Dyscalculia: Why numbers matter in communication

3rd March 2023 is Dyscalculia Awareness Day. To mark the occassion, we’ve explored this specific learning difficulty, shared some personal experiences of dyscalculia and considered how dyscalculia can impact court users during legal proceedings. Legal professionals who would like learn more about assisting court users who have numeracy difficulties can download a free guide from The Access Brief.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty, which is lifelong. The DSM-5 defines it as:

 ‘Difficulties in production or comprehension of quantities, numerical symbols, or basic arithmetic operations that are not consistent with the person’s chronological age, educational opportunities, or intellectual abilities.’

The British Dyslexia Association states:

‘Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics.’

In the past, dyscalculia was sometimes referred to as “number blindness”. In contemporary times, it’s often casually described as “like dyslexia for numbers”, but this can be misleading as they are separate conditions.

Just as dyslexia’s impact stretches beyond its effects upon reading, dyscalculia can affect people in ways that we may not immediately think of.

No two people with dyscalculia are the same, but areas of difficulty can include:

  • Counting, backwards and forwards
  • Connecting a number to the quantity it represents (e.g., the number “2” to two apples)
  • Using time concepts (e.g., planning travel times or considering how long a task will take).
  • Remembering numbers, such as times, dates, phone numbers, what area of the car park you are in, the number of your hotel room.
  • Doing mental arithmetic (people may prefer to work things out on paper or count on fingers).
  • Reading the time from analogue and/or digital clocks.
  • Recognising patterns and sequences.
  • Recalling mathematical processes, even after learning them several times.
  • Recalling mathematical facts e.g. times tables.
  • Handling money e.g. knowing the total cost of your shopping basket or working out change.
  • Distance and spatial issues, such as map reading, telling left from right, following directions.
  • Poor visual and spatial orientation.

Prevalence and co-morbidities

An estimated 3-6% of people have dyscalculia, with a much great number having maths learning difficulties to a lesser degree.

Like many learning difficulties, dyscalculia rarely occurs in isolation. 11% of people with ADHD have dyscalculia, and it often occurs alongside dyslexia or dyspraxia.

A visual depiction of statistics showing that 3-6% of people have dyscalculia and 11% of people with ADHD have dyscalculia

Similar difficulties can also onset later in life, due to conditions such as a brain injury or stroke. This is called acalculia.


Dyscalculia appears under the “specific learning disorder” (SLD) section in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5). There’s no set test for dyscalculia. A psychologist may evaluate using academic history, personal accounts and numeracy assessments.

In the UK, there’s no standardised pathway for obtaining a diagnosis, particularly for adults. This means that many people with these difficulties will never be told they have dyscalculia, unless they pursue a diagnosis privately. Various ‘screeners’ are available, many for a fee, that can give an indication of whether dyscalculia is ‘likely’, though these tools cannot diagnose.

‘Maths Anxiety’

Often people don’t know that they have dyscalculia but are very aware of things that they find difficult, with no explanation for these difficulties. This can cause anxiety, which in turn can make people feel embarrassed and avoidant of certain tasks, or of asking for help.

People may feel embarrassed about using strategies such as counting on fingers or worry that they are holding others up when they need time to write things down or ask questions.

In education, it’s almost an accepted norm to say, ‘I hate maths’, but the dread of numeracy can creep into other subjects too, particularly as people get older and academic study becomes more nuanced. For example, what is physics, if not science maths? Chemistry is surely the maths that makes things go boom. Higher level education often relies on an ability to extract meaning from journal articles and research, where statistics, percentages, confidence intervals, standard deviations and ratios are commonplace.

Personal experience

Communicourt intermediary, Rory, has experienced persistent difficulties relating to numbers. He has kindly shared his personal experience of these difficulties:

“For me, I’ve taken the free screeners and been unsurprised by their indication that I may have dyscalculia. It sits alongside my being diagnosed with ADHD last year and would explain a lot of the difficult and anxiety-written experiences with maths and numbers that populated my education.

