Today I’d like to write about something completely different from what I usually write about (Fantasy, books, movies, etc.). A more serious topic of – hopefully – conversation: dyscalculia. Not as a doctor, or a professional in the field, because I’m not, but as someone who’s been hampered by this learning disorder her whole life – and who’ll continue to be hampered by it for the rest of it.
I thought long and hard about how to go about this. Should I write this post? Should I share it with the world? Isn’t it too private? Am I the right person to talk about this subject? After all, I’m only one of many who have this serious learning disorder. But I put my mind to writing about my experience – which might as well differ vastly from other people with dyscalculia – because in the end, it’s something that needs to be talked about more. Ask any number of people what dyslexia is, and they can tell you. Ask them what dyscalculia is and more often than not you only get silence as an answer. One or two people might know the name and refer to it as dyslexia but with numbers. But dyscalculia is so much more than, and comes with a heap of other disadvantages.
Because dyscalculia is such a “new” learning disorder, there are so many definitions that sometimes even contradict one another, and it’s often accompanied by other disorders like ADHD and ADD. What is agreed on though, is that dyscalculia is a learning disorder for mathematics and arithmetic. That’s oversimplified of course, but that’s the core. Below you’ll find some of the many symptoms/issues (based on data from http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyscalculia ) I struggle with. I’ve left out those that don’t apply to me, because I’m talking about my own experiences.
- Has difficulty when counting backwards;
- Has a poor sense of number and estimation;
- Has difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts, despite many hours of practice/rote learning;
- Has no strategies to compensate for lack of recall, other than to use counting;
- Has no sense of whether any answers that are obtained are right or nearly right;
- Tends to be slower to perform calculations. (Therefore give less examples, rather than more time);
- Forgets mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex, for example ‘long’ division;
- Addition is often the default operation. The other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether);
- Weak mental arithmetic skills;
- High levels of mathematics anxiety;
- Difficulty reading analogue clocks;
- Inability to comprehend financial planning or budgeting, sometimes even at a basic level; for example, estimating the cost of the items in a shopping basket or balancing a check book;
- Difficulty with multiplication-tables, and subtraction-tables, addition tables, division tables, mental arithmetic, etc.;
- Difficulty with conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time;
- Problems with differentiating between left and right;
- Difficulty reading musical notation;
- Difficulty navigating or mentally “turning” the map to face the current direction rather than the common North=Top usage;
- Having particular difficulty mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance (e.g., whether something is 10 or 20 feet (3 or 6 meters) away);
- Inability to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences;
- Inability to concentrate on mentally intensive tasks;
- Limited special reasoning;
- Bad memory.
That’s a long list, isn’t it? Rather than going through the list one item at a time, I’ve decided to just talk about how my life was affected by this disorder since the very beginning – in chronological order. (I won’t be going into details too much)
Childhood – teenage years
I was always a quick-learning child, and actually loved to learn. History, English, Chemistry, you name it, I enjoyed learning about it. Even as a little kid I set learning goals for myself; I started teaching myself English from the age of three, which was helped enormously by the fact my mother taught me to read at an early age. I had a little trouble with telling time on regular clocks, but I had no such problems with digital (24hr) clocks. So school was never a chore for me. That is…until arithmetic was introduced.
Do you know the Cheetos 24 game? (See picture below)
The idea of this game is that you use those four numbers to make 24. Addition, subtraction, you know the works. We used it during our mathematics class, and whenever that game came up, I got stressed. Because I couldn’t play very well. The only one I got was the one with 24 – 1 – 1 – 1 (24 x 1 – 1 +1), but my mind refused to help me play this game, or do simple mathematics/arithmetic. Multiplication tables? I don’t know them, with the exception of the table of 1, 2, 5, and 10.
I didn’t know there was anything wrong back then. I just thought I was stupid, even though I got high grades for all my other subjects. Then I went on to high school, and once again didn’t do well in mathematics. I kept getting terrible grades (the Dutch grading system goes from 1 to 10, with 5.5 being the halfway point. 5.5 you pass, 5.4 you fail), and even with tutoring I struggled. Half of the time I didn’t even know in what way to use my calculator. I had the same problem with economics, but chemistry and physics gave me no such problems – probably because we usually did experiments and didn’t have to do as much calculating.
During my two last years of high school I became acquainted with the term dyscalculia and what it meant, and one of my teachers even told me we should get me tested. It didn’t go through in the end, but at least I had something that made me understand why mathematics and arithmetic gave me such headaches even when I spent hours trying to understand. A teacher could explain a sum to me in 40 different ways and I still wouldn’t understand it, and I’d be afraid of hogging his or her attention, so I just said I understood it and let him move on to some other kid.
