Could this be why your child struggles with maths?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If your child struggles with maths, they could have dyscalculia, a learning disorder similar to dyslexia, but affecting the ability to learn arithmetic.

It's a widespread problem, with a recent study finding as many as one in 20 children suffer from dyscalculia. The study by Queens University, in Northern Ireland, also found that most children with the condition go undiagnosed, struggling with maths for their entire school life without understanding why.

Dr Kinga Morsanyi led the study, and said she expected the number of students with dyscalculia to be similar to those who had dyslexia, although of the 2421 children studied, 108 had been diagnosed with dyslexia, and only one had been diagnosed with dyscalculia. By the end of the study, Dr Morsanyi and her team had identified 112 children likely to have the condition.

"In society, there is sadly a widespread notion that you need a special talent to be good at maths, and that struggling with maths is normal for some people, but this is not the case and it's not something we would accept if a pupil was unable to read," said Dr Morsanyi.

"Within the sample of children with dyscalculia, 80 per cent of the children have other developmental conditions, such as dyslexia or speech and language difficulties. As the current practice is to assign one diagnostic lable to each child, this could partially explain why mathematics difficulties are so often ignored.

"Based on our results, it seems likely that children with persistent, serious difficulties with mathematics, unlike children with dyslexia, do not receive specialist support."

In Australia, dyscalculia is also under-recognised, even though the condition is believed to be nearly as common as dyslexia. That has led to it being less understood and diagnosed inconsistently.

Dr Anneke Schrueder, founder of Dyscalculia Services, says treatment can help children with dyscalculia, but it must be tailored to suit the individual's needs.

"Treatment can only start after a thorough evaluation about what a student knows, what is still difficult for them, and which strategies they need to learn," she says. "Interventions can take several years and are done with lots of hands-on instruction."

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Dr Schrueder says sympoms of dyscalculia include:

  • starting to count later than siblings or peers
  • taking more time to memorise numerals
  • counting on fingers instead of using math facts from memory
  • being uncomfortable with activities involving numbers
  • confusion over math concepts
  • difficulty memorising math facts, especially multiplication tables
  • repeated mistakes with math vocabulary
  • inconsistency – seeming to "get it" some days and not others
  • difficulty making rough estimates
  • difficulty with perception of shapes and relative sizes
  • confusion over reading time on a digital and an analogue clock
  • misreading math problems; for example, multiplying instead of adding
  • working slowly and inconsistently, or just jotting down random numbers
  • deliberately avoiding math tasks, while being okay with other subjects.

Dr Schrueder says thorough testing is required to reach a diagnosis (an online test is available on the Dyscalculia Testing website). 

If your child does have dyscalculia, Dr Schrueder stresses it's not the end of the world.

"Several students in my practice who came in with severe dyscalculia now see math as their favourite subject and are functioning at grade level or even above," she says.

Early intervention and treatment are key if you suspect your child has dyscalculia, says Dr Schrueder.

"Do not wait," she says. "Get them diagnosed as soon as possible and get help for them as early intervention is the best way to remediate in a timely manner. This also prevents them from losing self-esteem and starting to dislike math or creating math anxiety."