Diffuse cognitive profiles in Dyscalculia

In an academic setting like a school, it is very important for children to have perfect acquisition of numerical competency, not only for performance in day to day activities, but also for the quality of life and their economic well being as they progress in life.

Impairment in learning and remembering arithmetic facts and figures and difficulty in performing calculation procedures is a form of a specific learning difficulty, which is also, known as developmental dyscalculia.

When a child is faced with numerosity difficulties right from the commencement of schooling, it is most probably due to neurobiological factors, although the exact neurocognitive profile is difficult to pin point unless a through screening has been conducted for the child. This testing can be in the form of understanding the childs ability of basic number knowledge, multidigit calculation abilities, or complex mathematical retrieval abilities.

Normed tests use different cutoff criteria for validating whether a child has dyscalculia or not and in our personal opinion, the cut off criteria should be at or below the 25th percentile of the analysis of variance in reaching the conclusion of a particular child being dyscalculic or not.

In addition to having a 25th Percentile on the readings of the test results, we also believe that with the extent of bio-diversity in India relating to children, the issue of dyscalculia is an extremely heterogeneous condition in India, and children who are developmental dyscalculic’s exhibit different profiles of mathematics related disabilities.

Within the brain, the ability to perform mathematical calculation and to have proficiency in numerosity, the child has to be able to draw on cortical activity within the brain which is dependent on complex distributed networks and there can be numerous processing linkages that can be vulnerable to deviations which eventually result in the disability of number processing for the student.

We can have one child who has difficulty with symbolic processing while another may demonstrate disability with non symbolic processing and the biodiversity underlying it means that three different brain regions are vulnerable to the disability and each needs a individualized approach to help the child in his/her efforts at learning.

The processing chain in the brain is so tightly interworked together that the areas for number processing are strongly linked to other mental functions like the ability to pay attention and attend to the tasks of calculation.

It is no wonder then that parents worry that the moment their child sits down to study mathematics, there is a significant amount of fidgetiness and an in ability to study the subject.

When we get children who are proficient in other subjects but have a specific mathematical reading disorder and are ‘pure’ dyscalculic’s, the extent of heterogeneity is evident where no one child has the same problem as the next child.

The Dyslexia Association of India™ had a case of a child who showed serious levels of arithmetic fact retrieval deficit and at the same time exhibited accurate non-symbolic number processing ability, which is strongly correlated with dyscalculia.

This disability at retrieval of arithmetic facts is a form of a cognitive profile that we notice in a lot of children and usually goes undiagnosed until class VI – when diverse subjects like algebra and geometry are introduced.

This profile suggests to us a multiple brain integration delay - evidenced by the deficits shown in fact retrieval and processing of calculation procedures in a step by step manner when presented with a question to solve.

The normal notion is that calculation inability and inability to comprehend the question is what makes a child dyscalculic. But we have children who can comprehend the question, but cannot retrieve facts from memory, and then we have children who can perform the calculations perfectly but cannot retrieve the facts from memory of what the question is asking from them and then a third category who cannot sequence the structure of the answer, nor can they perform calculations but understand the question and go blank.

These are children in whom the preverbal ability to represent and manipulate the concept of quantities which is the basic foundation of the symbolic number system has not developed, or is delayed in maturation. This delay or in some cases a proper impairment in the ability to encode the concept of number ability and spatial confusion leads to the development of a poor symbolic system and the inability of the child to compensate.

Dyscalculia if it comes associated with weak memory skills can lead a child to not be able to access the magnitude of information from numerals from memory and this impairment of not being able to make the connection between numerals and the innate magnitude representations leads to a mathematical disorder and failure of the cognitive system for mathematics.

We also observe children who have come to the Dyslexia Association of India™ not being able to manipulate the correlation between the distance effect and the problem size effect and experiencing extreme difficulty in separating the numbers from small to large in calculations. On a mental number line these children get stuck after executing the first two steps of the mathematical problem and it takes them forever to progress to the logical end of the solution. The teacher will always indicate that ‘he knows the answer, but just cannot get the steps and the procedure correct’ or will indicate that ‘she knows the sum and how to do it, but starts making errors from step 3 onwards’. Well, it not so simple because we know that it takes ontogenetic development to overcome this bottleneck, but most parents will continue to ignore this and keep trying to ‘drill’ into the childs brain the steps and sequence and have an extremely tense and desperate child who is not able to sequence or draw from memory the requisite numerals to complete the problem as the distance effect confuses them even more.

Difficulties with distinguishing and comparing numerals and numerosities only leads to poor performance on the symbolic number estimation ability and this eventually also affects the non symbolic number discrimination capacity for children who are poor in mathematics.

Rather than trying to ‘drill’ math’s into the brains of their children, parents would be well advised to appreciate that there may be a number processing deficit in their children which is not being exhibited - on purpose, but may be due to an underlying neurological issue where the child is not able to automatically map between mathematical symbols and their semantic referents – or that the child has not developed the operative capacity an understanding of the development of Arabic-numerals and symbolization of numbers or the numerospatial conceptual ability which is preventing them to work with numerical symbols.

Dyscalculia eventually children who acquire a negative attitude to counting and arithmetic, which, in turn, often develops into a specific mathematics anxiety or even a generalized phobia about going to school.

Unless specifically treated, dyscalculia persists into adulthood and it can lastingly impair personality development, schooling, and the job or work the individual does as adults with poor arithmetic skills suffer a major disadvantage on the work acquisition ability.

Early recognition and differential diagnosis of Dyscalculia is important matter not just for children - who must often deal with the secondary conditions that arise from dyscalculia but also the parents and the family as the delayed acquisition of pre-scholastic skills in the nursery and kindergarten years may already be an early sign of a problem.

There is no point in ‘struggling’ to drill mathematical facts into your childs brain if he/she is co-operative and still not able to understand math’s. The inability may be due to an underlying issue and you as parents may well be advised to spend some time to understand your childs strengths and weakness and come and seek professional assistance.

The time and effort spent, as we repeatedly emphasise to parents in unraveling the actual cognitive problem is insignificant compared to the long-term consequences of dyscalculia.

In fact one of the books that has been created by the Dyslexia Association of India™ teaches children about money concepts and builds the Neural Foundations for Mathematical concepts to be understood with clarity right from the age of 2 years. We would encourage parents to do two things. The first is having your child tested and screened very properly so that we can identify any deficit right from the start of the schooling years. Second Please use the books of the DAI™ to jump-start your children even before they enter school so that the cognitive basis of learning to read begins to develop.

For further information and to book an assessment please contact the Dyslexia Association of India™ on our mobile number 88260 22886 or e-mail us at info@dyslexiaindia.org.in for more advice and information.

(Views and observations expressed in our articles are equivocal and personal based on our observations and experience. Being equivocal and personal they are non contestable and Individuals are under no pressure to confirm to our views, thoughts and observations. The accuracy ratio for screening and remedial processes of the DAI™ is extremely high.)