What is Dyscalculia?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L August 04, 2022

What is dyscalculia? blog post

Are you familiar with the diagnosis dyscalculia? Many people have never heard of it due to the small percentage of individuals who are diagnosed each year. However, dyscalculia can be a very challenging learning disability, which is why we’re going to dive into all the details in this article!

According to the Dyslexia - SPELD Foundation, dyscalculia is “a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics and is associated with significant difficulty understanding numbers and working with mathematical concepts.” These challenges can include:

  • Difficulty understanding number sequences and identifying which numbers are larger or smaller.
  • Challenges with counting and organizing numbers.
  • Poor fluency in identification of numbers.
  • Challenges with simple math concepts, including adding two numbers together.
  • Poor working memory skills.

This of course can cause major challenges with children who are just learning math skills as well as older children who are taking higher level math classes. Additionally, math and numbers are involved in many parts of daily life (such as counting money and telling time) which means that a child struggling with dyscalculia will have difficulties in many areas.

First, let’s talk about what a learning disability (or disorder) is, then we’ll dive into the specific skills required for mathematics. We’ll also talk about strategies that can help if your child struggles with or is showing signs of dyscalculia.

Learning Disabilities

First, what is a learning disability? According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, learning disabilities are “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.”

child doing school work

A learning disability is not something that can be “cured.” Instead, individuals with learning disabilities learn strategies to get through their day successfully. They are typically genetic or neurobiological - meaning they originate in the brain. Anyone can have a learning disability - including individuals with average or above-average intelligence. Therefore, an individual with a learning disability can achieve great achievements in life!

Dyscalculia is a learning disability due to the neurobiological origin - meaning that it originates in the brain and is not typically due to trauma, illness, or any other diagnosis (however it has been seen in adults as a result of a head injury). Specifically, dyscalculia is a learning disability related to numbers and math. Dyscalculia is often seen in children (and adults) who also have dyslexia.

Skills Required for Mathematics

Math skills are not just remembering numbers and equations. There are many different skill sets that are involved in mathematics including visual perceptual skills, working memory, sequencing abilities and sequential memory, planning and organization, laterality (ability to identify left vs. right), generalization abilities, critical thinking, attention and focus.

Visual Perceptual Skills

There are seven areas of visual perception and each one is required for success with mathematics and other tasks that require the use of numbers, such as money management and telling time. For a deep dive on the visual system, check out this blog.

  1. Visual discrimination. This is the ability to identify differences in items. For example, identifying a 5 versus a 2.
  2. Visual figure ground. This is the ability to visually locate an item within a busy environment. For example, locate a specific set of numbers on a piece of paper.
  3. Visual sequencing. This is the ability to visually organize items in a specific order. For example, creating a number line.
  4. Visual memory. This is the ability to recall something that was seen previously. For example, recalling the numbers seen on a clock to know what time it is.
  5. Visual closure. This is the ability to see part of an object and know what it is. For example, seeing part of a math problem or only part of a number and being able to identify it accurately.
  6. Visual-spatial processing. This is the ability to understand where objects are in space. For example, organizing numbers and math problems on a paper.
  7. Visual motor integration. This is also known as hand-eye coordination - the ability to coordinate movements with vision, specifically fine motor movements. For example, successfully writing math problems on a paper.

A child with dyscalculia will likely struggle with some or all areas of visual perceptual skills. The child’s brain is not accurately processing the visual information being seen, specifically with numbers in this case. One study from 2018 found that, “visual perception deficits are a common cognitive deficit underlying both developmental dyslexia and dyscalculia.”

Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning skills are a set of skills that help individuals plan, manage, and organize their life. This includes working memory, sequencing abilities and sequential memory, planning and organization, and attention and focus (among others).

Working memory

Working memory allows you to hold information temporarily and use it when needed. It also allows you to store information for later use, even long-term use. Things like remembering a phone number, recalling an address or location you’re driving to, understanding money, and knowing that 2+2=4 are all examples of working memory.

A child with dyscalculia may struggle with working memory, as they may not visually process the numbers on a page during a math lesson, therefore making it difficult to recall accurately. Additionally, they may struggle with understanding and processing math facts (such as 2+2=4) therefore causing difficulties with recalling it for later use.

Sequencing

Sequencing is the ability to put things in a specific order. This includes organizing what you’re doing every day (think of your morning routine - it’s likely sequenced in a specific order) as well as various tasks like reading and writing. Sequential memory specifically is the ability to recall things in a specific order, such as numbers and counting.

