Home Diseases Dyscalculia: signs, therapy, causes

Dyscalculia: signs, therapy, causes

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 212 views

Dyscalculia is the technical term for arithmetic weakness. Those affected have great difficulty in understanding and applying the simplest mathematics. This is usually noticeable in elementary school or even in kindergarten. In order to confirm the suspicion, those affected undergo a series of tests. Individual support for dyscalculia helps to reduce the disadvantages caused by poor arithmetic. Read more about dyscalculia here!

ICD codes for this disease:

ICD codes are internationally valid codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor’s letters or on certificates of incapacity for work.


quick overview

  • Symptoms: Severe difficulty in mathematics (multiples, basic arithmetic, word problems) and in processing numbers and quantities, psychological symptoms such as test anxiety, depression, somatic complaints, attention deficit, aggressive behavior
  • Therapy: Individual support based on arithmetic training, behavioral therapy and neuropsychological training, parents and teachers are involved in the support, technical aids such as pocket calculators, digital displays
  • Causes: So far largely unclear, early childhood-related brain disorders and epilepsies, genetic reasons, a connection with a reading and writing disorder are being discussed
  • Diagnosis: Early diagnosis is crucial for the success of treatment, diagnostic discussion with specialists, survey of school development, clarification through special tests, physical examinations (such as vision and hearing tests, neurological examinations)
  • Prognosis : Dyscalculia cannot be cured, but with targeted and possible support, the mathematical performance improves significantly

What is dyscalculia?

In short, the answer to this question is: a profound difficulty in dealing with mathematics. As a result, dyscalculia is also known as arithmetic weakness. It is one of the so-called learning disabilities. In addition to arithmetic, this group of developmental disorders at school also affects other skills such as reading or writing – these do not develop “normally”. The background is a defined loss of brain power.

Dyscalculia must be distinguished from acquired acalculia (inability to calculate) that occurs later. Acalculia occurs, for example, as a result of a stroke.

In almost all cases, arithmetic weaknesses are already noticeable in childhood. Dyscalculia is characterized by a mismatch between expected and actual performance. Those affected have great problems with numbers and quantities. This makes it difficult or impossible for them to record even simple invoices. As a result of the arithmetic weakness, not only the performance in mathematics, but also in physics and chemistry classes are poor.

On the other hand, problems that only become clear when the mathematical requirements are higher are usually not due to dyscalculia. The dyscalculia definition also includes that the math disability is not caused by a poor school education, reduced intelligence or sensory disorders such as deafness explained

Dyscalculia does not end with school, but usually leads to problems in training or further education, at university, at work or in the private sphere.

combination with other disorders

Many of those affected have other disorders in addition to dyscalculia, especially combined reading and writing disorders, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), test anxiety or aggressive behavior. Studies in the US show that over 50 percent of children with reading disabilities also have poor math skills. Conversely, more than 40 percent of children with dyscalculia also had signs of reading difficulties.

Frequency of dyscalculia

Recent surveys of the prevalence of dyscalculia come to similar results in different countries. In Germany, for example, between three and seven percent of children, adolescents and adults have dyscalculia.

Interestingly, math problems are more common among American children than in Germany. Differences in the school system may be partly responsible for this.

How do you recognize dyscalculia?

People with dyscalculia have major problems in all areas of mathematics (multiplication tables, basic arithmetic, word problems) as well as in processing numbers and quantities. They do not understand numbers as a quantity, but as a symbol. Therefore, transposed digits often creep in. You need a significantly longer time to solve the arithmetic problems.

In addition, visual-spatial working memory is limited. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that those affected have difficulty remembering the positions of numbers in a matrix (arrangement as in a table).

In children, dyscalculia is noticeable because they follow the lessons poorly and their performance drops. However, it does not necessarily have to be due to dyscalculia: around a third of the children who have difficulties with numbers in the first year of school achieve average performance in the following years and therefore do not have dyscalculia. However, if arithmetic weaknesses only become apparent later, especially after the fifth grade, they usually do not go away on their own.

Symptoms in kindergarten or preschool

As early as kindergarten age, indications of an increased risk of dyscalculia are possible. However, it is not always easy to recognize a dyscalculia at this age. The first signs are problems with ratios and counting. Getting started with units (such as weight) and the decimal system also causes difficulties.

symptoms in elementary school

Dyscalculia is often more noticeable in elementary school. In contrast to classmates, affected children show knowledge gaps when dealing with numbers, for example when it comes to writing or naming numbers. Teachers usually notice that these children need much more time than their peers. Those affected also find it much more difficult to deal with quantities. In addition, they often confuse types of calculation.

