Dyscalculia is a diagnosis used to describe learning difficulties related to math concepts.

It’s sometimes called “numbers dyslexia,” which is a bit misleading. Dyslexia refers to difficulty reading and writing, while dyscalculia is specifically related to mathematics.

At least one study estimates that 3 to 7 percent of adults and children have dyscalculia, based on data collected from German primary school-aged students.

Dyscalculia goes beyond having a hard time understanding math. It’s bigger than making mistakes when you add numbers or reversing digits when you write something down.

If you have dyscalculia, it’s difficult to understand the wider concepts that govern the rules of math, like whether one amount is greater than another or how algebra works.

This article will cover the dyscalculia diagnosis process, as well as symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Dyscalculia symptoms might look different depending on age and developmental stage. Common symptoms of dyscalculia include:

  • difficulty understanding or remembering mathematical concepts such as multiplication, division, fractions, carrying, and borrowing
  • difficulty reconciling verbal or written cues (such as the word “two”) and their math symbols and signifiers (the number 2)
  • trouble explaining math processes or showing work when asked to complete a mathematical task
  • difficulty describing the sequence of events or remembering the steps in a math process

We need more research to understand what causes dyscalculia, but there are some prevalent theories about why it happens.

Some researchers believe that dyscalculia is the result of a lack of concrete early instruction in mathematics.

Children who are taught that math concepts are simply a series of conceptual rules to follow, instead of being instructed in the hands-on reasoning behind those rules, may not develop the neural pathways they need to understand more complicated mathematical frameworks.

Under this strain of logic, a child who has never been taught to count using an abacus, or never shown multiplication using items that increase in tangible amounts, might be more likely to develop dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia may occur by itself, or it may occur alongside other developmental delays and neurological conditions.

Children and adults may be more likely to receive a diagnosis of dyscalculia if they have:

Dyscalculia may also have a genetic component. Mathematical aptitude tends to run in families, as do learning disabilities. It’s hard to tell how much of aptitude is hereditary and how much is the result of your family culture.

For example, if you grew up with a mother who regularly said that she was just “useless” at math and as a result, couldn’t help you to learn math, chances are that you will struggle with math, too. More research is needed to understand how genetic factors play into learning disabilities.

Dyscalculia is diagnosed in several steps.

First, your doctor will take information about the medical and family history. These questions are meant to rule out other possible diagnoses and to make sure that there’s not a pressing physical condition that needs to be addressed.

For the next step, adults may be referred to a psychologist and children may be referred to a team of learning specialists including a psychologist and a special education expert. They’ll administer further testing to figure out if a diagnosis of dyscalculia makes sense.

Dyscalculia can be managed with treatment strategies. If left untreated, dyscalculia in adults can result in difficulties at work and trouble managing finances. Fortunately, there are strategies available for children and adults.

For children

A special education specialist may suggest treatment options for your child to use in school and at home. These may include:

  • repeated practice of basic math concepts, such as counting and addition
  • segmenting subject material into smaller units to make it easier to digest information
  • use of small groups of other children for math instruction
  • repeated review of basic math concepts in hands-on, tangible demonstrations

A 2012 review of the literature on treating dyscalculia observed that the success rates of the strategies recommended for treating dyscalculia aren’t well documented. The best treatment plan will take into account your child’s individual talents, needs, and interests.

For adults

Dyscalculia treatment for adults can be more challenging if you’re not in an academic setting with special education resources available.

Your healthcare professional may also be able to help you with exercises and education material to help you strengthen the neural pathways used for mathematics. Training or private tutoring can help treat adult dyscalculia, as well as adult dyslexia.

Dyscalculia is treatable, and early diagnosis can make a big difference in how the person who has it experiences mathematics learning. It may be more challenging for people with dyscalculia to learn math concepts, but it’s by no means impossible.

Data that shows the long-term outlook for people with dyscalculia is limited. Advocacy groups and educators claim that some people with this condition go on to excel at math and pursue mathematic careers.

Dyscalculia refers to a learning disability that makes learning math concepts difficult. People who have dyscalculia may have to take a different approach to learn math concepts, going more slowly or reviewing more often as they encounter new material.

Dyscalculia isn’t something that people grow out of, but it’s treatable. If you believe that you or your child has dyscalculia, speak to your doctor about your concerns.