Seriously, start talking about train A departing from station B at a specific time and my brain has already left the station. I wouldn’t even know how to begin unravelling such a sum, let alone actually answering it.
It was during the transition from high school to university that I had myself tested for Asperger syndrome. I don’t have Asperger’s (not enough of the symptoms) but the invasive tests helped me understand something. There was something seriously not right when it came to the arithmetic/mathematics/spatial reasoning part of my brain. Those tests told me that while I had a high IQ, and good enough social skills, when it came to numbers, or spatial reasoning, something held me back.
When someone draws one of those fancy boxes (see below), I don’t see depth. So where other people see a box, I just see lines. Only when I tell myself it’s a box, does it start to look like a box to me.
Once again I got the advice to have myself tested for dyscalculia, but because the test was so very expensive and a diagnoses wouldn’t help me in any way academically (there’s too little known still about dyscalculia in schools/universities), I didn’t go through with it.
During the years I studied for my first Bachelor’s degree, I always passed the exams for my subjects with flying colours. All of them, except for one pesky subject: business economics. After a while, the situation became so serious that I wouldn’t be able to graduate because of that one subject – I’d already written my thesis and was in the middle of finishing my minor. So I talked it over with the councillor, after having retaken the business economics exam 7 times (the 8th time would be my last chance), and she pushed me to have myself tested. The institution would pay for part of the whole amount, and I decided to take that chance while I still could. I was about 20 years old at the time.
So I got myself tested. It was a two-part test: the first part consisted of talking to a psychologist (which went well) and the second part was the actual test of my arithmetic/mathematics skills, and the testing of my spatial reasoning and logic. This part took a few hours, and they were the toughest and most soul-crushing hours of my life so far. Not only was I forced to leave my examination papers half-empty, because I just couldn’t do certain things or didn’t know certain things; in the corners of those papers it was clearly stated that these examinations were for kids in elementary school. And yet, I couldn’t even complete/answer half of the sums and problems on those papers. I’d never felt so stupid in my life. I cried the entire way home.
But a week after, I finally got some good news: I had a heavy case of dyscalculia. Why I classified this as happy news? Because finally, after all those years of feeling like I was the dumbest kid in the classroom, I knew I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t because I didn’t try hard enough. I just had a huge wall called dyscalculia in my head and nothing number-related could get past it and make sense to me. It wasn’t my fault: it was just a learning disorder.
My self-esteem got a well-deserved boost and a huge weight fell off my shoulders that day.
Life in general
The diagnosis dyscalculia doesn’t help me, practically, in life. I passed business economics on theory, and graduated on my own strength. I went on to study Japanese – which is hard enough without also having to deal with a bad memory thanks to dyscalculia – and struggled through it as well. Have you ever had to say or write down big numbers in Japanese? It’s so stressful! But I graduated from that university too.
The effects of dyscalculia on my life won’t ever go away. I still have to pause when someone recites a phone number because my brain wants to turn the 36 into a 63. Whenever I want to say a date I have to think twice as hard not to mess it up. I can only tell time digitally (thanks to some great mnemonic aids: Sesame Street was on at six o’clock and that’s 18.00 hr, etc.), and I still count on my fingers.
Whenever I go to the store I always round up the prices, otherwise I don’t know how much it’ll cost me, and I’m still always wrong. (Though at least it’s usually less and not more). Whenever anyone asks me the time, I panic inside. Whenever people ask or tell me to remember something, I need to write it down because I will forget. I can’t read music. Estimating isn’t my strong suit.
During the time I worked as a part-timer, I usually had to work at the cash register, which gave me enormous amounts of anxiety: especially on Saturdays, when the queues were long and the people in a hurry. I was always afraid to make a mistake. In fact, most of the years I spent at learning institutions (elementary school, high school, university) I was stressed because of my various inabilities. The roadblocks I couldn’t climb over or avoid.
The stress that numbers bring me will never be over. People will continue to assume that I suck at mathematics and basic arithmetic, because I somehow didn’t try hard enough. Because I’m lazy. Because ‘kids these days’ don’t even know how to do basic arithmetic without a calculator. Or worse: assume that I’m using it as an excuse.
But you know what? It could always be worse – especially for an aspiring writer. Personally I would’ve hated it if I had dyslexia. Reading and writing would’ve been a struggle for me. At least I have a disorder that leaves my passions unaffected.