyscalculia as:


“A specific learning disorder that is characterised by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations.”



Signs and Symptoms

With Dyscalculia the computational difficulties can appear from the very beginning of learning numbers at school. However, if the child has a generally high level of learning and achievement, deficiencies in arithmetic can only be noticed at a later stage, namely when school demands increase. The first signs of dyscalculia can already be seen in preschool age. The understanding of numbers and quantities, counting skills as well as simple addition and subtraction tasks are difficult. However, since the computing power in younger children is not yet sufficiently stable, the diagnosis of dyscalculia is often made much later in school life.

Children affected by dyscalculia are more prone to mental health problems such as depressive or psychosomatic symptoms. Some children are becoming more and more withdrawn because of school difficulties, others are more prone to aggressive behaviour. In addition to dyscalculia, your child may also experience dyslexia or an attention deficit disorder (ADD) with or without additional hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


Frequency and Causes

According to international studies, about 3 to 8% of all children and adolescents suffer from dyscalculia. It has not yet been clarified whether girls or boys are affected more frequently. Some studies have found no difference in this regard, while others show that girls are more likely to suffer from dyscalculia. The causes of dyscalculia are still not known today. However, it is believed that there are several factors that influence computational skills, such as genetics, neuroscience, and cognitive factors.

In addition, the child’s relationship with parents, peers, teachers, financial security and way of parenting can compound existing computational issues. It also matters whether the child has deficits in other areas, such as ADHD or mental health problems.


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Activities in the Brain

What happens inside a brain with dyscalculia? Using fMRI and EEG studies, scientists have found that we have a kind of innate number sense in the parietal lobe of our brain. This serves the quantity comprehension and thus the development of the later calculation abilities. Dyscalculics show significantly less activation in this region. This is related to the fact that children with dyscalculia, even with increasing age, still mainly work with the frontal lobe, which is responsible for learning new content.


Effects of Dyscalculia

Contrary to wide spread opinion you do not grow out of dyscalculia. Studies have shown that dyscalculics leave school early and are less likely to acquire a vocational qualification than peers without dyscalculia. Furthermore, their everyday life is heavily affected, as they can, for example, have difficulties when using money or reading clocks.

However, if dyscalculia is diagnosed early and the therapy is appropriate, the prognosis is good that arithmetic can still be learned later.



Assessment and Diagnosis

A diagnosis should be made as early as possible and by experienced specialists. The Dyslexia Centre in London or the British Dyslexia Association, for example, recommend professional Educational Psychologists for assessments and diagnosis.


Treatment after Diagnosis

The earlier therapy is started, the better the chances of development. Highly recommended are individualised therapies by trained specialists, because then not only the dyscalculia is in focus, but the entire situation such as depression or psychosomatic symptoms. This is the best way to control the difficulties of computation and mental health difficulties in the long term. The first attempt is to give children access to understanding numbers and quantities.

Only in a second step, simple arithmetic operations are then discussed. Funding programs must be long-term, as dyscalculia cannot be treated in a few weeks. In addition, one to one therapy is more effective than group therapy or in class. Instead of abruptly stopping therapy, it is advisable to increase the duration between sessions to gradually stop it.

However far down the path of dyscalculia whether it be at the beginning of identifying or you are already challenging your difficulties with numbers, always remember that there are others on the same journey as you and they can help you. One place you can find these people is in our Dyscalculia Support Group on Facebook – Join here.