We sat at the kitchen table for hours with M&Ms, colored toothpicks, pennies, and other items that might hold our daughter's attention to improve her math skills. We explained, encouraged, and rewarded. We invested in every color, shape, and size of flash card. We helped her make her own personalized sets of cards. Nothing worked. Our daughter's blank stares and random guesses made it seem like she was choosing to add, subtract, multiply, or divide based on a whim, rather than reading the numbers and symbols. Math was a nightmare for her and for us.
Learning disabilities related to math are called dyscalculia. "All learning occurs because the brain develops specialized structures for different tasks," says Glynis Hannell, a family psychologist and author of Dyscalculia: Action Plans for Successful Learning in Mathematics. "Some of us are blessed with brains that quickly develop networks that make math easy, obvious, and interesting. Students and adults with dyscalculia find math puzzling, frustrating, and difficult to learn. Their brains need more teaching, more targeted learning experiences, and more practice to develop these networks."
At first, we blamed our daughter's ADHD for her math struggles. The ADHD brain has little trouble focusing on topics it finds exciting or interesting. On the flip side, the ADHD brain finds it tough to focus on topics it doesn't like or finds boring. Math certainly qualified as boring to our daughter. It made sense that her inattentiveness was driving her problems.
It wasn't until we learned about dyscalculia that we realized there was more at play than just her ADHD. Hannell points out that "about 20 percent of students with ADHD also have dyscalculia. To put it in perspective, this means that 1 in 5 students with ADHD/ADD are at risk of also having this learning disability."
Distinguishing a specific learning disability from ADHD can be challenging and intimidating for parents. Overlapping symptoms make it hard to determine where ADHD ends and the learning disability begins. Knowing what to look for can make all the difference in figuring out whether your child has ADHD and dyscalculia.
Long-time educator and dyscalculia specialist Ronit Bird lays out the symptoms of dyscalculia in The Dyscalculia Toolkit, a book designed to help teachers and parents whose children are struggling with the disorder. Bird says that there are many subtle indicators to watch for.
- A child with dyscalculia may use his fingers to count out math solutions, long after his peers have stopped using that method.
- He may work tirelessly on memorizing math facts, but he always has trouble recalling them.
- Numbers and symbols are not linked to amounts and directions, making math a negotiable subject rather than a concrete one. When doing an addition problem, our daughter would look quizzically at us and announce firmly, "But I don't want to add, I want to subtract."
- Making sense of money is a challenge. A child may hand a cashier a fistful of bills and change rather than counting it out.
- Telling time on an analog clock is a problem.
- There is a hesitation before sorting out right from left.
- There is difficulty in recognizing patterns and sequencing numbers. Our daughter recently confessed that, when she was young, she counted 3, 2, 1, 4 instead of 1, 2, 3, 4. It took years for her to get number sequencing down.