Finger counting is basically a normal tool when learning arithmetic strategies. On the other hand, long-standing finger arithmetic, especially with easy and practiced tasks, is sometimes a further sign of dyscalculia.

symptoms in everyday life

For children with dyscalculia, there are also a variety of difficulties in everyday life. Reading the clock and handling money, for example, is a major challenge for those affected.

mental stress

The experiences that sufferers make because of their dyscalculia often result in problematic behavior. You try to avoid the problem. Statistically, children with dyscalculia have more psychological symptoms than unaffected children. Overall, dyscalculia leads to a very high psychological burden for the children.

On the one hand, affected children often withdraw and develop (test) anxiety , depressive symptoms and somatic complaints. Somatic complaints are physical symptoms such as headaches or abdominal pain for which no organic cause can be found. On the other hand, attention deficits, delinquent (= deviating from the norm) and aggressive behavior in the affected children are possible.

In addition, there are the symptoms of any concomitant diseases such as ADHD, depression, anxiety disorders or disorders of social behavior.

Is dyscalculia treatable?

Dyscalculia is treatable but not curable. Dyscalculia therapy is based almost exclusively on individual and targeted support for the affected child. Those affected do not receive any medical measures, especially no medication.

An early start of the treatment – possibly already accompanying to the kindergarten – prevents a too big performance deficit in relation to classmates. Individual support for dyscalculia is based on three pillars:

  • arithmetic training
  • behavior therapy
  • Neuropsychological training

arithmetic training

The arithmetic training is either based on the curriculum or is detached from it. You can read more about the exercise methods used in the article on dyscalculia exercises .

Behavioral and neuropsychological training

Behavior therapy helps to show the child strategies for problem solving. The neuropsychological training aims to improve important brain functions such as memory , attention, language and visual-analytical as well as spatial-constructive thinking.

Individual goal setting

The aim of therapy for dyscalculia is for the child to construct its own mathematical thinking and thus develop a feeling for numbers. This enables the child to grasp basic mathematics skills in order to benefit from the lessons as much as possible.

The individual goal depends on the level of learning, the existing competencies, needs, strengths and difficulties. The focus is on the child’s own strengths and weaknesses. This means that in most cases therapy has to be carried out in individual sessions. When choosing a therapist, you should make sure that they are specialized learning therapists. Although there is no independent job description of the “dyscalculia therapist”, there are psychotherapists who have specialized in this area.

Understanding and cooperation of parents

The basis for dealing with dyscalculia correctly is a precise understanding of the disorder. The arithmetic disorder does not mean impairment of intelligence! However, it is important that the relatives understand the scope and consequences of dyscalculia. This includes, for example, the knowledge that various psychological factors such as pressure and frustration play a role in dyscalculia.

Parents and therapists should work together in dyscalculia therapy and agree on a joint approach. The task of the parents is to support their child. The whole family should support the child. This includes showing him his strengths and giving him confidence. Parents should help the child understand that while math isn’t everything in life, it is important. Real-life examples are helpful (such as reading the clock, dealing with money).

Despite the praise that is always recommended, too high expectations of the child should be avoided. It is important that the child understands the treatment perspective: the therapy provides long-term support and helps to improve the situation for the future.

involving the school

School should also play a role in dyscalculia therapy. A good learning environment is the basis of successful learning. If the teachers are informed and certain agreements have been made, this often makes it easier for the children to follow the lessons. Reasonable measures are, for example, that the child concerned has longer working hours or a smaller number of tasks. Calculators are also sometimes helpful. Another support are innovative teaching methods that illustrate the connection between real life and mathematics.

therapy in adolescents and adults

So far, support programs have mainly focused on pre-school and primary school. Accordingly, there are only a few appealing promotional materials for young people and adults. There is a need for research to investigate the long-term course of an arithmetic disorder into adulthood and the possible development of accompanying disorders, especially fear of mathematics and school.

In general, technical aids make an important contribution to coping, especially in training and work. This includes calculators and digital displays, as some people with dyscalculia have a particularly difficult time processing analog digits. If these are not permitted during training or studies, the person concerned has the option of submitting an application for compensation for disadvantages.

Duration and cost of therapy

It is difficult to make a statement about the duration of dyscalculia therapy. In most cases, the therapy lasts at least a year. However, progress is very difficult to predict in individual cases.

Another problem is the therapy costs, which the parents often have to pay for themselves. For the statutory health insurance, dyscalculia has no medical value, which is why, from their point of view, there is no need for treatment. However, under certain circumstances, for example in the case of additional diseases such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD), the health insurance company will cover the costs of the treatment.

