Dyscalculia, a widely underdiagnosed learning
disability that makes it difficult for individuals to grasp math
concepts, might affect as many people as dyslexia.
And specialized teaching to help those with dyscalculia
should be made widely available in mainstream education, according
to a review of current research published recently in the journal
The disorder can have a significant impact on a person's
quality of life and on the economy, neuroscientist Brian
Butterworth of the University College London and colleagues
"In the past dyscalculia has been diagnosed in a coarse
way with no real scientific basis," says Sashank Varma, an
educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota in
Minneapolis, who contributed to the research. "But over the last 10
years, scientists have triangulated and found a simple deficit with
(how individuals with dyscalculia determine) number sense and
He says researchers have started to understand the
neurological basis behind the disorder. They found an area of the
brain in the left cerebral hemisphere, the intraparietal sulcus,
that switches on to determine number magnitude, to be less active
in people with dyscalculia.
Jordi Kleiner, a learning disabilities specialist in
Glencoe who often sees patients with dyscalculia, says the disorder
can "pervade an individual's very existence."
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of
America in Pittsburgh, someone with dyscalculia "shows difficulty
understanding concepts of place value, quantity, number lines and
positive and negative value." People with the condition may also be
challenged in handling money and making change and may have
difficulty understanding concepts related to time, including days,
weeks, months, seasons and quarters.
Varma believes the problem could be identified in
"School physiologists don't tend to diagnose this, but
when we try to identify who has this problem, we find it has the
same prevalence as dyslexia, but with 1/100th of the funding," he
Researchers say that individuals with dyscalculia need the
most help strengthening simple number concepts, which can be
achieved with specifically designed game-like software that adapts
to the learner's current level of competence.
"Dyscalculic learners need to practice more number
manipulation tasks than mainstream learners," researchers reported.
"Adaptive, game-like programs that focus on making numbers
meaningful, emulating what skilled SEN (special education needs)
teachers do, can help learners practice beyond the classroom and
build the basic understanding they need to tackle
But it's not that simple, says Kleiner.
"Individuals with dyscalculia benefit from educational
therapy," he says. "If you just stick to computer programs, you
miss therapeutic areas of their life that are impacted by the
Sheldon Horowitz, director of learning disorder resources
at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York City,
"There is no substitute for a well-trained clinical or
experienced teacher," he says. "What might work for one student may
not work for the other, and clinicians can discover where they need
to be spending their remedial therapy."
Varma says this research "demands more
"The general takeaway is that mathematics has been around
since the beginning of civilization. But in the last 10 years we
have learned a lot about where math lives in the brain and
understanding the problems with brain function allows us to take a
new approach," he says.
Horowitz says there is still a long way to go before the
disorder is understood.
"Neurobiology of learning is helping us understand the
nature of the disorder," he says. "But we don't have the
sophistication to connect the dots at this point between what we
see in the brain and what we do about it."
Jane Wolkowicz is a writer with the Medill Reports news
Jane Wolkowicz is a writer with the Medill Reports news service.
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