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Characteristics of Dyscalculia

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, according to Hallahan et al. in Introduction to Learning Disabilities.

According to the British Dyslexia Association dyscalculia and dyslexia occur both independently of each other and together. Research suggests that 40-50% of dyslexics show no signs of dyscalculia. They perform at least as well in math as other children, with about 10% achieving at a higher level. The remaining 50-60% do have difficulties with math. Best estimates indicate that somewhere between 3% and 6% 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.

Dyscalculia has the following characteristics:

Major Difficulties

  • Lack of sufficient skills in math fundamentals (errors in basics, failure to notice math signs and symbols, etc.)

  • Inability to conceptualize and execute math processes (can do correct computation, but students don’t understand why a strategy worked, so they can’t transfer knowledge to new problems)

Information Processing Deficits

  • Attention deficits (problems paying attention to instruction, can’t stay focused on math steps)

  • Visual-spatial deficits (lose place on worksheets; can’t differentiate between numerals, symbols, coins, clock hands, etc.; problems writing in straight lines, aligning numerals, and moving in correct direction; difficulties using the number line)

  • Auditory processing deficits (problems with oral drills, etc.)

  • Memory problems (forget math facts, steps in algorithms, etc.; difficulties solving problems with numerous steps; do poorly on review lessons)

  • Motor disabilities (write numerals slowly, inaccurately, and illegibly; problems writing numerals in small spaces)

Math Anxiety

  • Intense fear and avoidance cause inability to learn math concepts and skills or perform well on math tests.

  • Influence on students’ choices of courses in school and careers.

  • Contributing factors: negative experiences with math in early years, previous failures in math, parent or teacher pressure, poor self-esteem, emphasis on time when performing math, belief in myths (e.g., “Some people have math minds,” or “Women are not good at math.”).

  • Specific: experience stress about particular math situations rather than all math situations.

  • Global: feel incompetent in all math situations and dislike all aspects of mathematics intensely.
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