I have struggled with maths for as long as I can remember. Despite being labelled ‘gifted and talented’ in other subjects, I felt totally and stressfully behind in maths lessons. The phrases ‘You just think you can’t’ and ‘If you could just apply yourself’ came up a lot from well-meaning teachers and family members

Labels and diagnoses are not for everyone, but for me the explanation helps.

I am, regardless of a label, an adult who only knows the 5 times table (if given time to recite it whilst counting on my fingers).

I only know two phone numbers and two PIN numbers, and if I learn more, I think one may well fall out.

I wasn’t confident with telling the time on analogue or 24-hour clocks until I was in my teens.

I had 9 years of very patient maths tutoring and, every week, I turned up having forgotten all the processes I had learnt the previous week. (And the 450 weeks before that… Sorry, Mr K.)

I can listen to a personal finance podcast and understand the concept of a mortgage, or watch a (dozen) videos explaining what a standard deviation is, but once I try and apply that concept to actual numbers, it all crumbles away.

And very quickly, this becomes a list of things I’m not good at. And that then becomes a list of things I avoid doing in front of others, or at all. BUT, if I can admit that I find it difficult, I can spend my energy on working around that difficulty instead of beating myself up over it.

For example, If I’m given a code for a door at court or locker at a prison, the person who gives to me is going to have to wait while I dig out my trusty Post-Its or notes app and write it down. If I ask a service user for their date of birth, you can bet I’ll be heading straight for my trusty date calculator website to check if the age they gave was correct. I photograph the number on my hotel door before I leave. I’ve been blessed with ten fingers, and it would be rude not to use them for every counting opportunity that I can.

It’s not a flawless system. More than once I’ve diligently reviewed the number of the card I’m using for an online transaction and presently been contacted by the finance team to ask if I intended to buy my fancy pants on my company card (Sorry, Pam).

I still avoid certain tasks. I steer clear of credit cards, loans and investments because I haven’t got the foggiest idea how they work. If I can, I will pay something in a lump sum rather than instalments, to avoid any more numbers to keep track of. I have to trust that when my partner says, ‘This how much your share of the rent and bills comes to’, he’s telling the truth. (Hopefully he is and is not just saving for an early retirement at my expense. He is a spreadsheet man, and those things could say ‘Formula to steal all Rory’s money’ and I wouldn’t know…)”.

Dyscalculia in court proceedings

The intermediary role is generally associated with the understanding of words and language, and the understanding of numbers is not something that is typically considered when the court requests an intermediary assessment. However, time and number concepts are used in many areas of life and communication, and therefore difficulty with these concepts can impact court users’ participation in proceedings too.

For example:

  • Recalling and referring to dates is common in both written and oral evidence.
  • Detailed timelines and chronologies are often used in Crown court cases.
  • Navigating paperwork and court bundles e.g. ‘Page C653’ or ‘Paragraph 12.25’.
  • Expert reports often refer to percentages, percentiles, scores and ranges.
  • Number concepts occur in everyday speech e.g. “John missed a third of his classes” or “Mr Jones was late to 75% of the appointments”.
  • Difficulty with reading and estimating time can make planning journeys to court stressful, impacting service users’ punctuality and emotional state on arrival.
  • Knowing that being told to come back at “twenty to four” means they have to be back when their mobile phone shows 15:40.
  • Embarrassment or negative feelings about numeracy difficulties can lead to court users feeling anxious or trying to mask their difficulties. This can have a knock-on impact on attention, rapport-building and emotional regulation.

Communicourt intermediary assessments often look at a court user’s grasp of time and number concepts, and explore existing and potential strategies to assist each individual’s difficulties in the context of legal proceedings.

For more information on numeracy difficulties (and how legal professionals can assist court users with this area of difficulty) download our free guide on The Access Brief.