What is it?

Mathematics disorder is a learning disability that is characterized by difficulties with calculation, with understanding math concepts, and with applying math skills when solving functional word problems. Some children with the disorder struggle with the mechanical operations of math, such as basic calculations. Others have trouble understanding the language used in math. Children may struggle with all areas of mathematics or have difficulty with only one aspect of math functioning. In addition, the severity may vary given the child’s other areas of strength and weakness. Mathematics disorder is not related to IQ, and children with the disorder might do well in subjects requiring logic instead of formulas. Some children struggle to visualize and understand spatial relationships that might be required in geometry or in using a number line. Some children struggle with multi-step problems that require sequencing. Children who have difficulty with memory retrieval may have difficulty recalling basic math facts.   

What to look for

If your child is challenged by basic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication or division he might transpose number order when copying down a problem, confuse basic symbols such as + and -, and make simple computational errors. You might notice that the answer to a math problem might be off by a single digit or that the place value is incorrect. Following a lesson during class might be easy but reproducing the concept when completing homework might prove much harder. Mental mathematics can be particularly difficult for kids who struggle with the mechanics. If your child is more challenged by understanding spatial and directional concepts or understanding math language, he might misunderstand the order of operations or the orientation of a figure or diagram or might not understand the meaning of quantity words like “half” or “dozen,” or concept words like “between” and “instead.” These kids will often read a word problem and not know which details are important. Mathematics disorder manifests outside the classroom, too. Counting change, reading clocks or a calendar, saying the days of the week or months of the year in order, and estimating time or money can all be extremely challenging for kids with mathematics disorder.


Researchers are unsure of the exact causes of mathematics disorder. Like dyslexia, it may genetic in nature.


To be diagnosed with mathematics disorder, a child must demonstrate mathematical ability substantially below the expected level, as estimated by his age, intelligence and education. Mathematical ability can be measured by individually administered standardized tests of math reasoning, spatial ability, numerical computations and ability to solve word problems.


Learning disorders change as children grow and change. While there is no cure for mathematics disorder, there are ways to make math more understandable. Treatment involves developing learning strategies tailored to your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. For example, repetition and mnemonic devices might make it easier to memorize a formula, and drawing a picture to illustrate a problem might help your child visualize what is being asked. In addition to treatment, a psychologist specializing in learning disorders or a math teacher or learning specialist can also help determine if there are any services or accommodations your child might benefit from at school.

Other disorders to look out for

Some children with mathematics disorder also have sequencing difficulties that can affect reading and spelling. Some may have difficulty understanding lengthy or complex language. A child who has difficulty with motor coordination and spatial orientation may struggle with math.

Frequently asked questions

Can my child receive special education for mathematics disorder?
Special education criteria vary from state to state. If your child’s math difficulties are considered severe enough to meet your state’s criteria for a learning disability, he should be entitled to special education services provided by the local school district.
What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting?
An IEP meeting determines a child’s special education program. At an IEP meeting parents sit down with representatives from the school to discuss any special classes that might be appropriate for their child, as well as any specific services that he requires, such as specialized teaching methods recommended for children with mathematics disorder. Some children may require accommodations like use of a calculator or extended time on math tests.
Can mathematics disorder be cured?
While there is no cure for mathematics disorder, fortunately there are ways to help. A learning specialist can recommend strategies for your child and determine if any services or accommodations will help at school. Medication is not used to treat mathematics disorder.
Does my child have a mathematics disorder and dyslexia?
Some children with a mathematics disorder also have dyslexia, although most do not. If you have reason to suspect that your child has dyslexia he should be tested for that as well. Children with dyslexia struggle with reading and if your child is having trouble reading math word problems it is likely that reading, not math, is the prominent issue.


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