Dyscalculia is often thought of as dyslexia with numbers. It is a learning disorder involving numbers and concepts relating to numbers. What was shocking to read is that about 60% of children with ADHD also have another learning disorder such as dyscalculia. This figure is only about 5% in neurotypical (NT) children. My daughter has ADHD and dyscalculia, so I really wanted to try and understand exactly what it is, hence this post.
What is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a maths learning disorder. This involves difficulties with not only everyday numbers but also maths symbols (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication), wording (one more than, one less than) and even visual-spatial information. Visual-spatial maths involves being able to process differences between a 6 and 9, W and M, following something in order, it can even cause tripping up the stairs due to not being able to calculate the heights.
Mild dyscalculia may allow basic maths knowledge to develop however, due to struggles with working memory, it becomes difficult to recite times tables for instance. Add this difficulty with memory to equations and algebra, and it’s easy to see how one could become completely overwhelmed.
What are Dyscalculia symptoms?
Dyscalculia isn’t just someone being bad at maths or having maths anxiety, and it is nothing to do with intelligence. It’s just harder and often requires different methods. The list below shows some examples of how someone with dyscalculia symptoms may prevail:
- Has trouble learning to count
- Struggles to connect a number to an object, such as knowing that “3” applies to groups of things like 3 cakes, 3 cars, or 3 friends
- Struggles to recognize patterns, like smallest to largest or tallest to shortest
- Has difficulty learning and recalling basic number facts such as number bonds, e.g. 6 + 4 = 10.
- Still uses fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies (like mental maths)
- Poor understanding of the signs +, -, xx and x or may confuse these mathematical symbols
- Struggles to recognise that 3 + 5 is the same as 5 + 3 or may not be able to solve 3 + 26 ‒ 26 without calculating
- Has trouble with place value, often putting numbers in the wrong column.
- May not understand maths language or be able to devise a plan to solve a maths problem.
- Finds it difficult to understand maths phrases like greater than and less than
- Has trouble keeping score in sports or games
- Has difficulty working out the total cost of items and can run out of money
- May avoid situations that require understanding numbers, like playing games that involve maths.
- Struggles to understand information on charts and graphs.
- Has trouble finding different approaches to the same maths problem, such as adding the length and width of a rectangle and doubling the answer to solve for the perimeter (rather than adding all the sides).
- Struggles to learn and understand reasoning methods and multi-step calculation procedures
- Has trouble measuring items like ingredients in a simple recipe or liquids in a bottle.
- Lacks confidence in activities that require understanding speed, distance and directions, and may get lost easily.
- Has trouble applying maths concepts to money, such as calculating the exact change
Typical symptoms include:
- difficulty counting backwards
- difficulty remembering ‘basic’ facts
- slow to perform calculations
- weak mental arithmetic skills
- a poor sense of numbers & estimation
- difficulty in understanding place value
- addition is often the default operation
- high levels of mathematics anxiety
Taken from Dyslexia UK
ADHD and Dyscalculia
There is a fair overlap between ADHD and dyscalculia itself as both involve problems with executive functioning and working memory. The executive functioning of our brains helps us to focus, plan and prioritise cognitive tasks. This part of our brain is not fully developed until our 20s. So in children, it is still very immature. Add to that our children with ADHD, who have developmental delays in this area, and you can see this is now becoming doubly hard for them.
Working memory is a vital component in mathematical learning. Simple tasks such as ‘6 + 4 – 2 =’ becomes an impossible task without it. Firstly, they must remember what the value 6 is, then what the ‘+’ means and what to do with the number 6 and what the next number is and so on. To an NT child, this appears a simple task because it comes naturally to many of us. We probably don’t even know how we worked it out, or remember, we just know. But when you look at it, there are many stages, and if your working memory is impaired, this is going to prove very challenging.
Imagine when equations become more complex. For NT individuals you learn the basics and build on this. But what if you haven’t remembered the basics? What then? This is what dyscalculia must feel like. I’m getting to understand how frustrating maths must be for my daughter and why, out of frustration or maybe embarrassment, she chose to hide under tables or run out of class during maths lessons!
However, you can see how dyscalculia might be missed. ADHD and dyscalculia both have challenges with their executive functioning and working memory so it could be thought that any maths issues could be due to ADHD alone. Both manifest as an inability to keep up and comprehend. Both struggle with remembering, sustaining attention and motivation to complete the task.
My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia way before dyscalculia. She has a very low patient threshold when it comes to things that bore her so for many years I thought she simply didn’t want to learn her time’s tables because it was boring. I would try and teach her little abstract tricks to learn. All the 9 times tables add up to 9 x 5 =45 (4+5=9) but that just caused the red mist to descend because she had no idea what I was talking about, and it confused her more!
Learning that 5 x 4 is the same as 4 x 5. She would know her 5 times tables but couldn’t do it the other way round. I just thought she wasn’t interested. I thought it was ADHD. She and I both felt frustrated. It wasn’t until she had an educational psychologist come in that they realised it was more than ADHD, it was dyscalculia. Can you imagine how bored she was trying to learn maths and having absolutely no clue what she was being shown? Just a load of blah blah blah now you try!
