Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to do math. Much like dyslexia disrupts areas of the brain related to reading, dyscalculia affects brain areas that handle math- and number-related skills and understanding. Symptoms of this condition usually appear in childhood, but adults may have dyscalculia without knowing it.
Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math. People who have dyscalculia struggle with numbers and math because their brains don’t process math-related concepts like the brains of people without this disorder. However, their struggles don’t mean they’re less intelligent or less capable than people who don’t have dyscalculia.
The symptoms of this disorder usually appear in childhood, especially when children learn how to do basic math. However, many adults have dyscalculia and don’t know it. People who have dyscalculia often face mental health issues when they have to do math, such as anxiety, depression and other difficult feelings.
There’s also a form of dyscalculia that appears later in life. This form, acquired dyscalculia, can happen at any age. This usually happens for other reasons like a medical condition (see more about this under the Causes and Symptoms section below).
Dyslexia and dyscalculia are both learning disorders, but they have key differences. In the most general terms, these two break down as follows:
While they’re different, the two conditions fall under the same diagnosis, “Specific learning disorder,” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). It’s also possible for people to have both dyscalculia and dyslexia.
Dyscalculia can happen to anyone, but it’s common for it first to draw attention when children are in their first few years of elementary school (between ages 6 and 9).
Dyscalculia is uncommon but widespread. Experts estimate it affects between 3% and 7% of people worldwide.
People who have dyscalculia are neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is a term that describes how no two people have the same brain, and everyone’s brain forms and develops in a completely unique way. For people with dyscalculia, that means their brain works differently from the brain of someone who doesn’t have disorders or conditions that affect how their brain works.
Solving a math problem like “2+2=?” might seem simple, but it takes several different skills — and the areas of the brain that manage them — working together to do it. Some of those include:
For a neurotypical person, the above processes all work as expected. Depending on how severe their case is, people with dyscalculia may struggle with certain parts of the process.
The symptoms of dyscalculia depend on which parts of the process a person struggles with most. It can also depend on the person’s age and the situations they encounter most often.
For very young children, the most common symptoms include trouble with:
The symptoms of dyscalculia often draw attention when children start school around age 6. For these children, the symptoms include trouble with:
The symptoms in teenagers and adults often look like trouble with the following:
In addition to symptoms that directly relate to someone’s ability to do math, people with dyscalculia may show emotional symptoms when faced with situations where math is necessary. Those emotional symptoms often include:
In most cases, especially in children, experts don’t know why dyscalculia happens. There’s evidence that learning disorders — including dyscalculia — may run in families. However, more research is necessary to confirm this.
Experts do know that people with dyscalculia are more likely to have certain differences in some areas of their brain. These differences seem to indicate less development and fewer connections between brain cells in those areas. The affected areas are ones your brain uses when doing anything that involves numbers and calculations. However, experts don’t know why these differences happen and how they influence this disorder’s symptoms.
Dyscalculia often happens alongside other conditions. While these aren’t causes, they can be a clue to help healthcare providers recognize and diagnose dyscalculia. Conditions that often happen alongside dyscalculia include:
People with dyscalculia also have a higher risk of mental health disorders. Experts don’t know if these are more likely to happen because a person has dyscalculia, but these are still important factors that healthcare providers will consider when making a diagnosis and recommending treatment.
There are some reasons why a person would develop dyscalculia (or even acalculia, a complete inability to do math) later in life. This form, known as acquired dyscalculia, isn’t a learning disorder. Instead, it usually involves brain damage that disrupts areas related to math skills. Lesions, which are areas of brain damage, can happen for many reasons (see the Brain Lesions article to understand more about how this damage can happen).
Dyscalculia isn’t contagious, and you can’t catch it from or spread it to others.
Education professionals (usually teachers) and parents are most likely to be the first to notice the symptoms of dyscalculia. If a teacher notices it, they’ll be able to offer resources and guidance on next steps. Parents who notice dyscalculia can also talk to their child’s pediatrician to learn more about the process of diagnosing and treating dyscalculia.
There are two main criteria that the DSM-5 lists for math-related symptoms of specific learning disorder (with more about those criteria immediately below). At least one of these two criteria must exist for at least six months, even with trained, expert help to try and overcome it.
