Here’s a simple question for you to answer, which number is larger 55 or 23?
The answer is of course 55, most of us can answer this question in less than 0.5 seconds. But there are a few who will take as long as 3 seconds. These people may have something called dyscalculia. Dyscalculia (also known as number blindness) is a condition in which a person’s number sense is defective. People diagnosed with dyscalculia usually have problems correlating they symbol for a number (for example 7) with the number of objects the symbol represents. Counting is also difficult for them. This of course does not mean they can’t count but they tend to lack basic intuitions about numbers and need to rely on alternative strategies to cope with numbers (for example using their fingers more).
You can think of dyscalculia as the numerical version of dyslexia. There are a lot of simiarlties between dyscalculia and dyslexia, they affect approximately the same proportion of the population (about 3 to 6 percent) and they appear to have no bearing on overall intelligence. They probably both make it difficult for suffers to excel at school, subjects involving numbers such as math and science can be difficult for those with dyscalculia, while subjects that involve reading and writing are usually difficult for those who are dyslexic. Yet one big difference between the two is that there is a lot more known about dyslexia than dyscalculia. For every one Academic paper on dyscalculia there are approximately ten papers on dyslexia. One possible reason why dyscalculia research is so far behind is because it is only one possible reason why some one is not good at math. There are MANY reasons why someone is bad at math – it is often taught badly at schools and it is easy to fall behind if you miss lessons when critical concepts are introduced. Society is also somewhat more accepting of being bad with numbers than being bad with reading.
It is important that we understand dyscalculia better, adults with low numeracy have a higher chance of being unemployed or depressed than their peers. The fact that those who suffer from a form of an invisible disability (a disability that others cannot see) such as dyscalculia are more likely to be depressed than their peers should not be a surprise. Think of the reaction you get from others when you have trouble performing a task considered easy. Unfortunately many of us tend to be judgmental (when we can’t see the disability) and give a reaction that is rather unkind and insensitive when we see someone struggle with a task we consider easy. The poor soul with an invisible disability is often left with a broken heart from the reaction he or she gets from others for their mistakes and struggles. It hurts to be perceived as “stupid”.
Over time research will revel a clearer picture of what dyscalculia is – and how the number sense works in the brain. The self esteem of many children will be saved as we learn more about this invisible disability. In the mean time if you have a child who you suspect or know has dyscalculia here is general information sheet you may find helpful.
There is also series of videos called Maths Explained by Dr. Steve Chinn a leading authority in this field. These videos can be found at