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What is Dyscalculia? Signs and Symptoms

Definition: Development of Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability with neurobiological origins that affects the acquisition of mathematical knowledge despite an IQ within the normal range. Dyscalculia also has an estimated prevalence of 5-7%, which is approximately the same as dyslexia (Butterworth, Varma, Laurillard, 2011; Geary, 2011). But having difficulties with mathematics does not always imply having dyscalculia! There are other causes that can explain difficulties with mathematics. For example, a low intellectual level, attention difficulties, inadequate education methods, or limited numeracy learning experiences.

How does it manifest?

Dyscalculia is a heterogeneous disability but, generally, children with dyscalculia experience difficulties with the most basic aspects of number processing and arithmetic. Learning difficulties in mathematics manifest in different ways depending on age. The ideal age to detect a problem with dyscalculia is between 6 and 8 years old, but the first symptoms can appear as early as preschool.

These indicators can be used to look for possible signs of dyscalculia, based on age:

Early childhood education

  • Problems learning to count. For example, they cannot remember the order of numbers correctly or when you ask them for four units they take a handful of something without counting them.
  • Difficulty understanding terms related to mathematics, such as ”larger” or ”smaller.”
  • Cannot understand the relationship between number and quantity. For example, they do not understand that ”4” can apply to a group of 4 cakes, 4 cars, or 4 friends.

Primary school

  • Difficulties identifying and using +, –  and other arithmetic symbols correctly.
  • Difficulty learning and remembering number facts (for example 2+8, 4×7).
  • Continue to use their fingers to count instead of more advanced strategies, like mental math.
  • Difficulty understanding words related to mathematics, such as, ”greater than” and ”less than.”
  • Problems with the visuospatial representation of numbers, such as number lines.
  • Difficulty understanding the place value (units, tens, hundreds).
  • Problems writing numbers or putting them in the correct column for written calculations.

Secondary school

  • Problems applying mathematical concepts to money, including estimating the total cost or exact change.
  • Difficulty understanding the information shown on graphs or on tables.
  • It takes a lot of effort to learn and understand multi-step reasoning methods and calculation procedure.
  • Problems trying to find different approaches to the same math problem (lack of mental flexibility).
  • Difficulty measuring ingredients in a simple recipe or liquids in a bottle.

What IS NOT dyscalculia?

However, it is important to be aware of the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the disorder. For example, it is important to understand that:

  • Dyscalculia is not caused by a lack of motivation.
  • Dyscalculia is not an intelligence problem.
  • Dyscalculia is not a laziness problem.
  • Dyscalculia is not rare.

Dyscalculia in daily life

The typical learning difficulties in mathematics for children with dyscalculia do not only affect schoolwork. It can create difficulties in the daily life of children because mathematics is everywhere. We need math skills to read a clock,  calculate change when shopping, or deciding how to evenly distribute a cake. In addition to the fact that the impact of mathematical achievement on the academic future, and employability, of people, is greater than the impact of literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Therefore, the identification of dyscalculia in children as early as possible is crucial to early intervention in order to help reduce the problem. 


  • Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: from brain to education. science332(6033), 1049-1053.
  • Bynner, J., & Parsons, S. (2006). Does Numeracy Matter More? London: National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy, Institute of Education, University of London.
  • Geary, D. C. (2011). Consequences, characteristics, and causes of mathematical learning disabilities and persistent low achievement in mathematics. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics: JDBP32(3), 250.

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Diane Ackerman
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PhD in Educational Psychology specializing in learning mathematics and currently is part of Smartick's Content Development team. A children's yoga teacher and a sun and nature lover.
Hiwet Costa

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