How Dyscalculia impacts life
Ok, so we’ve discussed how it impacts maths learning. But what about other effects of dyscalculia on life. Here a just a couple of other ways dyscalculia can affect an individual’s life.
My daughter still struggles to tell the time on an analogue clock. She appeared to be so disinterested to learn about time. She still is. As she told me, there’s always her phone or even Alexa to ask. I didn’t like to argue that point! But it is literally impossible for her to comprehend time on a clock.
Recalling phone numbers, pin numbers, passwords, and dates are an issue. To be fair I struggle these days because they are all on my phone, but if you asked me to learn them I could. With dyscalculia, it can verge on impossible. Was the 751 or 715? 07908 664410 or 07908 446601? Is my appointment at 5:30 or 3:50
Apparently, this is also an issue. Not only because there are coins and paper notes, but also because, for example in the UK, we have a small 1p, a large 2p, a small 5p, a bigger 10p, a smaller 20p, a large 50p and a smaller £1. It doesn’t appear to make any sense if you think about it! I wish I could remember who to credit this description to as they described money and dyscalculia so well. They said to imagine someone explaining to you that you have three chairs and a table so that equals a couch! You’d question that!
Diagnosing ADHD and Dyscalculia
In the first instance, it is best to go to your GP and speak to your child’s teachers to rule out if it is ADHD and/or dyscalculia.
There is no link on the NHS website for dyscalculia testing, only dyslexia, I was shocked to discover that. However, as I always stress, go with your gut feeling. The schools can call in an Educational Psychologist to do a test, but this will depend on their budget if I’m honest. Paying privately is an option if you can afford this. It might be worth exploring a few online tests first. Please let me know if there are any tests you have used and would recommend. The school picked up on my daughter’s dyscalculia thankfully. they called in an Educational Psychologist.
Obviously, these will be dependent on the age of your child, but below are some great tips for children with dyscalculia.
Always review what your child knows before moving on to the next problem. There’s no point continuing if they haven’t got the basics.
Use everyday objects, cubes, cups, rulers etc to learn. Something tangible really helps as opposed to numbers written down that make no sense to someone with dyscalculia.
Break down a concept into individual parts. Writing down a whole equation with varying + – x and ÷ will simply confuse.
Teach for understanding rather than for memory. It’s amazing how much stuff we simply memorize without understanding. Understanding is the best way to learn everything. The best way to learn and see if a child is truly understanding something is to get them to teach you. I love making out I don’t get something and allowing a child to show me. They feel very important, boosting self-esteem, and you can gauge what they truly know.
Allow children to play maths games. This is a great way to keep maths fun and to learn, especially for our children with ADHD and dyscalculia. They will bore extremely quickly if it doesn’t hold their attention. Dice and dominoes are also great for recognising number patterns.
I had a CD in my car that sang times tables. My daughter loved this, and the teachers said it really helped.
Following on from this playing with money is a great way to help children learn. Shop games are great! I used to have one that my children loved called Pop to the Shops. Obviously, this one is for younger children (should you buy from this link I will receive a commission from Amazon that won’t affect your price).
Allowing children to use calculators when the problem to solve isn’t about calculations but a larger equation, helps them to increase their knowledge of maths.
Dyscalculia doesn’t just affect maths. Science is another subject that can be difficult with less than more than liquids etc, as is home economics. Make sure all teachers are aware.
Ensure graph paper is used so counting in columns and rows is easier to visually see.
A sheet with maths formulas and multiplication tables can be used when this is not the main part of the lesson.
Importantly, easy-to-read worksheets should be used. Give an extra piece of paper to cover up work already done or to be done next so they can focus on the problem at hand.
Children with dyscalculia should always be given extra time in tests.
Famous people with Dyscalculia
Because many people with dyscalculia have found and used strategies to ‘get by’, and probably because getting diagnosed is clearly not easy, or cheap, I thought I would struggle to find famous people with dyscalculia. Yet here are a few!
Cher (Love her, and now her song, ‘If I could turn back time’, makes even more sense!)
Hans Christian Anderson
Henry Winkler (aka the Fonz)
All are very successful in their own right. Dyscalculia hasn’t held them back!
I have one child with ADHD and dyscalculia and one child with ADHD who is a complete whizz at maths. As we know ADHD is so individual to each child. I honestly had no idea she had dyscalculia. I really, genuinely thought it was just her low boredom threshold that prevented her from learning time and times tables. It’s worth keeping an eye out. There are clearly some basic things that can be put in place for our children with ADHD and dyscalculia. And as always, the earlier the better.
Acknowledge with your child that they have dyscalculia. I think my daughter felt relieved when she got her dyslexia and later dyscalculia diagnosis. She had always thought of herself as ‘thick’, despite me telling her otherwise. Now she knows there is a reason, and whilst we don’t excuse her from maths we understand that certain things are a lot harder for her to grasp. Dyscalculia doesn’t just go away in later years. The child with ADHD and dyscalculia will learn strategies that work for them in everyday life. Work with your child to help them.
Hope this has helped.