Developmental Dyscalculia

The ubiquity of numerical information that children and adults are exposed to in everyday life means that the ability to process that information is taken for granted by many people.

It has even been suggested that impairments in mathematical abilities are more “socially acceptable” than equivalent deficits in reading, writing or spelling.

In fact it is not uncommon to have children indicate that the inability to comprehend mathematics as a subject is something that runs in the family and that it is ‘okay’ to ‘not be Good’ in mathematics as long as they are good in the other subjects. Unfortunately what we need to appreciate and accept is that poor numeracy is no less of an obstacle to successful education and employment than poor literacy.

Developmental Dyscalculia may emerge at different stages of development, and this may be the result of different cognitive deficits interacting with the changing skill set required for successful arithmetic performance

A significant proportion of children who exhibit poor numeracy skills are faced with the prospect of living with what is known as Developmental Dyscalculia. This is mostly accepted as a disorder in a child’s mathematical abilities that is considered to have a neurological basis and specific impairments in the functioning of the neuronal network of brain.

Developmental Dyscalculia is different from Dyslexia and the two should not be mixed. This unique deficit in a child is not caused by the presence of dyslexia or any other symptoms like deficits in attention and or general cognitive intelligence also identified through IQ testing.

Children who manifest symptoms of developmental dyscalculia are behind their normally progressing peers in a wide range of numerical tasks. Difficulties in retrieval of arithmetical facts, solving arithmetical operations and following procedures those give math’s its uniqueness are a serious hurdle for these children.

Brain structures, which are wired differently, have been implicated in mathematical difficulties, with research narrowing down to the activity of the parietal lobes. In fact it is now accepted that if there is an infract to the left side of the brain and more so to what is known as the left intraparietal sulcus, it is sufficient to create a situation where the particular child will be afflicted with what is known as ‘acalculia’. In the same vein, a significant number of children who are born prematurely eventually develop in to children who face difficulty in calculation problems in school and beyond. This happens due to insult to the grey matter of the brain on the left hemisphere.

When parents and teachers notice a child showing atypical responses or effects on size congruency, subitizing and magnitude comparisons when dealing with mathematical numerical processing - should take note, as these are atypical effects that a child with developmental dyscalculia will manifest.

Parents will also notice that the most consistently observed deficit in their children if they are prone to developmental dyscalculia is the learning and retrieval of arithmetic facts from semantic memory.

The child’s lack of automaticity in arithmetic fact retrieval will also be associated with the perseverant use of immature problem solving and counting strategies. Children who are unable to recall the answers to simple arithmetic problems fluently are forced to resort to finger counting (and doodling in the margins) in order to compute the solution.

Consequently these children are unable to follow and assimilate the more complex procedural knowledge being taught. Thus, a deficit in arithmetic fact retrieval may have knock on effects for other aspects of arithmetic ability, which may be unrelated in terms of underlying processes.

Children with developmental dyscalculia- when they do recall arithmetic facts from memory, will display answers that are error prone and show reaction time and error patterns which are different from typically developing children

As an indication of the severity of this deficit, typically developing children have been found to recall an average of three times as many arithmetic facts as a child with developmental dyscalculia children

Another group of commonly observed deficits by the parents and teachers will be difficulties in executing calculation procedures, and the use of immature problem-solving strategies used for calculation.

Children with “mathematical difficulties” will show problems with both written calculation problems and arithmetic fact retrieval.

It has been suggested that while procedural problems are likely to improve with experience, retrieval problems will be more persistent, because retrieval deficits stem from impairments in semantic long-term memory, whereas procedural deficits reflect a lack of conceptual understanding, which may be more easily remediated through focused educational intervention

What is as yet unknown is whether these impairments are underscored by a core deficit in a cognitive system specialized for the representation and processing of numerical information, or whether they are a by-product of impairments in other cognitive domains such as memory or language.

Is developmental dyscalculia a domain general phenomenon or whether it is a domain pure disorder is an issue that is still being debated, but children who struggle with difficulty in retrieval of arithmetical facts face academic distress as the psychosocial impact of not being able to perform tasks that others sitting around them in a classroom seem to be handling with ease is significant.

These children will be on a continuum where their difficulty would impact and be related to deficits in attention, their ability on how their working memory has evolved and long-term memory or retention ability has formed. They may have an idea of the conceptual knowledge of arithmetic as it is being taught but complications arising from their top down executive functions and spatial functions may cause them despair to their functional inability.

Parents who struggle with themselves and their children on numerical inability and arithmetical deficits would be better off to appreciate that the basis of developmental disorders is considered to be of genetic origin.

Amongst the multiple aspects of development that may be being impacted by the abnormal expression of genes it is possible that the core numerical processing ability of a child is being affected.

Children with developmental dyscalculia and who have a normal level of conceptual general ability also have problems with attention as the area of the brain that is the genesis for developmental dyscalculia is also the area that is crucial and plays an important role in the attentional mechanisms of orienting ones attention to the task at hand.

Deficits in recruiting attention and consciously attending to the complexity of core processing are hurdles that children have to grapple with on a daily basis when they work on their math’s.

When children try to evaluate a small set of objects accurately and with speed, it is known as subitizing. A child who has a core-processing problem in mathematics will have a smaller range where subitizing is concerned. This smaller range amongst other issues of expression also arises from the attentional drift that affects the child. A child with developmental dyscalculia is not able to inhibit irrelevant information entering his senses and a reduced ability to take on a high attentional load interferes with his performance. The child may not be suffering from any attention deficit disorders, but the inhibition difficulty throws the entire sequence of organizing information out of sequence, and this probably happens because the area of the brain, which is responsible for causing developmental dyscalculia, in the first place is in anatomical proximity to the alertness network and the orienting network.

Therefore if we begin to accept that there may be impaired neural representations - of numerical magnitudes that undermines the foundation on which school level arithmetic learning is based, we can understand that despite having equivalent intelligence, socio- economic background and schooling environment as their typically developing peers, a substantial number of children can fail to develop the numerical skills necessary to carry out even the most basic numerical operations with confidence and ease. That this deficiency will stay with them for life and become a hurdle when expression of learnt academics is called upon for assessment and testing to determine and select the few who will be allowed to progress onto institutions of higher learning and achievement based on meritocracy is a fact that cannot be changed.

Motivation, teaching method, learning environment, attentional difficulties, anxiety, studying in a mainstream classroom where peers of different background and ability are taught together along with (at time) inadequate teaching methods can also form the groundwork of factors that adversely affect math’s performances in developing children.

However, it is prudent, to come for an assessment to ascertain the presence of the learning disorder and usually a psychometric diagnosis of developmental dyscalculia occurs on the basis of a discrepancy criteria.

As we progress into an increasingly ‘cognitive meritocratic’ society, mathematics is becoming increasingly complicated in school and specially with the progression of grades to senior high. With this the nature of behavioural deficits can also vary over time and an important question parents need to consider is whether deficits observed at an initial stage of schooling are the result of a cognitive difficulty with a new concept or skill, or is this difficulty something that can be traced back to an underlying core deficit that came across as stable from across the developmental trajectory of the child since early childhood - and which is interrupting the structured acquisition of more advanced mathematical abilities.

For more information on Developmental Dyscalculia and how it can affect the trajectory of academic achievement of your child please call the Dyslexia Association of India™ to set up an appointment. The Association can be contacted either on e mail at Info@dyslexiaindia.org.in or on phone at +91 88260 22886