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Understanding Dyscalculia

QUESTION: “I have a 15-year-old son who has been having difficulty in Math since grade school. Most of the time, he has been flunking the subject or his grades have always below average. What confuses me is that he excels in other subjects like English and Science. In fact, he even represents his school in these areas. Recently, I have read about dyscalculia and I thought could this be the case of my child? What are the symptoms of this condition? Are there long-term effects? If my child has this, isn’t it too late for him to undergo treatments or therapy? What are the options for people who are diagnosed late with this disability?”

Dyscalculia is surprisingly not uncommon to be discovered late inasmuch as many of us truly have difficulties in Math. Most children are intelligent and often have above average to superior IQs, yet they cannot do well in math. Even if they have photographic memories, they often have difficulties memorizing the multiplication table. Only a handful of “gifted” people are endowed with mathematical minds. We often think that it is all right, only to find out later that it is a hindrance to the academic progress of the child.

Among the common symptoms of dyscalculia are:

• Normal or accelerated language acquisition: verbal, reading, writing Poetic ability. Good visual memory for the printed word. Good in the areas of science (until a level requiring higher math skills is reached), geometry (figures with logic not formulas), and creative arts.

• Difficulty with the abstract concepts of time and direction. Inability to recall schedules, and sequences of past or future events. Unable to keep track of time. May be chronically late.

• Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Poor mental math ability. Poor with money and credit. Cannot do financial planning or budgeting. Checkbooks not balanced. Short term, not long term financial thinking. Fails to see big financial picture. May have fear of money and cash transactions. May be unable to mentally figure change due back, the amounts to pay for tips, taxes, etc.

• When writing, reading and recalling numbers, these common mistakes are made: number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals.

• Inability to grasp and remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence (order of operations), and basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Poor long term memory (retention & retrieval) of concept mastery- may be able to perform math operations one day, but draw a blank the next. May be able to do book work but fails all tests and quizzes.

• May be unable to comprehend or “picture” mechanical processes. Lack “big picture or whole picture” thinking. Poor ability to “visualize or picture” the location of the numbers on the face of a clock, the geographical locations of states, countries, oceans, streets and the like.

• Poor memory for the “layout” of things. Gets lost or disoriented easily. May have a poor sense of direction, lo May have difficulty grasping concepts of formal music education. Difficulty sight-reading music or learning fingering to play an instrument.

• May have poor athletic coordination, difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing physical directions like in aerobic, dance, and exercise classes. Difficulty remembering dance step sequences, rules for playing sports.

• Difficulty keeping score during games, or difficulty remembering how to keep score in games, like bowling, etc. Often looses track of whose turn it is during games, like cards and board games. Limited strategic planning ability for games like chess.”


For most learning disabilities especially dyscalculia, it pervasively persists despite intensive help. Because of the problem, most bright children with the disorder become affected emotionally and get depressed. They try as hard as they can but for some reason they can not excel.

The problem becomes more profound when decimal points, fractions, and equations are given, more so when the child has to go through Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, etc.

For as long as they have some idea in basic math (ie, addition, subtraction, etc), they can progress and become successful.

Because this disability is resistant to remediation, up until there are specific teaching methods to rectify the problem, a seemingly effective method is “by-passing” the deficit.

By way of analogy, we do not insist clumsy children to become ballet dancers or a tone-deaf child to become a singer, we also cannot force a child to become a mathematician when he cannot do it, not because he does not like to do it, but because he cannot.

Therefore, during the school years, the school (provides a written report with a diagnosis “Developmental Arithmetic Disability or Dyscalculia” from a developmental pediatrician with all the explanation) should allow certain provisions to the child like the use of calculators, not asking the child to verbally respond to arithmetic questions (thus avoiding further embarrassment from the other children, creating more depression), and to make arithmetic chores as simple as possible.


It is important to possess tons of patience and positive attitude when dealing with the dyscalculic child. Here are some tips to consider:

• Consider the strengths and weaknesses of your child. Aim to work more on the core strengths and reduce the weaknesses. Help your child to realize his or her strengths and teach your child to think positively. Use the strengths in a way that helps him or her to grasp things easily.

• Teach your child in the direction of his or her interest. For example, if your child likes drawing, ask him to draw the mathematical signs in different colors. This will help your child to identify the signs easily. You can also use charts, pictures and diagrams to represent numbers. You can use CDs to make learning easier and fun. The best way of teaching is at the basic level, where the child’s most interest lies.

• As you work on the strengths, weakness and interests of your child, you should design a strategy for training your child and exercise it regularly. This will help you to keep track and mark the improvements in your child. Consistency and regular practice are the keys to the improvement of your child.

• Set a goal and have a strong will to complete it. Having such attitude will definitely help you to bring progress in your child. As your child is doing fairly well in other subjects, it will be possible to do well in mathematics too. Every child has problems with this subject in one way or another. However, correcting it at the right time will make the child’s future brighter.

Being dyscalculic is not a deterrent to success. The following were said to be dyscalculic:

  1. Albert Einstein had no grasp of basic arithmetic, yet he is one of a few truly considered genius

  2. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at age 12 because he failed arithmetic

  3. Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, had to struggle so much with math

  4. Hans Christian Andersen, writer of classical children’s books.

  5. Entertainers such as Mary Tyler Moore, Henry Winkler, and Cher.

Dr. Francis Xavier M. Dimalanta is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, an active consultant and head for external affairs & human development of St. Luke’s Medical Center’s Pediatrics Department.

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