What are causes and risk factors?

To date, it is largely unclear how and why a dyscalculia arises. Studies have shown that those affected suffer from underactivity in the brain regions responsible for arithmetic. This also explains why those affected absorb numbers like “empty words” to which they assign no further meaning. In order to calculate, several areas of the brain must be used. Scientists suspect that a developmental and activity disorder of these regions is responsible for the “math weakness”.

Possible risk factors

Early childhood brain disorders and epilepsies may trigger arithmetic weakness. In addition, psychosocial and school didactic factors play an important role.

genetic reasons

Studies involving families and twins suggest that some degree of dyscalculia is heritable. Around 45 percent of those affected have relatives with learning disabilities.

A specific gene responsible for the disorder has not yet been identified. Precise analyzes of the genetic material are still pending and represent a future area of ​​research.

Dyscalculia sometimes occurs in the context of genetic diseases such as Turner syndrome or phenylketonuria.

Connection with dyslexia?

Mathematical skills are independent of language skills or intelligence. They are an independent part of thinking. However, the processing of mathematical tasks is not completely detached from language. Recognizing and understanding mathematical jargon is required. Reading and spelling disorders complicate this process and are therefore often associated with dyscalculia.

How is dyscalculia examined and diagnosed?

An early diagnosis of dyscalculia is important so that the affected child receives suitable support in addition to school lessons. This is the only way to close knowledge gaps quickly and the child does not lose touch with the lessons.

At school age, teachers should be involved in the diagnosis. With their experience, they help to name and analyze the child’s weaknesses. In addition to technical limitations, teachers often also notice disturbances in social behavior.

diagnostic conversation

Specialists for learning disabilities are child and adolescent psychiatrists or appropriate psychotherapists. To start the diagnostic conversation, it is important that the doctor asks both the parents and the affected child about their arithmetic weakness. Misunderstandings are often cleared up at this point.

The child is asked to describe how he feels about dyscalculia himself and what difficulties he sees. The doctor treating you then estimates what burdens result from the arithmetic weakness.

He then talks to the parents in detail about the child’s dyscalculia symptoms. Any language or motor development disorders should also be discussed. There may also be mental stress that reduces the child’s drive. Finally, the doctor also takes the family situation into account in order to identify any family burdens. Finally, the question must also be clarified as to whether measures against dyscalculia have already been taken.

school report

The basis for the study is the survey of the level of learning and school development. This includes the school report. This report should cover all aspects of the school, including the child’s motivation, as sometimes poor language skills are also associated with dyscalculia. Frequent changes of class and school are also a risk factor for difficulties at school. 


Experts only speak of dyscalculia if the arithmetic weakness persists despite sufficient school attendance and “normal” intelligence. Various tests are carried out to clarify this. Read more about this in the article Dyscalculia tests !

Physical examination

A thorough physical examination is important to identify any neurological or sensory deficits, such as attention deficit, language problems, memory problems, and visual-spatial weakness. Particular attention should be paid to visual and hearing difficulties. The doctor determines the intellectual abilities using a standardized intelligence test.

Dyscalculia is diagnosed when the following criteria are met:

  • School performance is poor or insufficient.
  • In standardized arithmetic tests, a result is achieved in the bottom ten percent.
  • The intelligence quotient is greater than 70.
  • The difference between the results of the arithmetic tests and the intelligence quotient are clear.
  • Dyscalculia started before sixth grade.

In principle, it must always be found out whether the dyscalculia has only developed secondarily due to reading and spelling difficulties. If you eliminate this disorder, the arithmetic weakness sometimes disappears.

It is important to rule out that the “math handicap” is only due to lack of instruction, neurological diseases or emotional disorders. If this is the case, the doctor makes the diagnosis of dyscalculia, taking all the criteria into account.

What is the course of the disease and prognosis?

Dyscalculia does not grow out and is not curable. In most cases, however, the performance improves significantly through targeted support for the person concerned. The psychological stress resulting from the dyscalculia is often significantly reduced by the care.

Without individual support, on the other hand, hardly any progress can be expected in the learning process and educational opportunities are greatly reduced. Statistically, those affected leave school earlier and have problems with further vocational training.

This makes it clear that the support must be started early in order to reduce the disadvantages caused by the “math weakness” and to enable normal learning progress.

Various clubs and associations are available to support those affected and their families, such as the Federal Association for Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. In many cases they are valuable contacts when dealing with dyscalculia. More information: www.bvl-legasthenie.de

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