Dyscalculia: Dyslexia's Lesser-Known Sibling

I have dyscalculia. Not sure what that is? Don’t feel bad; most people have never heard of it, and it wasn’t something any of my teachers knew about when I was in school. In fact, most teachers still aren’t familiar with it. Neither are many parents of children who have it. This is a bit sad, considering the World Health Organization and DSM both agree it's a real developmental disorder that affects approximately 1 in 20 people.

So what is it?

Simply put, dyscalculia is like dyslexia for numbers. Not exactly, mind you, but close enough for this explanation. There are 4 categories of dyscalculia: semantic retrieval, procedural, visuospatial and number fact. That said, it's not always as obvious as failing grades. A child can have one or all of these, and still manage A’s in math class. I did, until Algebra came along and screwed me up completely. Which means diagnosing this problem isn’t always easy, especially when the student excells in the rest of their subjects.

Common Symptoms:

  • Difficulty learning how to tell time. Realize this isn’t just your average learning issue – this is 1000% worse than the average learning curve. I was the last person in my entire grade to learn how to tell time. I could get the concept with my nifty digital Garfield watch – but when asked to read my analog Smurfette watch, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t read the damn thing. This led to lots and lots of frustration. I mean, I’m 31 and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

  • Difficulty with other time concepts. I've learned how to tell time, but if you ask me to look at

  • a clock and tell you what time it will be in 3 hours and 40 minutes… be prepared to wait awhile for the answer. Unless it’s exactly the top of the hour when you ask. And don’t even think of asking me what time it was 3 hours and 20 minutes ago… I’ll slap you silly for hurting my little brain.

  • Difficulty learning how to read sheet music, despite having musical talent. I studied classical piano as a kid, and I was pretty good – but I was crap at reading sheet music. I only got by because I (thankfully) have both a photographic and audiographic memory. If I combined this with my meager note-reading skills, I could swing it. I'd watch my teacher play the piece a few times and then I'd practice what I recalled seeing and hearing. I wasn't a prodigy, but it was enough to keep her from knowing I couldn't really read it. And I still can’t. Oh, I know where the notes go, and I know how long to sustain them for. But toss ‘em into a book and ask me to look at a full string of them, and my eyes just cloud over and I can’t separate them anymore; it all jumbles together.

  • Difficulty doing even basic math in one’s head. This is a very real problem for me, and every man I’ve ever dated learned very quickly to yank my paying privileges when dining out. Why? Cos I tend to end up tipping 50%, when I all I wanted to do was tip 20%. Hey, I know calculating 20% is easy for the average fool, but not for me. I can’t even picture the numbers in my head, it’s just no use. The only math I can do in my head is that which I memorized as a child. I did not memorize decimals, and that’s all I see when I look at a cheque.

  • Difficulty with telling direction. I have a pretty good intuitive method of finding my way from city to city, country to country. I can only assume it’s God taking pity on me, cos I cannot do directions. Literally. Give me a compass to look at, and I want to cry. It’s an instant headache. If you want me to go NW, you better just point your finger, cos that’s the only thing I’m going to be able to follow.

  • Difficulty following step-by-step instructions. This applies to many things. I had a hard time in my university physiology class, because the professor would tell us what steps to follow in the lab – and it was in one ear and out the other. I could do the steps, that wasn’t the problem. I just couldn’t keep track of them as he said them. I had to write them down and constantly refer to them to see what came next. This also applies to things like aerobics class. Every time I’d join one, it took a few classes before I could memorize the routine – cos I couldn't put her instructions together with the step she wanted us to do. No one else seemed to have this problem, just me!

There are other symptoms, but these are major ones which affect me, personally. They can vary in magnitude from person to person, but it’s unlikely an idividual would ever completely cure themselves of it. In my opinion, the best way to cope is to simply let those in your life – especially a significant other – know that you have this problem. Better explain it now, than have to apologize later for tipping 75% without having realized it!

xx Isabella

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Comments 30 comments

jchin 4 years ago

I am just finding this article, so late to the party, sorry! Thank you so much for posting about your experience. Here is a bit of mine, from the US.

I was treated for echolalia and dyscalculia for the first 9 years of my childhood by a learning and speech pathologist. I excelled with reading and languages, and was failing math. My teachers used to say I faked it because I could recite the directions and rules from memory but couldn't execute them. I was tested by the neuro-psych department at a major hospital and diagnosed with "dyscalculia, a specific math deficit". My twin brother was diagnosed with reversed hemispheres in his brain. He is now a successful lead cardiac nurse, by the way. My mother also has dyscalculia and she has 5 masters and 2 doctorates in rehab/voc psych and social work. Several of my relatives are also dyslexic.

As for me? I failed algebra in HS even with a tutor, (my twin passed), and I had to go to summer school. I dropped from the advanced science program because I was failing chemistry. My dream was to go into medicine, but that was not going to happen. I got into a state college and chose to major in music (voice). I was awarded a lot of talent and merit scholarships. I got very low grades in Harmony (Music Theory), which destroyed by GPA and I missed graduating with honors by a very small margin. In fact, I almost DIDN'T graduate, because I failed Algebra/Trig 3 times. I was too proud to say anything about dyscalculia. My parents intervened and gave the college documentation of my dyscalculia and my father drove up to meet with the Dean and ask him to accept my computer classes in lieu of mathematics. I did abysmally on the GRE. (graduate school exams). Basically, I drew trees in the math section.

