Mathematics Disorder

What is Mathematics Disorder?

First thought of as a disorder in 1937, mathematics disorder is the brain’s way of switching numbers, mathematical symbols or word problems as in dyslexia.

The disorder is characterized by difficulty in reading, writing and printing numbers and mathematical signs, performing calculations like adding and subtracting, and inability to understand mathematical word problems. The condition often comes to light during elementary school, when mathematics becomes important in a child’s education and development. As a person ages, however, the disorder manifests despite the person’s age, education level, working history and intelligence.

Symptoms of Mathematics Disorder

Symptoms vary from child to child or adult to adult, so it’s difficult to nail down a series of symptoms. However, because the disorder is largely considered neurological, there are certain symptoms for which to look. Keep in mind that, since mathematics is a process, the cognitive functions needed to figure it out is also a process, during which the disconnect of the disorder happens.

Learning basic math facts

A child is taught beginning in kindergarten basic math facts such as 1 + 1 = 2. In first or second grade, a child is taught the multiplication tables along with other basic math facts. This involves the brain’s capacity to memorize these basic facts for later retrieval.

The child with dyscalculia will, beginning in kindergarten and the lower grades:

  • Not be able to count correctly, often skipping numbers, long after the child’s peers can count without a hitch
  • Has trouble understanding patterns like shortest to longest or higher to lower
  • Not be able to understand number symbols like plus and minus

Processing details

An elementary school student will now be introduced to various methods of computing such as word problems and math sentences. The child will be introduced to fractions, counting over spaces to put a decimal, addition and subtraction in the same problem. These problems will force the child to dig into his memory for the math facts he learned beginning in kindergarten.

At this stage, the dyscalculic child might begin having trouble recognizing the language of math. Words used in a math problem, for example, and never heard again outside that particular classroom, confuses some children. Failure to understand the measurements of 3D shapes or even understand the directions characterize this stage of the disorder.

The child with dyscalculia will:

  • Find difficulty recalling basic math facts
  • Find difficulty remembering the significance of plus or minus and use them correctly
  • Possibly still use fingers for calculations
  • Possibly have problems understanding spatial-visual process, such as number lines

Understanding procedures

By this time, the child should have mastered procedures like regrouping, reducing fractions to their lowest common denominator, and writing number sentences. He should have memorized his multiplication tables. The child should understand the logic behind the calculations, and recall just the right process to figure it out.

The dyscalculic child will:

  • Not play board games or any other activity in which math is involved
  • Not be able to tell time
  • Not write neatly or even in a straight line
  • Not be able to tell a parent how many Brussels sprouts are on his plate, or how many sandwiches to pack in the picnic basket if everyone in the family wants two sandwiches

Using arrangements

With complete confidence and experience, the child will now use facts he has learned and practiced on homework and tests. He will retrieve those facts from his memory to arrange them in order to solve new and ever more complex computations.

Alternately, the dyscalculic child will:

  • Not be able to switch back and forth between basic math capabilities like addition and multiplication in the same problem
  • Be unable to understand which portion of a problem must be regrouped and which portion must be drawn out in steps
  • Be unable to grasp manipulations in a geometric problem
  • Find difficulty understanding word problems, especially when part of it isn’t pertinent to the problem

Skills learned in math class such as estimation, images and concepts and logic carry over into life. The child with mathematics disorder will not be comfortable around people discussing certain subjects because he won’t be able to do the math in his head. He won’t be comfortable driving a car because he won’t be able to estimate distances between cars so he can brake safely. He won’t be able to count back change at the grocery store or be on time for an appointment.

Causes of Mathematics Disorder

There is no evidence of any exact cause of the disorder. Its manifestations are many and varied, including medical conditions which can also cause it. However, there are two types of dyscalculia: developmental, where the person was born with it, and acquired, where the person got it later in life following a trauma, for instance.

In the developmental corner, we have genetic problems such as epilepsy, Turner Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome which are known to cause mathematical disorder. Brain development during pregnancy might have something to do with it. Different manifestations could have different origins, but the main thing about the disorder is that, whatever causes it, it is primarily a learning disorder on a par with reading and writing. In the acquired corner, we have brain injuries through trauma or disease, like an accident or a stroke, which may also cause the disorder.

