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02/21/2013
What is Dyscalculia?
Also known as numlexia or “number blindness,” dyscalculia is a learning disability that involves difficulty in understanding numbers and arithmetic. It is somewhat similar to dyslexia, but is much harder to diagnose and can span a variety of mathematical topics. For example, some dyscalculic children may struggle to read maps or analogue clocks, while others have great difficulty in retaining basic numerical concepts, such as times tables or addition and subtraction. For many dyscalculic children, numbers appear to be like symbols from a foreign language.

Who does it affect?
The causes of dyscalculia are still largely unknown. It is estimated that between 3% and 6% of the population are dyscalculic, and it is by no means limited to people with lower IQs. Although those who suffer from dyscalculia may also be dyslexic, there is no proven link between the two. In fact, studies have shown that dyslexic children are often very strong mathematicians. Moreover, there is a broad range of abilities among those diagnosed with the condition: dyscalculics who have difficulty with arithmetic may have no problems with abstract mathematical reasoning, and vice versa. 

What are the signs that my child might have dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia may be evident in children from the moment they learn to count. A dyscalculic child might know the numbers, but frequently forget the correct order. As they move through school and encounter topics such as addition and subtraction, dyscalculic children may resort to inefficient calculation methods, such as using their fingers for simple sums. Dyscalculic children also tend to lack a fundamental grasp of “number sense”; for example, they may struggle to understand that 8 is bigger than 6, and have no firm understanding of what a number represents in terms of quantity. They may know that 3 + 4 = 7, but not that 4 + 3 = 7.

How can it be overcome?
Understanding of dyscalculia currently lags behind awareness of dyslexia, so teachers may be less likely to notice if a child is dyscalculic. Special needs teachers and educational psychologists are more likely to be familiar with the condition.

It should be noted that dyscalculia is not an illness, and therefore cannot be “treated” as such. Most parents will know what it is like to watch their child struggle with a maths concept, but this is not necessarily symptomatic of a wider issue. Before worrying about whether or not your child might be dyscalculic, remember that some children just take longer to form a clear understanding of maths. For many children, telling the time, measuring and orientation takes longer to grasp simply because they have no practical use for it in their daily lives: they don’t need to know these things because an adult has already taken charge!

Nevertheless, if you have strong reason to suspect that your child may be dyscalculic, or if you have already received a formal diagnosis, be prepared to support the teacher in finding alternative learning methods. Make maths fun: Monopoly, for example, can develop a firmer understanding of amounts, while using playing cards can help children establish the link between numerical symbols and quantity. 

Above all, do not fixate too much on the gap between your child and his or her classmates: mathematical understanding has to happen in a logical order, following certain milestones, and you could overwhelm your child by focussing on what he or she don’t know. If your child is currently being taught addition at school, make sure he or she knows what each number represents first. Before children grasp that 3 + 2 = 5, they must first understand what the symbol “3” stands for in terms of magnitude. 

Understanding and awareness of dyscalculia is still in its early stages, and many parents may not have even heard of it. Currently, there is no specific diagnostic test, but if you feel your child’s difficulties in maths may be the result of dyscalculia, there is a wealth of online information that can help you learn more. The Dyscalculia Centre has a sample online test, as well as more reading on the subject.

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