When it comes to talking about learning disabilities versus physical disabilities like deafness, mental disabilities like schizophrenia, and intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome, they do not imply a person is dumb. Quite on the contrary, learning disabilities are primarily neurologically-based problems which affect development in literacy, numeracy, and linguistic skills. They increase the difficulty for said average-IQ (or higher) student, child, or adult in attaining their full capacity as compared to others in their age bracket without the learning disability. So rather than saying that it’s a matter of incapability, its incapacitation, but one which can be overcome and the individual succeeds in life provided the right support and intervention methods are used.
Learning disabilities are able to influence higher-level abilities like organization, time keeping, abstract reasoning, memory, and attention keeping. They can also affect a person’s life beyond academics and work, impacting relationships with significant others, co-workers, and absolute strangers. Due to the physically unnoticeable aspect of many learning disabilities, they are also known as “hidden disabilities”.
Dyscalculia: “Number Blindness”
One of the most popular learning disabilities is dyslexia, a disorder involving difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols- but which does not affect general intelligence. A similar, but seemingly less well-known, condition is dyscalculia, the math equivalent. Dyscalculia affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn mathematical facts. There may be poor comprehension of math symbols, difficulty in driving and navigation, in telling time, some aspects of home management (like shopping), keeping time, planning and scheduling, trouble with cooking and budgeting, and struggles to memorize and organize numbers.
Someone might wonder, “Can’t they use calculators?” They are available on phones, at school and workplaces, and cashier terminals have already displayed the amount meant to be paid. However, the problem is not the environment or that they are morons: it’s the brain’s processing of seen information into retained and expressed information– what is mentally understood and exhibited. For example, spreadsheets are used to perform calculations and they help save time when crunching massive amounts of data. Those with dyscalculia may find themselves losing track of numbers they are entering, missing digits, putting digits back to front, or frequently repeating (or deleting) a digit too many times. Merely copying down a phone number can prove very stressful and time consuming with the person checking it repeatedly.
Looking at numbers and all it comes with has been described by The Tab dyscalculic writer Chris Glass as follows: “I can grasp the premise, but the part of my brain that processes these actions and make the connections between the action and the numbers simply just doesn’t work. It’s like describing colour to a blind man; when it comes to maths, I can only see shadows and shades of the colourful reality.
“Take a basic sum, for example: 68 plus 73. This process might look a little like this in your head:
Just like you learned in school
“Pretty basic, but to a dyscalculic person, the whole process looks closer to this:
“It’s easy though, duh”
“And that’s mild dyscalculia. Some can’t even begin to visualise any sort of numerical processing in their heads; I, for example, cannot see numbers at all. Instead, my basic maths processing looks a lot more like an array of shapes and colours and processes such as addition, subtraction and fractions interact with these shapes and colours in weird ways I can’t really describe. Confused? Yep, me too.”
Dyscalculia is thought to result from abnormal, or lacking, development of brain parts dealing with mathematical abstract, learning, and application. It is also likely that there is a genetic link along with environmental factors such as alcohol consumption during pregnancy and premature birth.
Signs and Symptoms to Look For
Anyone can tell how pervaded numeracy is in day-to-day activities. It therefore becomes imperative that parents, teachers, and team leaders in businesses are able to note struggles with dyscalculia in their children and co-workers as early as possible. It will make it easier for the student as they’ll be able to learn various strategies to study, and live, with the disability; easier for the adult now that they have an alternative to the “math has just always been hard for me” statement; and easier for families, friends, and co-workers to better support the person through their daily working and social life. The young will also avoid limiting their future career prospects due to dyscalculia.
On that note, here are some traits experienced by persons with dyscalculia:
- Exhibits difficulty understanding concepts of place value, quantity, number lines, positive and negative value, carrying and borrowing (so counting backwards can be hard)
- Has difficulty understanding and doing word problems
- Has difficulty sequencing information or events (such as understanding a school timetable); recalling the order of events; following sequential orders
- Counts fingers for simple math problems
- Shows difficulty using the steps in math operations and learning new procedures
- Struggles recalling number facts from memory (like the times table)
- Expresses difficulty understanding fractions and noticing digits themselves
- Is challenged making change and handling money, especially in a timely manner for elementary mathematical calculations; understanding prices
- Memorizing phone numbers can be challenging- if not impossible
- Displays difficulty recognizing patterns when adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing
- Has difficulty describing math processes linguistically
- Has difficulty understanding concepts related to time such as days, months, seasons, quarters, etc. (reading a calendar could also be challenging)
- Reveals difficulty organizing problems on the page, keeping numbers lined up, following through on long division problems
Assessment and Need for Sensitization
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, learning disabilities cannot be cured or fixed and are lifelong conditions. While some medication may assist with conditions sometimes related to dyscalculia, such as ADHD and anxiety, there is no particular medication that can exclusively help the condition. The only solution is to find ways to maximize on other skills and talents in order to compensate, and train, what is lacking.
As shown, poor math skills does not fully indicate stupidity or laziness and might hint potential difficulties in a function of the brain. So if you, or your children, experiences difficulties with numeracy, get screened for dyscalculia, learn about it, and consider joining advocacy for awareness and early intervention. Also, screen for any other learning disability since they are closely related and often found together- and target both therapeuticallyrather than impose the tag of “primary cause” on either one without certainty. This has been given blame for the low turn-out of diagnosed dyscalculic children with ADHD, for instance.
Not only would this acquired knowledge increase self-acceptance and appreciation in the dyscalculic, but it would encourage them to master and discover their non-numeric talents while working on where they are weakest with extra tutoring, time, and consistency. The advocacy would also reduce stigma, increase research, awareness, and interventions on it; as well as improve understandings of the condition at school and in working spaces. The result will be a supportive learning and working environment with reduced stress and angst for the student or worker. Increasing awareness is incredibly important since research shows that children with dyscalculia are less likely by more than a hundred times to those with dyslexia to be diagnosed and educationally supported- though both conditions are expected to be equally common. So don’t forget to involve the student’s teachers, counselors, and any special needs coordinators to ensure the student’s support, comfort, and growth.
The following ways are strategies which can be used to support the dyscalculic:
- Allow use of fingers for counting and scratch paper for calculations or visual depiction
- Use diagrams, pictures, and draw math concepts
- Get screen as early as possible as it will help in preparations for higher level math in higher studies and some potential future careers.
- Encourage peer assistance
- Suggest use of graph paper
- Offer use of colored pencils to differentiate problems
- Use mnemonic devices to learn steps of a math concept
- Incorporate rhythm and music when teaching math facts; set steps to a beat
- Schedule computer time for students for drill and practice of class topics
- Teach and allow use of the copy and paste functions of computers and phones, text to speech, and speech to text functionality, and any other computer-related short cuts.
- Play number games (verbal, board games, etc.)
- There are assistive technology products on the market including mathematical and textural speech recognition, talking calculators, and the like which can be used in schools, at home, and in the work place.
- Workplace management should familiarize with the condition and provide workplace coaching where, for example, dyscalculia impacts on time keeping, scheduling, work load planning, completion of numerical reports; among others.
By: Ann Yebei