Dyscalculia | Learning Disability Focus

dyscalculia: pen on paper with maths equations

Approximately 6% of people have dyscalculia, a learning difficulty affecting an individual’s ability to understand numbers. Dyscalculia can sometimes be referred to as “number dyslexia” as the signs and symptoms are very similar.

Approximately 50% of individuals with dyscalculia will also have dyslexia, although they are very different learning difficulties. You can read more about dyslexia here; this blog focuses on dyscalculia, we take a look at what it is, possible causes, common signs, and the support that is available.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that is characterised by difficulty understanding numbers. The British Dyslexia Association define dyscalculia as:

“…a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities.”

What causes dyscalculia?

Research into the causes is limited and is lagging far behind research into dyslexia, and the exact causes are unknown. However, current research suggests that issues in brain development or genetics are possible causes, as research has found that dyscalculia tends to run in families.

Further studies conducted around brain imaging have shown that individuals with dyscalculia have a slightly different brain structure than those without. A study by Kadosh et al. conducted in 2007 surfaced strong evidence that malformations in the right parietal lobe of the brain were a likely cause of dyscalculia.

A more recent study conducted in 2020 by McCaskey et al. conducted on 35 children aged 8-11, concluded that the individuals with dyscalculia had reduced grey and white matter volumes in areas of the brain that are number related.

Signs of dyscalculia

There are different signs and symptoms of dyscalculia across different age groups.

The most common signs for young children include:

  • Difficulty learning to count
  • Difficulty recognising patterns such as smallest to largest
  • Struggling to learn and recall basic number facts (for example, 2+3=5)
  • Using fingers to count
  • Confusion with or poor understanding of the addition (+), subtraction (-), multiply (x), and divide (÷) signs, as well as the greater than (>) and less than (<) signs
  • Trouble with activities involving numbers, for example keeping score in games or adding up the cost of items

Signs present in older children and teenagers can include:

  • Difficulty understanding charts and graphs
  • Struggling with measurements, for example measuring ingredients when cooking
  • Difficulty telling the time
  • Difficulty understanding fractions
  • Struggling in everyday situations that involve numbers, for example counting money or working out the correct change from a given amount

These symptoms would also continue into adulthood, along with:

  • Difficulty counting backwards
  • Struggling to understand place value
  • Mixing up left and right
  • Poor mental arithmetic skills
  • Slow to perform mathematical equations and calculations
  • Maths anxiety – worrying about maths or situations that may involve numbers, and/or avoiding everyday activities that would involve an understanding of numbers

In this video, Josie explains some of the most common signs, and her experience of living with dyscalculia:

It is important to note that everyone can struggle or have difficulty with mathematics, however the differentiation between general struggles and dyscalculia is that individuals with dyscalculia will have greater difficulty with numbers, and these difficulties will be prolonged. On the other hand, if an individual only struggles occasionally, this is unlikely to be dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia diagnosis

So how is dyscalculia diagnosed?

The first step to a diagnosis is an informal assessment. This can be carried out by any professional with experience in maths learning difficulties.

The informal assessment will identify areas where the individual has difficulty, and a bespoke support plan can be devised to help the individual. The assessment will also highlight any traits of dyscalculia for further investigation through a formal diagnostic assessment.

To receive a formal diagnosis, individuals will need to undergo a formal diagnostic assessment by a qualified assessor. The Dyscalculia Network can recommend qualified assessors, specialists, and tutors in your area.

There’s support available to help manage the symptoms of dyscalculia, and a formal diagnosis is not required to access it.

What support is available?

There are lots of online resources that are easy to understand and access. Maths Explained has a variety of video tutorials to help with maths difficulties, and the British Dyslexia Association has further information and support on their website.

There are also tools available such as visual number aids, for example abacuses, number cards or counters.

For more focused support, there are specialist tutors who can work with individuals to develop ways to tackle areas where they may struggle, for example with money, and support is also available from HMRC for help with things like tax returns or help filling in forms.

Northern Healthcare support

Here at Northern Healthcare, our teams provide support to individuals with dyscalculia and other learning difficulties. Our teams work together with our residents to find the right tools to support them. This can include bespoke materials such as abacuses, maths cards and counters, and books. Our Learning Disability Nurses also provide dedicated support to our residents with learning difficulties and disabilities, and we have close partnerships with external organisations enabling us to collaborate with external professionals for more specialised support if required.

Find out more about our support model.


Roi Cohen Kadosh, Kathrin Cohen Kadosh, Teresa Schuhmann, Amanda Kaas, Rainer Goebel, Avishai Henik, Alexander T Sack, 2007. Virtual dyscalculia induced by parietal-lobe TMS impairs automatic magnitude processing. 

R S Shalev, O Manor, B Kerem, M Ayali, N Badichi, Y Friedlander, V Gross-Tsur, 2001. Developmental dyscalculia is a familial learning disability. 

Ursina McCaskey, Michael von Aster, Ruth O’Gorman, and Karin Kucian, 2020. Persistent Differences in Brain Structure in Developmental Dyscalculia: A Longitudinal Morphometry Study.


Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash.

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