Let's Talk About the Link Between ADHD and Dyscalculia
People with ADHD often have difficulties with school and work. Between experiences of low focus, forgetfulness, boredom, and difficulty concentrating, it can be hard to thrive in neurotypical environments. On top of that, a disproportionate amount of people with ADHD also deal with a learning condition called dyscalculia relative to the general population.
Dyscalculia is characterized as a learning disability in which a person has difficulty with math and concepts related to numbers. Experiences include having a harder time with counting, understanding which numbers are greater than others, and doing mental math. Dyscalculia has often more colloquially been referred to as similar to dyslexia, but with numbers instead of words.
What’s shocking to learn is that up to 60% of children with ADHD will also have some sort of learning disability, like dyscalculia or dyslexia while these conditions appear in 5% of children in the general population, so the prevalence of these conditions amongst people with ADHD is astronomically higher. When we look at both conditions closely, it is easy to see there is a bit of overlap, and how ADHD may make working with numbers harder due to two main areas: executive dysfunction and working memory.
People with ADHD (myself included) often find executive dysfunction to be a main manifestation of our ADHD. In simple terms, executive dysfunction is when a person struggles with tasks that often seem easy for neurotypical people, especially tasks that require multiple steps to be followed. For example, doing a load of laundry that requires sorting clothes, getting detergent, running the washer, sorting clothes into the dryer, running the dryer, and then putting away clothes is a bunch of steps that can be hard to follow. This can make multi-step math problems difficult because it’s hard to maintain focus for so many steps. It’s also hard to switch from one task to another with ADHD, so students doing math problems that require multiple math functions (ex. (7+3)x2/5) may struggle. Another example is if students are given multiple math problems, but half are multiplication and half are division, which would require mentally switching for each problem.
Working memory is limited when you deal with ADHD, so it can be hard to remember all the little steps that are required to complete a math problem. Many children memorize their times tables and just know the answers to math questions without really thinking about how they got their answer, which can be much more difficult for people with ADHD and dyscalculia because of the difficulties with counting numbers and using working memory to solve a problem. Many math concepts are abstract, and require remembering little rules or tricks to complete the calculation faster or mentally and the difficulty with doing that is amplified in people who experience both ADHD and dyscalculia.
It’s estimated that almost one-third of children with ADHD will also experience a math learning disability (dyscalculia). Despite these staggering numbers, it’s also possible that indications of dyscalculia could also be overlooked as manifestations of ADHD, which could cause missed diagnoses or a misdiagnosis. For example, not remembering if a phone number ends in 213 or 231 could be explained as a mental mix-up due to ADHD symptoms like a lack of working memory, not concentrating enough, or being forgetful/inattentive. At the same time, mixing up numbers could be attributed to dyscalculia. It could be either, or it could be both.
Being neurodivergent with a condition like ADHD is hard enough on its own, but add a learning disability like dyscalculia on top, and it’s easy to see how difficult it can be to function in a world built for neurotypicals. Luckily, there are a few strategies and accommodations that can help manage these hindrances, such as providing mnemonics to remember steps, taking more time to review concepts that require memorization, providing visual tools that are easy to take mental pictures of, or clear examples that make abstract concepts more concrete.
It’s essential that we rethink our neurotypical ways of thinking and learning to make education more accessible to neurodivergent children who may deal with ADHD, dyscalculia, or both. Both ADHD and dyscalculia are not indications of a lack of intelligence, though people with these conditions are often made to feel “lazy” or “stupid,” when it’s actually quite the opposite. The amount of effort it would take to try and navigate learning with these more complicated circumstances would be much higher than their neurotypical peers. People with ADHD and dyscalculia are smart, capable, hardworking, and amazing, and with the right tools, have the ability to excel in whatever they choose.
Getty image by VikramRaghuvanshi.