A child with dyscalculia may struggle with sequencing numbers, sequencing number patterns, and recalling specific number sequences.

Planning and organization

This is the ability to think ahead in order to plan for the future and to organize what you’re doing so that it all flows and makes sense. These two skills are very important for mathematics - you must organize your numbers, you must plan what to write and where to write it. If your math is not organized, you will likely not come up with the correct answer. Additionally, planning and organization is used for telling time, counting money, etc.

A child with dyscalculia may struggle with overall abilities to plan and organize math facts on the paper (and in their head!), money management, and time management.

Attention and focus

This is the ability to attend to a specific task for a specific amount of time and not become distracted by external or internal distractions. This is particularly important when focusing on learning new math skills as well as overall ability to complete any task requiring sustained attention while in a busy environment.

A child with dyscalculia may struggle significantly with attention and focus to math related tasks due to challenges in all of the other skill areas - when one specific area of a task is difficult, it makes attention and focus that much more difficult.

Laterality Skills

Laterality refers to the ability to identify left versus right. Along with laterality is directionality - the ability to identify left and right, top and bottom, over and under, etc. This is important for children when they are learning to read and write - one hand becomes dominant for handwriting tasks and the child learns to read from the left side of the page and move to the right side of the page, as well as beginning at the top. This is especially important for learning math skills and telling time.

Additionally, laterality and directionality skills are directly related to visual perceptual skills. Understanding how items are organized and visually organizing and identifying objects is particularly important for mathematics. It also corresponds with accurately writing numbers on a piece of paper - facing the number 3 to the left, not to the right.

A child with dyscalculia may struggle with orienting numbers accurately, moving from left to right and top to bottom (during reading and writing of math facts), and successfully reading a clock.

Generalization and Critical Thinking

Generalization is the ability to apply an idea as a general truth in most cases. This ties directly in with critical thinking, the ability to analyze a situation based on facts. These are two very important concepts within mathematics. A child with dyscalculia will likely already be struggling with visual perceptual skills, executive functioning skills, attention and focus, and laterality skills thus causing even more difficulty with generalization and critical thinking for higher level math skills to develop.

Signs of Dyscalculia

Let’s briefly list out some of the main signs of dyscalculia (National Center for Learning Disabilities).

  • May have good reading and writing skills but struggles with counting and math problem-solving skills.
  • May have good memory for letters and words, but struggles with number recognition and recall.
  • Difficulty with telling time, organizing time and activities (scheduling) and identifying how long a task should take.
  • Very poor sense of direction; easily lost in familiar situations.
  • Poor working memory for math facts - able to complete the math task but unable to recall it the next day.
  • Challenges with money management skills after consistent practice.
  • Challenges with strategy-based games such as chess.
  • Challenges keeping score during board or card games.
  • Specific challenges with visual perceptual skills.
  • Challenges with executive functioning.
  • Diagnosis of dyslexia (does not automatically equal a diagnosis of dyscalculia, but may be connected for some children).

Additionally, a child with dyscalculia may show signs of poor self-confidence or depression, due to the challenges they face. They often compare their skills to their peers - many children with dyscalculia understand that they are “different” and may feel like they are not “as good” as their peers.

Diagnosing Dyscalculia

Because dyscalculia is a neurological learning disability, blood tests or scans cannot diagnose it. Instead, an evaluation (or test) can identify the signs and symptoms for a diagnosis. Information is typically gathered from the caregivers and teachers, if the child is in school. Then, specific tests are given to the child to identify the challenges.

Evaluation

A licensed psychologist trained in learning disorders can diagnose dyscalculia. This could be your child's school psychologist. The specialist will review academic records and performance tests and may administer diagnostic tests to assess for mathematical skills.

Chat with your pediatrician if you suspect that your child is showing signs of dyscalculia.

Activities for Dyscalculia

If you suspect that your child may be showing signs of dyscalculia, or if your child has a diagnosis of dyscalculia, there are some activities that you can complete with them to help! If your child does have a diagnosis of dyscalculia, they will likely have a specific program and interventions.

The activities provided here are not meant to treat, diagnose, or “fix” anyone. They are simply sensory-based activities that target the skills areas related to dyscalculia.

Primitive Reflex Integration

Primitive reflexes have an impact on learning. We are all born with primitive reflexes and these reflexes should naturally integrate as we grow - this means they develop into higher level movement patterns, or “go away.” If a child does not naturally integrate their primitive reflexes (this can happen for a variety of reasons and the reason is oftentimes unknown), challenges in gross motor development, fine motor development, and cognitive development can occur.

