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What is Dyscalculia? Math Learning Disabilities

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Updated June 17, 2014

Mixed race student counting on fingers in classroom
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Dyscalculia is a Learning Disability in Math:

Dyscalculia is a broad term for severe difficulties in math. It includes all types of math problems ranging from inability to understand the meaning of numbers to inability to apply math principles to solve problems. Dyscalculia is one type of learning disability that can be served in special education programs.

Causes of Dyscalculia and Math Disabilities:

As with other types of learning disabilities, dyscalculia is believed to involve the language and visual processing centers of the brain. Evidence suggests learning disabilities such as dyscalculia may be inherited or can be caused by problems with brain development. Exposure to prenatal or environmental toxins (such as lead paint) may also play a role.

Characteristics of Dyscalculia and Math Disabilities:

Dyscalculia includes a wide range of math difficulty. Dyscalculia involves inability to understand the meaning of numbers their quantities. Students with Dyscalculia cannot understand basic operations of addition and subtraction. They may not understand complex problems such as multiplication, division, and more abstract problems. Because they do not understand math concepts, they do not remember and cannot build on them to master more complex problems.

Assessment and Individual Education Programs:

If you suspect your child has dyscalculia, you can make a referral for assessment to determine a diagnosis. Most likely, the school will evaluate to determine if your child has a learning disability in math rather than using the term dyscalculia. This will require an evaluation to identify the specific types of errors each individual child makes. If your child qualifies for special education, teachers will develop an individual education program. Typical strategies focus on developing math vocabulary and comprehension of math concepts and operations.

Misconceptions About Dyscalculia:

People with learning disabilities such as dyscalculia are at-risk for being seen as less capable than they are. However, they have general ability to learn that is comparable to or higher than many of their peers. They simply have specific skill weaknesses in some areas. In many ways, students with learning disabilities have creative problem solving skills and can achieve well with appropriate specially designed instruction.

Assessment of Dyscalculia (LD in Math):

Some assessments are specifically marketed as dyscalculia tests. It is possible, however, for evaluators to determine if a child has dyscalculia and learning disabilities in math through general types of diagnostic math assessments, reviews of student work, and cognitive assessments. Whatever assessment is used, it is most important that evaluators identify the specific deficits affecting your child's math abilities to enable teachers to develop appropriate instruction to address those problems.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Has Dyscalculia:

If you believe or your child has dyscalculia and may be learning disabled, contact your school principal or counselor for information on how to request assessment for your child.

For students in college and vocational programs, the school advising office can assist with finding appropriate resources.

Dyscalculia is a Term Not Typically Used in Schools:

Your child's school may not use the term dyscalculia, but it can still appropriately evaluate your child's learning disability. Typically public schools use the labels and language from federal IDEA regulations. Dyscalculia is a diagnostic term found in psychiatric diagnostic systems. Schools consider it one of several types of math disorders they can serve under the label, learning disability.

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