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Dyscalculia: When Numbers are Hard to Define

Updated on September 12, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.


New Student, New Learning Disability

Missy was a new student with a questionable Individual Education Plan (IEP). It stated on the eligibility page that she had a specific learning disorder and nothing else. Poorly written IEPs are nothing new; however, this student was being placed in special education courses based a vague designation from this document. On top of that, she had one goal and objective, which was for Math.

Over the week, more information started to come in. But, it was a psychological report (which was supposed to have been included with the IEP but somehow got separated while being transferred from her previous school) that provided an answer -- if a seasoned special education teacher like myself would dare call it.

The paper indicated that she had something that nobody at my school site or district had heard of. Her official designation was Dyscalculia.

...the student with this learning disorder will mentally mix up numbers

Dyscalculia - or mathematics disorder - is not a common term used by special education teachers. It's a diagnosis usually given to a student who shows weakness in math but doesn't seem to have any common learning disability such as visual or auditory processing disorders associated with it.

However, this term is often given when other disabilities such as a processing disorder cannot be determined as a cause of a student's learning disability. Still, the diagnosis is real, if not as common as difficulties in reading and writing are.

Of all the learning disabilities, Dyscalculia is the most ambiguous in meaning. It refers to a condition in which an individual has difficulties with mathematical calculations. However, that disability affects an individual's learning abilities in different ways. Also, mathematical disabilities are often the cause of different learning disorders - mostly visually related disabilities such as visual processing or visual -spatial.

Why the Ambiguity?

According to the website for National Center for Learning Disability (, there is a wide range of learning disabilities affecting a person's ability to understand math. They also claim there is no single form of math disability. Difficulties may vary from person to person. If a person had language processing difficulties, that person may have problems with reading the problems or understanding the symbols often used in math.

On the other hand, if the person has problems with memory (long and/or short), he/she will struggle with remembering facts and keep a sequence of steps in the proper order.

The ambiguity of the categorization of this particular learning disorder often makes it difficult for a special educator to determine if a student will need special education services. And if that student needs it, it's not clear what type of accommodation or modifications are needed.

A Visual Processing Disorder?

What is known is that visual processing appears to be the culprit in most cases. Often a student with dyscalculia will have a difficult time visualizing numbers and situations involving word problems or application.

Also, the student with this learning disorder will mentally mix up numbers. Other problems that have been associated with dyscalculia is sequencing - the ability to put things or tasks in order; and having difficulties remembering specific facts or formulas for completing a math concept.


Diagnosing Dyscalculia

So how does one diagnose dyscalculia? There are numerous ways to achieve diagnosis. A person with this disorder may:

  • Have spatial problems and difficulties aligning numbers into columns.
  • Have trouble with sequences of numbers and concepts (left/right orientation) (, 2009)
  • Confuse similar numbers (with its sound or appearance); word problems.
  • Have difficulties using a calculator.
  • Have difficulties with abstract concepts of time and direction; recall schedules or keep track of time.
  • Lack "big picture/whole picture" thinking (cannot grasp or picture mechanical process).
  • Have inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
  • Be unable to grasp concepts, rules formula, sequence (order of operation) and basic addition. Have poor memory (i.e. long-term memory on concept mastery).

Dyscalculia may affect students at different ages in different ways.

The Difficulty of Diagnosis

Still, dyscalculia is not often the first designation a psychologist or a special educator may give the person with this condition. If it can be proven the person will be given a learning disability such as visual processing disorder (since it appears that this condition may be more associated with) or something else. When there's nothing else there to definitively prove it's one of those learning disorders, dyscalculia is written down as the person's learning disability if the one area affected happens to be math skills .

Dyscalculia may affect students at different ages in different ways. In early childhood, a child's disability will affect the learning of numbers, sorting objects by shape, size or color; recognizing groups and patterns; compare and contrast using concepts of "smaller/bigger" or "taller/shorter" (NCLD, 2006).

School-age children will have difficulties solving basic math problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Also, they'll have problems with math facts (i.e. the times table (NCLD, 2006)).

If mastery of math concepts is not taken care of in the early stages, teens and adults with dyscalculia will be unable to move on to do advanced concepts. Also, if the math disorder is also a language processing disorder, the individual will struggle with math vocabulary.

Academic Strategies

There are strategies that can be used to help an individual with dyscalculia. A teacher or parent accommodating an individual may do the following:

  • Use graphic organizers (picture, charts or graphs) to help the student "visualize" the math concepts.
  • Have students read the problem aloud as a means of triggering their auditory skills.
  • Relate problems to real-life situations.
  • Have them use graph paper to organize the numbers for the problems and answers.
  • Provide uncluttered worksheets.
  • Messy papers can throw them off task and confuse them.
  • Allow extra time (especially for processing) for students to memorize math facts.
  • Use repetition (repeat a question) as often as possible.
  • Apply more one-on-one instruction, if possible.
  • Allow for time and flexible setting for tests.
  • Allow for verbalization of answers by the student.

Dyscalculia is not the most common learning disability out there. It's rarely used - and is preferred not be used by psychologists and special educators because of its lack of clear, measurable criteria. Still, this condition exists, despite not being fully understood.

Any More Out There?

In nearly two decades of teaching, Missy was the only student I had that was designated with Dyscalculia. It's a testament of how rare and confusing this condition is. Still, it's just one of many conditions that's worth mentioning and for special educators to be wary of when they are dealing with students with learning disorders that don't seem to add up.

Work Cited

. West Virginia University, "Dyscalculia (or Dyscalcula)" Retrieved 2009:


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Dean Traylor


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      4 years ago

      I learned something. Thanks.


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