There are no lab, imaging or diagnostic tests that can confirm dyscalculia. Instead, the focus will be on testing a child’s specific math-related skills and ruling out other possible causes, such as vision or hearing problems, other brain- or mental health-related conditions, etc. Different tests can help with this. A healthcare provider is the best person to explain what kind of skills tests they recommend.
Dyscalculia is treatable in children because their brains haven’t yet finished developing, making it possible for them to learn skills and develop abilities they need to adapt to this condition. Treatment usually takes the form of one-on-one learning programs.
The programs are symptom-specific and focus on what a child struggles with most. Treatment should also start as soon as possible. The sooner the treatment starts, the better the chances for children to adapt to this condition and limit the impacts.
Unfortunately, dyscalculia isn’t considered treatable in adults unless it’s acquired dyscalculia. That’s because their brains are fully developed, meaning treatments like learning programs are less likely to help them. For adults, the focus is on helping them compensate for dyscalculia using technology or other methods.
For acquired dyscalculia, there are possible treatments. The available treatments depend on many factors, especially the underlying cause of the dyscalculia. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the treatment options and which they recommend for your case.
In addition to learning programs for dyscalculia, children with this condition may need additional treatment for other conditions they have. The treatments for those conditions depend mostly on the condition themselves. They can include medication, psychotherapy and more. A healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the possible treatments, including what they recommend for the specific needs in question.
Dyscalculia happens unpredictably. That means it isn’t preventable, and there’s no way to reduce the risk of developing it.
Depending on the specific symptoms, dyscalculia can make it harder to do even simple math-related tasks like paying bills, following recipes for cooking and baking, and more. With early treatment, children can often adapt to this condition and limit its impact on their lives. Adults who have it are more likely to struggle with the effects if they don’t receive treatment earlier in life. It’s also common for people with this disorder to feel embarrassed about this condition, and many experience anxiety, shame and depression because of it.
Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition. There’s no cure, but early treatment can help reduce the effects later in life.
The only exception to this is acquired dyscalculia, which may be a temporary condition. Whether or not it’s temporary depends on factors like why it happened and how severe it is. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you if acquired dyscalculia could be temporary and how long it may last.
Dyscalculia isn’t a dangerous condition. However, people who have it are more likely to struggle with mental health conditions that happen alongside it. Conditions like depression and anxiety can have greater effects — including a risk of self-harm or suicide — so treating these when necessary is essential.
Dyscalculia isn’t a condition that you can self-diagnose or treat. In children, it’s important that they see a healthcare provider to diagnose and treat this condition as soon as possible. Waiting makes it less likely that treatment programs can help.
For adults who have dyscalculia, it isn’t possible to treat dyscalculia directly. For them, the focus is on compensating for the disorder. Technology and other tools, such as smartphone apps, can help with this. A healthcare provider can recommend specific apps or tools that can help. For those with acquired dyscalculia, a healthcare provider can also recommend possible treatments or ways to help with this condition.
No, dyscalculia doesn’t affect intelligence directly. While some people with dyscalculia might also have intellectual disabilities, having dyscalculia doesn’t automatically make a person less intelligent. In fact, it’s common for people with dyscalculia to have an above-average score on IQ tests. People with dyscalculia are also often gifted in other areas, especially creative skills (especially the arts), problem-solving and more.
No, dyscalculia and autism spectrum disorder are two different conditions. They both fall under the same category, neurodevelopmental (brain development) disorders, in the DSM-5 but are still very different.
Yes, dyslexia and ADHD have strong connections. ADHD is one of the more common conditions that happens alongside dyscalculia. However, most people who have one don’t have the other.
Some things you can do include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that disrupts a person’s ability to understand numbers and math-related concepts. Children usually show symptoms between the ages of 6 and 9 (or even sooner). It’s also common that people who have dyscalculia will also have other conditions, including learning and mental health disorders.
With treatment and specialized learning programs, many children can develop skills and abilities that limit how much this disorder impacts their lives. For adults who learn they have this condition, treatment isn’t possible. However, there are tools and ways to compensate for this condition and keep it from disrupting their life and routine.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/02/2022.
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