By: Catherine Joachin
What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a severe deficit in the processing of arithmetic and numerical information. It is characterized by difficulty using mathematics in everyday situations such as when handling monetary transactions or measuring items (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.). Under the DSM-5 classification, the disorder is categorized as a specific learning disorder alongside dysgraphia as well as dyslexia and shares similar prevalence rates of approximately 5 to 15% (APA, 2013). The etiology of dyscalculia remains unknown; however, research suggests that genetic predispositions might increase the risk of developing learning disabilities as these tend to run in families (Cleveland Clinic; Kaufman & von Aster, 2012). Cognitive impairment in areas of the brain responsible for working memory and spatial skills has also been associated with developmental dyscalculia (Devine et. al., 2018; Kaufmann et. al., 2012).
To receive a diagnosis of dyscalculia, an individual’s mathematical difficulties must cause noticeable problems in his or her’s academic and daily functioning (WHO, 2019). According to the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (2019), symptoms must be unrelated to any intellectual, developmental, or sensory impairment, neurological disorder, or brain injury. Dyscalculic symptomatology is dynamic, meaning that the condition can manifest itself differently over the course of a person’s lifetime (APA, 2013). Symptoms include:
- Poor memorization of number facts
- Inaccurate calculation
- Poor mathematical reasoning
- Difficulty organizing mathematical information
Dyscalculia can also lead to emotional distress which can take the form of anxiety, frustration, and physical symptoms such as sweating or nausea in children with poor mathematical performance (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.; Kaufmann & von Aster, 2012).
Dyscalculia is comorbid with several neurodevelopmental and other mental conditions; hence treatment should be customized to each patient’s unique cognitive profile (Kaufmann & von Aster, 2012). Early intervention and acknowledgment of comorbid symptoms are considered important factors in the prognosis of the condition.
Focusing on specific areas of poor mathematical performance has been shown to improve performance more than no intervention or non-specific practice tasks in dyscalculic participants with no comorbid disorder (Haberstroh &Schulte-Körne, 2019).
Dyscalculia and Epilepsy
High rates of below-average mathematical ability have been reported in children and teens with idiopathic epilepsy (Thomé et. al., 2014). Findings imply that epilepsy and dyscalculia share neurobiological bases but not a causal link. Thomé and colleagues (2014) also reported no known prevalence of developmental dyscalculia in childhood idiopathic epilepsy.
Older studies report that dyscalculia is encountered in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental language disorder, epilepsy, and fragile X syndrome (Shalev, 2004; Kaufmann, 2012). However, this could suggest that mathematical difficulties are present in other conditions, and diagnosis is not restricted to dyscalculia alone.
Poole and Lah’s (2023) study on mathematics difficulties experienced by adults with epilepsy argues that math-related impairments may be comorbid rather than related to epilepsy. While adults with epilepsy expressed greater basic and secondary mathematical difficulties than controls, these discrepancies were explained by poor working memory and, to an undetermined extent, attentional and executive skill deficits (Poole & Lah, 2023).
Dyscalculia is a processing disorder specific to numerical facts. While there is a scarcity of studies conjointly examining dyscalculia and epilepsy, the consensus is that mathematical deficits appear more frequently in epileptic populations with no causal link as to why. Further research on understanding the development of brain structures as we learn mathematical information and on potential neurobiological pathways between dyscalculia and epilepsy may lead to a better understanding of this phenomenon.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Cheng, D., Miao, X., Wu, H., Chen, C., Chen, Q., & Zhou, X. (2022). Dyscalculia and dyslexia in Chinese children with idiopathic epilepsy: Different patterns of prevalence, comorbidity, and gender differences. Epilepsia Open, 7(1), 160-169. https://doi.org/10.1002/epi4.12577
Cleveland Clinic (n.d.). Dyscalculia. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23949-dyscalculia#symptoms-and-causes
Devine, A., Hill, F., Carey, E., & Szűcs, D. (2018). Cognitive and emotional math problems largely dissociate: Prevalence of developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3), 431-444. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000222
Haberstroh, S. & Schulte-Körne, G. (2019). The Diagnosis and Treatment of Dyscalculia. Deutsches Ärtzeblatt International, 109(45), 767-777; quiz 778. https://doi.org/10.3238/artzebl.2012.0767
Poole, B.J., & Lah, S. (2023). Difficulties with mathematics experienced by adults with epilepsy in daily life: An online study. Epilepsy & Behavior, 138, 109000-109000. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yebah.2022.109000
Shalev, R.S. (2004). Developmental Dyscalculia. Journal of Child Neurology, 19(10), 765-771. https://doi.org/10.1177/08830738040190100601
Thomé, U., Paixão Alves, S.R., da, Guerreiro, S.M., Machado da Costa, C.R.C., Souza Moreira, F. de, Bandeira Lima, A., Ferreria Tavares, M.R., & Souza Maia Filho, H. (2014). Developmental dyscalculia in children and adolescents with idiopathic epilepsies in a Brazilian sample. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria, 72(4), 283-288. https://doi.org/10.1590/0004-282X2014001
World Health Organization (2019). 6A03.2 Developmental learning disorder with impairment in mathematics. International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th ed.). https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http:////id.who.int/icd/entity/771231188