You can read more about primitive reflexes here.

When we talk about dyscalculia, there are a couple of primitive reflexes that have been shown to have an impact:

  • Moro Reflex
  • Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)
  • Spinal Galant Reflex

A series of research studies and the outcomes can be found here.

If you’ve never heard of primitive reflexes and their impact on learning, that’s ok! Many people haven’t! But now that you know, let’s talk about what you can do!

First, let’s talk about some of the other signs that these 3 primitive reflexes may still be present, or retained, along with the signs of dyscalculia.

  • A retained Moro Reflex might look like:
    • Frequent anxiety and difficulty tolerating change
    • Frequent motion sickness
    • Signs and symptoms of dyscalculia
  • A retained TLR might look like:
    • Poor posture, low muscle tone, poor balance
    • Challenges with sequencing and organization
    • Signs and symptoms of dyscalculia
  • A retained Spinal Galant might look like:
    • Excessive fidgeting, difficulty with focus and attention
    • Hypersensitivity to tactile input
    • Signs and symptoms of dyscalculia

If you suspect that your child might have a retained primitive reflex, the first step is getting an evaluation for occupational therapy or another professional who is trained in primitive reflex integration - physical therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, or chiropractic care are some other options to look into. The goal: to integrate any retained primitive reflexes through a series of specific exercises that create new neural pathways in the brain. Additionally, you can learn more about primitive reflex integration with our digital course.

Activities for Visual Perception

There are a variety of activities and games that you can play with your child in order to help develop and improve their visual perceptual skills.

  • Sorting games - sort items based on size, color, shape, etc. Also try sorting animals by where they live or what letters are in their name. Include sorting numbers - sort the same numbers together, despite differences in color and size.
  • Play I Spy while out in the community.
  • Sensory bins with rice or beans and hide items (try magnet numbers!) in the bin. Ask your child to visually locate specific items. Then incorporate sequencing the numbers as they are found.
  • Building activities that follow step-by-step visual instructions - perfect for sequencing the steps numbered in order.
  • Play a copying game - draw or build a shape. Allow your child to look at it for 30 seconds, then hide it while they copy it. Grade this up to make it harder by including more details and colors.
  • Play shape guessing games - draw part of a shape and have your child guess the shape OR have your child finish drawing the shape. Then work on the same task with numbers.
  • Playing games that require left/right, up/down components.

If you suspect that your child has severe visual perceptual deficits, you can talk with your pediatrician about getting screened for vision therapy. Additionally, learn more about Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder, here.

Activities for Executive Functioning

Incorporating games and activities that address executive functioning skills is an important piece. One study found that executive function intervention programs had positive results in several areas of arithmetic knowledge in dyscalculia. If you’re interested in this type of intervention, chat with your child’s pediatrician about options and do some research to find the best program for your child.

Additionally, there are a variety of games you can play and activities you can incorporate that will address executive functioning skills.

  • Logic and reasoning games. ThinkFun has a variety of options for all ages.
  • Card games.
  • Scavenger hunts following specific clues.
  • Use visual schedules for daily tasks that will help with organization and planning - have your child make these schedules and adjust as needed.
  • Teach your child how to use a calendar / planner and practice using it daily.
  • Have your child teach you something that they are good at. Work to improve their teaching abilities.
  • Learning a musical instrument.
  • Group sports and single person sports.

Activities for Laterality and Directionality

  • Play games that incorporate left versus right, top versus bottom components.
    • Twister
    • Games from ThinkFun
    • Simon Says
  • Complete multi-sensory activities that require coordinating both sides of the body. Learn more about multi-sensory activities here.
  • Use stickers to help improve memory of left versus right - a sticker on the child’s dominant hand reminding them that it’s their left or their right.

Additional Strategies

Some strategies can be utilized to help your child improve their success and self-esteem with school-based activities, specifically related to math-based tasks.

  • Allow the use of a calculator.
  • Use visuals to help recall simple math concepts.
  • Include hands-on projects
  • Use graph paper.
  • Use frequent brain / sensory breaks - these should include movement!
  • Provide positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement
  • Incorporate motivating components - what is motivating to your child?
  • Help your child complete activities they are good at - this can help improve their overall self-confidence.

Check out this YouTube video about our Top 7 Executive Functioning Strategies for Kids!

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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