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Recognising and diagnosing adult dyscalculia - a guide for employers and organisations

What is dyscalculia?

Czechoslovakian psychologist Ladislav Kosc introduced the term developmental dyscalculia in 1974Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty that impacts on a person’s ability to acquire and perform skills in arithmetic and mathematics. It is a difficulty that is not consistent with:

  • the individual’s intellectual abilities;Dyscalculia
  • their chronological age;
  • the opportunities they have had to be educated in maths.

Kosc’s definition is still used today, however there are other definitions in use, as well as similar constructs. What all the definitions have in common is the presence of specific difficulties in mathematics.

What causes dyscalculia?

It is assumed that developmental dyscalculia is caused by a dysfunction of areas of the brain, however research establishing this is still in its infancy. The main goal of the ongoing research is to develop diagnostic and remediation techniques. There is great optimism from the community that this is possible because the study of dyslexia has been through a similar process over the last 30 years.

 How many have dyscalculia?

This is difficult to establish due to the different criteria used for diagnosis in different countries. In the UK studies can only give a rough estimate and the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) reports an incidence of around 5% of the UK population. However the BDA also reports that around 25% of adults report having difficulty with maths.

Isn’t dyscalculia just ‘maths anxiety’? 

‘Maths anxiety’ is the term used to describe the emotional fear of failing and self-doubt experienced by some children and adults when taking part in mathematical activity. While there is (again) little research into the possible overlap, the work by the researcher Brian Butterworth suggests that it is reasonable to argue that having dyscalculia could increase the chances of having ‘maths anxiety’. However the preliminary findings in his research have found the possibility that ‘maths anxiety’ being the cause of dyscalculia as less likely.
Read this BBC article: Do you have ‘maths anxiety’? 
Read this article from Understood on the different signs of ‘maths anxiety’ and dyscalculia

Difficulties in adults arising from dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is characterised by an individual’s inability to:

  • comprehend basic number concepts and simple maths facts;
  • perform accurate and fluent calculations;
  • comprehend the relationship between numbers, such as magnitude;
  • recognise the meaning of symbols;
  • make sense of quantitative information;
  • understand spatial information.

What does dyscalculia look like in the workplace?

An adult with dyscalculia may:

  • get anxious at the thought of having to do any form of maths unexpectedly, especially in front of others;
  • run short of time during a task and fail to plan enough time for task to be completed;
  • have difficulty with understanding graphs or charts;
  • have difficulty handling money or keeping track of finances;
  • miss out or transpose numbers when reading from a spreadsheet or list;
  • find it difficult to use Excel formulas;
  • use fingers or other markers to count or keep track of numbers;
  • have several different answers for the same mathematical problem;
  • need to check work over and over again to be confident of the right answer;
  • be unable to remember numbers, pin numbers, codes, mathematical rules or times tables automatically;
  • be poor at estimating numbers, distance or quantities;
  • lack ability to come up with strategies to compensate for a lack of recall;
  • lack a sense of whether the answers they get to mathematical problems are close or nearly right;
  • have poor judgement of space and distance;
  • perform calculations slowly.

Comparisons with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

The relationship between dyscalculia and dyslexia and ADHD is not clear. It is not known whether there is a common cause for example an area of the brain or a general brain developmental factor, or in the case of ADHD, it is still not clear whether there is difficulty in maintaining sustained attention for long enough to process and learn mathematical information.

If you do a search on the internet you will find far fewer resources and information banks on dyscalculia than on ADHD and dyslexia. In your internet searches you might have seen dyscalculia described as ‘dyslexia with numbers’ but this is not an accurate description of dyscalculia. While there is some co-occurrence of dyslexia and dyscalculia, not all dyslexics are also dyscalculic or vice-versa. In fact, without having dyscalculia, dyslexics may have a different set of difficulties with numbers that are connected to their dyslexia, For instance they can have difficulty performing fluently and quickly with numbers due to their:

  • poor working memory;
  • slow absorption of the task in hand when reading a written maths problem;
  • difficulties with sequencing and organising information;
  • slow absorption of the task in hand when processing spoken language.

How is dyscalculia diagnosed?

Currently the diagnosis of dyscalculia is based on its effects, i.e. that a person has specific difficulties in mathematics. Diagnosis based on effects is much more difficult because there may be many reasons why a person is poor at maths. For instance the individual who is poor at maths might:

  • have a lack of motivation;
  • have an attention deficit;
  • have an anxiety disorder;
  • have been given inadequate education or instruction.

Methods of diagnosis vary, but they have some common characteristics:

1. They attempt the identification of a difficulty in maths that impacts on academic achievement or affects everyday life.
2. They attempt to rule out of other potential reasons that could be creating that difficulty.

The diagnosis involves the person giving detailed information about their background and taking part in a series of maths-based tests administered and observed by a qualified assessor. The diagnosis relies on the assessor being able to rule out other potential reasons for the difficulty. So once other factors have been ruled out, there is an assumption that a brain dysfunction is the explanation.

What to do to support employees with dyscalculia

Just like dyslexia, the research carried out on dyscalculia suggests that there are varying levels of severity and different areas of mathematical ability can be affected. Also like dyslexia, dyscalculia can be hidden from view, so regardless of whether you have noticed these kinds of behaviour in your workforce, they are likely to be there, given that it is estimated that 25% have mathematical difficulties. 

A useful course of action is to open up the discussion about dyscalculia and other specific learning difficulties – such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD on a work-wide basis. Let it be known that as an employer you are interested in supporting your employees. This will encourage them to recognise their difficulties and to come forward for appropriate support.  

Encouragement could be something as simple as putting out a display of leaflets or an information board and having awareness training for staff. Support could come in the form of screening, assessment and workplace assessments to enable support to be put in place, making the mathematical elements of their work less stressful.

Getting a diagnosis of adult dyscalculia in the UK

You might want to use a free screening tool first, which are available here:

Chartered psychologists, occupational psychologists and educational psychologists who specialise in adult dyslexia and specialist tutor/assessors may be able to identify conditions that frequently co-occur alongside dyslexia, including dyscalculia.

Check out PATOSS tutor/ assessor index for information on specialist tutor/assessors who may be able to assess your employees at: https://www.patoss-dyslexia.org/SupportAdvice/TutorAssessorIndex/

Check out the British Psychological Society for information on psychologists who may be able to assess your employees at: www.bps.org.uk

Halfpenny Development conduct assessments for dyscalculia using specialist tutor/assessors. Get in touch here with your requirements:  www.halfpennydevelopment.co.uk/contact


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