Understanding Dyscalculia

Scientists studying how the human brain works have created fruit flies that can count. They’re hoping this research will shed some light on why some humans can’t. It’s a condition called dyscalculia, and it affects the ability to do arithmetic.

Problems with math are common, but sometimes studying doesn’t seem to help. Dyscalculia refers to any of a variety of learning disabilities that make it more than usually difficult for someone to develop math skills. This difficulty, typically manifesting in early childhood, doesn’t always make it impossible to do basic math, but it will require special effort. The fruit-fly study suggests that the condition may have a genetic or biological basis.

A child with dyscalculia may have trouble with the idea of quantity or comparative value. In school, dyscalculic students struggle with carrying and borrowing in arithmetic, fractions, pattern recognition, and making connections between mathematical operations and the language used to describe them. This last problem means the student will do poorly with word problems and it will present obstacles in attempting to apply mathematical knowledge and understanding to the real world.

In schoolwork, these students have difficulty organizing problems on the page and planning out their work. They often have issues with time concepts, such as day, weeks, and months. This is not a problem of not knowing what these things are, but there is generally a failure to develop intuitions about them. Dyscalculia in adults can also cause problems with handling money and making change.

As with other learning disabilities, interventions are more effective the earlier they are used. Some strategies for dealing with dyscalculia include:

  • Graph paper and colored pencils.
  • Using diagrams and drawings to convey math concepts visually.
  • Turning word problems into pictures.
  • Tutoring and peer assistance.
  • Allowing the use of scratch paper.

In the recent study, the scientists gave the flies math lessons. After 40 generations of flies, the lessons started to stick. Fruit flies are often used in genetics research because of the simplicity of their genes and the speed—in human terms—with which they reproduce. The results can be generalized to humans, who have several of the same genes.

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