Also known as: Mathematics Learning Difficulty

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability that affects a person’s ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Research suggests that dyscalculia has varying levels of severity and can affect different areas of mathematics. There is a strong overlap with dyslexia, with pure number processing difficulties (in the absence of any other specific learning difficulties) appearing to be very rare. Children with dyscalculia can struggle with day-to-day activities such as dealing with finances, following directions, managing a diary and keeping track of time.

In this article

What are the symptoms of dyscalculia?

  • Counting – children can usually learn the sequence of counting words, but may have difficulty navigating backwards and forwards, especially if they are not starting at ‘1’.
  • Calculations – children find learning and recalling number facts difficult. They also fail to use rules and procedures to build on known facts. For example, they may know that 5+3=8, but not realise that, therefore, 3+5=8 or that 5+4=9.
  • Numbers with zeros – children may find it difficult to grasp that the words ten, hundred and thousand have the same relationship to each other as the numerals 10, 100 and 1,000.
  • Measures – children often have difficulty with activities such as handling money or telling the time. They may also have problems with concepts such as speed (miles per hour) or temperature.
  • Direction/orientation – children may have difficulty understanding spatial orientation (including left and right) causing difficulties in following directions or with map reading.

What are the causes of dyscalculia?

Part of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus is thought to be involved in the ability to process numeric information. In people with dyscalculia, this area of the brain seems to be less active when they are making judgements about numbers.

How is dyscalculia diagnosed?

There is no formal diagnostic test specifically for dyscalculia. However, an assessment of cognitive skills along with an analysis of mathematics processing and current attainment levels will enable a knowledgeable practitioner to make a diagnosis. There are some screening tests which will give indicators and these can also be used as part of an overall diagnostic assessment. An assessment will explore working memory, spatial skills, abstract reasoning, speed of visual processing along with more focused tests of arthitmetic skills and number processing. Assessments are available through Dyslexia Action (see entry Dyslexia).

How is dyscalculia treated?

Dyscalculia, when it is severe, constitutes a special need and requires diagnosis and appropriate counselling as well as individualised support away from whole class teaching. When less severe, adaptations to teaching methods in subjects involving number skills can enable children to make progress and find ways of compensating for their difficulties. Compared with dyslexia, very little research has focused on dyscalculia and how to overcome it. If you are a parent, you may find it helpful to discuss your concerns with the school Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO). An education psychologist may be able to suggest helpful teaching strategies. Useful books and support material can be found on the British Dyslexia Association website (see entry Dyslexia).

Inheritance patterns and prenatal diagnosis

Inheritance patterns
There is some evidence suggesting that the condition may occur in families.

Prenatal diagnosis

Is there support for people with dyscalculia and their families?

Information and support in the UK for dyscalculia is available from dyslexia support organisations (see entry Dyslexia).

Recommended reading includes Mathematics for Dyslexics: Including Dyscalculia, (3rd edition) by Steve Chinn and Richard Ashcroft and Dyscalculia Guidance by Brian Butterworth and Dorian Yeo.

If your child is affected by a medical condition or disability, we can help. Call our freephone helpline on 0808 808 3555 to get information, support and advice. We also offer emotional support for parents via our Listening Ear service.

We have a range of parent guides on aspects of caring for a disabled child in our resource library. You may also find our Early Years Support useful, which contains links to parent carer workshops and help for families going through the diagnosis process.

You can also meet other parents online in our closed Facebook group.


Medical text written May 2012 by John Rack PhD, Head of Research, Development and Policy, Dyslexia Action, UK.

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