The theory that the disorder is neurological says the parietal lobe of the brain is at fault. This is the part of the brain that deals with numbers and enables a child or adult to recognize that seven baseballs is more than four baseballs. The theory states that the area of the brain will be different, such as being thicker, different in area and volume than in those without the disorder. Imaging studies have been done on children with the mathematics disorder alongside children without it while they were doing those types of figures. In the images, the parietal lobe of the children with the disorder functioned differently than the children without the disorder.

Treatment of Mathematics Disorder

Because there is no one cause or a cause that can be specifically pointed out, it follows that there is no one pill, shot, or other treatment for dyscalculia. In the case of accompanying physical or medical problems such as ADHD, then treating one will undeniably help the other. In most cases, the experts agree that treating the corollary conditions such as anxiety, self-confidence, and cognitive processes will aid in correcting the disorder.

The National Institutes of Health sums it up with “the treatment should be individually tailored… to the patient’s individual cognitive functional profile… and may incorporate medications and psychotherapy if merited by accompanying anxiety, depression or ADHD”.

Parents can and should work with the school to help the child using classroom methods, such as:

  • Time with special education teachers
  • Time with tutors
  • Using a calculator for the more difficult computations
  • A little more time during tests to figure it out
  • Having the teacher use real life things like spoons or buttons to help the child’s cognitive processes
  • Asking the teacher to help the child by teaching math systematically in order to help the child move seamlessly from one thing to the next, like from addition to subtraction

Parents can help a dyscalculic child at home with homework and in everyday life with the cognitive skills used in math:

  • Use the child’s toys to make math more real to him
  • Make math fun for the child by gamifying the subject – be sure to reward him for “winning” the game
  • Sit with the child as he works and ask him to teach you how the problem is done (helps verbalize the problem)
  • A long or very large lesson or homework paper can stop a kid’s mind cold. Separate the lesson or homework into smaller parts, so the child can proceed with some confidence
  • Along the same lines, don’t overload the kid with more than he can handle; it will increase the anxiety and lack of self-confidence
  • Have the child draw pictures of the math problem if that helps him understand better
  • Use graph paper to teach the child how to line up numbers properly
  • Place paper, a book or an arm over the remainder of the paper so the child can focus on one math problem at a time and not become overwhelmed

To help the child keep up his self-confidence and self-esteem, parents may:

  • Let the child know that being “not good at math” doesn’t make him the only one.
  • Play up his strengths; if he’s imaginative, then use it to teach him math
  • Encourage him to use multi-sensory methods for learning math such as counting cereal, dried beans or elbow macaroni; use his music CDs to count how many songs are about two front teeth, soldiers marching home and so forth

If these, in addition to online apps and games don’t work, a psychotherapist could help the child navigate the social and emotional aspects of a learning disability.

Prevention of Mathematics Disorder

There is absolutely no way to prevent dyscalculia. There is no way to prevent any other learning disability, either. Experts agree the only way is to get around it, thereby if not exactly eliminating the problem, at least not exacerbating it. Catching it early, they also agree, prevents the child from going further in school with the disability and suffering the corollary lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, building upon the child’s strengths helps him learn skills that make his weaknesses manageable. Methods of dealing with dyscalculia include:

Special education

Qualifying for special education services means the child must meet the criteria for such services as described by state and federal guidelines. This will begin when he is in preschool or around age three and goes until he is 21 or graduates high school. When he is diagnosed with a learning disorder, then he will be eligible for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

IDEA children receive free special education support from the public school system. The environment in which they receive that support will be one in which his specific needs are met, and one in which he will not in any way feel restricted from gaining everyday learning experiences.

When he qualifies for special education services, the child will receive an Individualized Education Program or IEP. This program is a plan for the child’s achievements, a list of experts who will work with him, and the goals he wants to meet within the plan.

Interventions in class are another way of getting around a learning disorder. If students with dyslexia (can’t get the letters in the right order to form a word) can listen to audio books or use computers with word processing and spell check programs, then it stands to reason that dyscalculic students might draw pictures using different colors to differentiate the parts of a problem (blue for addition, green for subtraction etc) or use a computer for practice and homework.

Included in any expert’s interventions is a visit to a mental health professional in order that the child might retain his self-confidence and self-esteem. This is most vital, even to students without learning disabilities.

Last Reviewed:
September 18, 2017
Last Updated:
September 18, 2017
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