Dyscalculia is essentially a learning disability in mathematics. Dyscalculia is defined by impairments in processing numerical information, learning math facts, and performing accurate or fluent calculations. As a clinical psychologist, I tend to use the diagnostic term, Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in mathematics instead of the traditional term, dyscalculia. This is the diagnostic label used by the DSM-5 to describe the pattern of problems an individual has with math. It is more comprehensive than the criteria for dyscalculia, which means we can also assess for problems with math reasoning ability (and sometimes problems associated with word reasoning) in addition to the core diagnostic criteria of dyscalculia. In my opinion, this helps us to make sure that less children fall through the cracks during the diagnostics process, as we can look for more underlying cognitive components that can contribute to problems with math.
How do you know if your child has dyscalculia, or Specific Learning Disorder in Math? The first line of evidence generally occurs when you notice your child struggles with math at home or at school. Despite adequate opportunities to learn and study mathematics, your child struggles to perform various facets of math. Once you notice your child struggles with math, you can communicate with your child’s school to explore the possibility of a response to intervention plan. This is a strategy that offers various levels of instruction and research-based interventions that occur in the classroom. Often, a child can be diagnosed with a Specific Learning Disability in Math based on their performance within the response to intervention context.
However, formal assessment can also diagnose specific learning disorders. In my opinion, the advantage of formal assessment is that it can more adeptly identify the cognitive factors that contribute to learning disabilities in math, and a diagnosis can be obtained without having to wait for your child to pass through the stages of response to intervention. In addition, formal assessment not only identifies the factors that contribute to difficulties with math, it can also offer research-based interventions to address difficulties with these different factors.
There are different ways to assess for dyscalculia. The Individuals with Disabilities Act identifies three methods: discrepancy between cognitive ability and academic performance, the response to intervention classroom strategy, and other research-based methods such as the strengths and weakness model. Based on your professional of choice, compelling arguments can be made for many different assessment models. Thus, I am always slightly wary of the expert that claims to have the “right way” to assess for a specific learning disorder and discredits other research-based approaches. The bottom line is that the field of assessment for specific learning disorders is still emerging and learning, and we don’t have the perfect assessment model yet. However, a lot of research has been conducted and has identified different areas of cognitive ability that are associated with math performance. Thus, if we are looking for the same underlying deficits, our different assessment models should still lead us to the same goal. At the end of the day, our job is to do the best evaluation we can perform-given the current research at our disposal and evidence-based assessment tools-in order to help your child succeed in the academic arena.