What happens in mathematics disorder, exactly?

What is it?

Mathematics disorder, or dyscalculia, is an innate difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics. This can be presented as having difficulties in understanding numbers, learning how to do things with them, and learning mathematical facts.

Mathematics disorder occurs in the whole IQ range, i.e. it is possible to have severe difficulties with mathematics but still be very intelligent. 3-6% of the population are thought to be affected, and a quarter of those have ADHD.

What causes it?

A higher risk of mathematics syndrome is associated with Turner syndrome, Foetal alcoholic syndrome, and being born with a low birth weight. These are all associated with less nerve cells or less brain activity in the areas that process mathematics.

What happens during it?

It is thought that people understand numbers through placing them on a mental number line. That way we can approximate how big numbers are and how big the distances between certain numbers are. It is possible that mathematics syndrome occurs because, for some reason, the people’s brains have a hard time using this mental number line that we others take for granted. Some researches think that mathematics syndrome might be caused by as big as a 5-year delay in magnitude representation skills, although it is yet to be seen whether the problems are actually caused by a developmental delay or an intrinsic injury.

It is also proposed that mathematics syndrome occurs because the affected are not able to transfer the meaning of the approximate numbers on the previously discussed mental number line into the symbolic representations (1,2,3…) that we use. People with mathematics syndrome have, in fact, been found to be quite good at comparing different non-symbolic magnitudes with each other, while struggling to do the same when the magnitudes are represented as symbolic numbers. Evidence for this is not consistent across all studies, though.

How can it be treated?

Doing numerical exercises either with a teacher or on a computer is probably useful in helping the affected get a “feel” of numerical magnitudes. Other than that, there is usually not much more that can be done. Even though mathematics syndrome can be a restriction and an annoyance, the person with it is often perfectly capable of living a normal and successful life. When school is over there is so much more freedom in choosing what kind of things one wants to do, and there are plenty of pathways that don’t require a mastering of mathematics.