When “just not a math person” doesn’t add up: Dyscalculia and what it means for kids

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 Science.

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 say.

“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 number magnitude.”

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 elementary school.

“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 says.

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 arithmetic.”

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 dyscalculia.”

Sheldon Horowitz, director of learning disorder resources at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York City, agrees.

“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 attention.”

“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 service.

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