Dyscalculia, which means inability to calculate, is the most widely used term for disabilities in arithmetic and mathematics.
Sometimes the term acalculia is used to refer to complete inability to use mathematical symbols and the term dyscalculia is reserved for less severe problems in these areas. Developmental dyscalculia may be used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by adults after severe head injuries.
There is no general agreement on the precise meaning of the term dyscalculia. Reports of dyscalculia’s prevalence, therefore, vary depending upon the definition and situation. Research suggests that it has the same prevalence as dyslexia (about 6–8% of children) although it is far less widely recognized by parents and educators (Butterworth, 2005; Shalev, 2007; Ardilla & Roselli, 2002).
As with other learning disabilities, dyscalculia ranges from mild to severe, and co-occurs with other developmental disorders, including dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
According to the British Dyslexia Association, dyscalculia and dyslexia occur both independently of each other and together. Research suggests that 40 to 50 percent of dyslexics show no signs of dyscalculia. They perform at least as well in math as other children, with about 10 percent achieving at a higher level. The remaining 50 to 60 percent do have difficulties with math. Best estimates indicate that somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of the population are affected with dyscalculia only — i.e. people who only have difficulties with math but have good or even excellent performance in other areas of learning.
Badian (1999) reports a prevalence rate of 6.9 percent with 3.9 percent of these students low in arithmetic only, and 3 percent of these students low in arithmetic and reading. To prevent distorted interpretations of research, she suggests that researchers differentiate between children with arithmetic difficulties and those with both arithmetic and reading problems.
Peard (2010) contends that dyscalculia figures generally include a significant proportion of students who are better called “learned difficulties”, and that the incidence of a genuine learning disability in math — a permanent neurological disorder — is less than 2 percent. “Learned difficulties” include misconceptions, mental blocks, and attitudes that require a careful diagnosis to discover. The vast majority of students who experience problems with school mathematics fall into this category, says Peard.
Edublox offers live online tutoring to students with dyscalculia. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s math learning needs.
Dyscalculia key takeaways
Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the learning disabilities field.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).
References and sources:
Ardilla, A., & Rosselli, M. (2002). Acalculia and dyscalculia. Neuropsychology Review, 12(4), 179–231.
Badian, N. A. (1999). Persistent arithmetic, reading, or arithmetic and reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia, 49.
Butterworth, B. (2005). Developmental dyscalculia. In J. I. D. Campbell (Ed.), Handbook of mathematical cognition (pp. 455–467). New York: Psychology Press.
Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D., (2011). Dyscalculia: From brain to education. Science, 332(6033), 1049-1053.
Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J., & Lloyd, J. (1985). Introduction to learning disabilities. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Czamara, D., Tiesler, C. M. T., Kohlböck, G., Berdel, D., Hoffmann, B., & Heinrich, J. (2013). Children with ADHD symptoms have a higher risk for reading, spelling and math difficulties in the GINIplus and LISAplus cohort studies. PLOS ONE, 8(5), e63859.
Peard, R. (2010). Dyscalculia: What is its prevalence? Research evidence from case studies. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 8, 106–113.
Shalev, R. S. (2007). Prevalence of developmental dyscalculia. In D. B. Berch & M. M. M. Mazzocco (Eds.), Why is math so hard for some children? The nature and origins of mathematical learning difficulties and disabilities (pp. 49–60). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Shalev, R. S., Auerbach, J., & Gross-Tsur, V. (1995). Developmental dyscalculia: Attentional and behavioral aspects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1261–1268.
Willcutt, E. G., Petrill, S. A., Wu, S., Boada, R., DeFries, J. C., Olson, R. K., & Pennington, B. F. (2013). Comorbidity between reading disability and math disability: Concurrent psychopathology, functional impairment, and neuropsychological functioning. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 46, 500–516.