Difficulty with math concepts may be a sign of dyscalculia, a learning disorder that’s easiest to treat during childhood.

Some learning disorders are more well known than others and therefore diagnosed earlier. A less talked about learning disorder called dyscalculia is when someone has trouble with basic math concepts.

Children and adults with learning disorders have the same intellectual capacity as their peers who do not have learning challenges. They can learn; they just learn differently. About 1 in 5 children in the United States has a learning or attention disorder.

Dyscalculia develops during childhood and is better treated the earlier it’s caught. But sometimes, it’s not diagnosed until adulthood.

Either way, there are treatments and resources available that help people with dyscalculia cope with and even overcome the condition.

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder where an individual has difficulty performing basic math. This includes:

  • counting
  • recognizing numerical patterns
  • recalling mathematical facts

It can affect men and women of all ages. One German study noted that 3% to 7% of children, adolescents, and adults are diagnosed with dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia does not simply refer to making mistakes when doing calculations or inverting numbers. Those with the condition find it difficult to understand the core concepts all math is founded on, such as three of something being greater than two.

This learning disorder can not only make it challenging to succeed in an academic environment, but it can also impact everyday life.

A major sign of a specific learning disorder like dyscalculia is average or high performance in other subjects, such as reading but very low grades in math-based classes.

Here are several specific signs of dyscalculia that you can look for:

  • trouble processing numbers and measuring quantities, beginning in preschool
  • difficulty understanding the association between a number (e.g., 3) and the quantity it represents (e.g., 3 carrots)
  • trouble telling time on a clock
  • a hard time counting, comparing numbers or amounts
  • challenges with basic mathematical calculations
  • use of fingers to count beyond appropriate age and difficulty counting backward
  • trouble recognizing math symbols and what calculation they refer to

Many of these symptoms speak to a core lack of understanding of math concepts. People with dyscalculia can find it hard to remember the concepts, as well as when and how to apply them.

Symptoms in adults with dyscalculia look different than those in children. The condition can be marked by difficulty:

  • managing finances
  • performing simple money calculations
  • reading charts and graphs
  • grasping spatial awareness

This condition can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

In many cases, dyscalculia is a hereditary condition. Genetics play a major role in brain development and cognitive abilities.

“Dyscalculia is likely due to a combination of genetics and neurodevelopment. For example, learning disabilities often run in families, and a child with dyscalculia likely has a first-generation relative with the condition,” says Nicole Arzt, LMFT, and consultant for Kim Saeed. “That said, there isn’t much research on what specifically causes the condition.”

More specifically, it involves unformed neural pathways or the left hemisphere of the brain, the side that controls numerical tasks and mathematical processing, not functioning properly.

Some researchers believe that dyscalculia is the result of early math instruction explaining concepts only as rules to follow and not delving into the logic behind them.

A 2013 study reports a link between mathematical disabilities and other conditions, including:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) define dyscalculia as ‘specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics.’ People may also call it a learning disorder or learning disability.

Children are typically diagnosed by late primary school, when classes are rigorous enough to make specific challenges more obvious. Primary doctors, learning specialists, and psychologists may be part of a diagnosis team for children.

A dyscalculia diagnosis involves analyzing mathematical performance by using standardized testing and clinical examination. On standardized tests designed for primary school age, children with dyscalculia typically perform below grade level.

Among 5-year-olds, there are certain skills (specifically, comprehension of quantity and being able to compare numbers and quantities, and counting) that can predict their ability to calculate and carry out numerical tasks. Working memory can also predict their calculation ability.

Adults will typically be diagnosed by a primary doctor and a psychologist.

Since dyscalculia is developmental, early interventions are most effective. You do not age out of a learning disorder.

Since dyscalculia affects everyone differently, all treatment methods for dyscalculia should be on a case-by-case basis. The specific areas of low mathematical performance should be targeted, and the intervention method can be designed accordingly.

After examining the child’s skill level and coming up with the diagnosis, teachers can create an environment that is more suited to the child’s needs. This includes eliminating distractions that could interfere with the learning process. In some cases, a child will receive one-on-one teaching during school hours and a tutor after school.

“People may benefit from special accommodations like supportive technology or counting tools,” Artz explains. “Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can promote relaxation and confidence, which can also help people with dyscalculia. Adults may benefit from assistive technology or specific tutoring in math.”

While children with untreated dyscalculia will try to adapt to cope with their math difficulties, childhood developmental disorders can continue to have an impact in adulthood.

An adult with dyscalculia who has difficulty carrying out daily numerical tasks, may also experience anxiety and depression. Treatment plans often include therapy to improve mental health.

There is limited research to show the effectiveness of treating dyscalculia in adults, but support with coping strategies can still improve quality of life. The awareness that a diagnosis alone brings may boost adults’ self-esteem.

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability that makes it difficult to understand math concepts. It doesn’t reflect on a child’s or adults’ intelligence whatsoever.

Symptoms include trouble measuring quantities, counting, and making connections between numbers and the quantity it represents. The condition is treatable with early diagnosis.

Most schools are required to support children with dyscalculia with an adaptive class that’s designed to meet their developmental needs or an adjusted curriculum. A private tutor and psychologist can also help a child overcome this learning disorder.