I got into a music conservatory and did two master's degrees in Music Ed and Voice Performance. Of course, I failed my Harmony entrance exams and had to take them for no credit. I arranged to take my tests untimed and got Cs and Ds. Luckily, they didn't count toward my GPA. I did not continue with a doctorate.

Instead, I got a 3rd master's in Library/Info Science. I worked with intranets and portals in the corporate world and then switched back over to my roots in Education, which I like a lot better. My frustration level with myself is too low and my emotions are too high for industry. Now, I work in higher ed, where I am responsible for our dept systems, web pages, social media and (ironically) the budget and usage statistics.

Here are my secrets: I use a lot of graph paper to line up numbers and calculators with big numbers. I have an analog watch with large Arabic numbers at every hour (Swiss Army), and I use a lot of tutorials on youtube and MS Office sites for whatever I need to calculate and present. There are applications out there to calculate just about anything you want. Those are pretty awesome. I don't drive (although I learned and have a license), as I use one eye and have no depth perception and severe impairment with spatial relations (also diagnosed by same hospital). I didn't have dancing at my wedding to spare humiliation, as I can never remember the order of steps!! I lay everything out the night before because if I do one thing out of order, I forget. I don't know my right and left, and neither does my mother. I cannot live without GPS, and make everyone go to googlemaps and get their own damn directions!

So, we just work with what we have and go with the flow!

Cik Hani profile image

Cik Hani 4 years ago from Malaysia

Cheers from Malaysia.

I am Dyscalculia too.

My mother always nagging me coz I don't know how to read analogue clock and even worse when reading 24 hours system clock.

I can't estimate how much the cost of things in the basket of groceries.

Hard to differentiate left and right (until I come out with my own way to differentiate it coz my left hand got scar on it. that is how I differentiate my left and right by touching it).

Hard to memorize the route even I went it a few times

Didn't memorize multiplication table and so on.

I not even can understand about calculating money in a short time.

My family totally headache with me cause they don't understand about Dyscalculia. Perhaps they also disappointed with me cause I am the only one in the family who did worse in Math. The rest of them are done well in math and even took engineering course.

By the way, I survived with it cause now I am a Lecturer and teach about Special Education.

Even I am Dyscalculia but I am proud about it. (^^,)Y

Allyssa 4 years ago

I have this so bad.. everything you said is right. I was always decent at math. I can actually do geometry pretty well, and basic division/multiplication is easy, as well as most integers.. but when I came into PRE-alegebra, I am failing it constantly because I don't know how to do it, at all, and my teacher doesn't know how to explain it to me, and neither does my dad who took calculus.

Everyday, I get depressed going to 4th period because I'm the true idiot of the class. I'm normally only able to get a little under half of the questions right, or none at all. I also forget instantly what ever happened in math class, and I even took notes, which I can't ever take apart and make sense of just a few hours later.

Your sheet music thing was extremely accurate too. I played trumpet for a year, and I had to memorize my friends fingers, and so on, because I couldn't remember the notes, and I couldn't read them very well, either. It sucked bad, because when we got tests, there was no time to practice and you had to just do your best in front of everyone. I would just sit there and play the ugliest sounds ever, at an extremely slow rate.

Anyway.. It's hard to deal with this, because being 13, none of the other kids really understand. I know there's a few dyslexics, but Math is my only problem. I excel at reading and writing.. which makes up for it. Father told me the career I want requires at least a decent understanding of math, too...

Kristin Halsted profile image

Kristin Halsted 4 years ago

Having a daughter who is dyslexic, I had heard about dyscalculia, but didn't know much about it. This is a super informative hub and very well written! Thanks!

Isabel 4 years ago

Wow! This is so me! I'm 33 and it still takes me several minutes to read an analog clock. Don't even talk to me about military time. Its like a riddle to me. I learned to tip by taking 10% and times it by two but it takes me several seconds to figure out that 10%. I have to think twice to figure out which way is left and right as well. My young children know this instantly.

I took piano for eight years, French horn for 6, choir for 4, in musical assemblies from elementary school through high school. I CANNOT read sheet maid. I was best at the French Horn because a lot of it had to do with playing by ear. But when we had sight reading competitions to choose who was first chair I would fail terribly! I have great rhythm, great ear, I can carry a tune but don't ask me to read music. For me it's exactly how you describe.

In high school I took algebra two. I honestly made an effort even though I had "passed" all previous math classes with a "D." When it came to those problems that gave you three different answers I would do it three times and come up with nine completely different and wrong answers. It was so frustrating! The worst part is I thought I was following all directions and doing it right.

In college I took algebra twice. Round one I got a "D" which is not passing in college. Round 2, I went to class twice a week and tutoring three times a week. I immersed myself in algebra. I ended up with a B. I retained nothing! I cannot solve an algebra problem for you. I can't even do the simplest math in my head. I need to use my fingers.

This makes so much sense!

On the other hand I'm excellent with words, reading, writing, expressing myself through writing, public speaking.... I really feel this explains a lot and I really just wasn't a lazy kid. I can't think in numbers or musical notes. Not at all.

Ally 5 years ago

I really appreciated finding this hub. I only found out about dyscalclia today. My boyfriend was teasing me because I can't tell time on an analogue clock ( I'm 27). I looked up time dyslexic and found that I had many of the same symptoms as a dyslexic person except I'm really skilled at reading. I saw a little side note about dyscalclia. I looked and the only symptom I don't have is the directional one. I'm really good at reading maps but it only came after lots of practice. Thanks for sharing! I always just thought I was stupid for not being able to do math in my head or memorize steps.

amy  5 years ago

i definitely definitely have this, i fit the bill for every symptom (i still cant tell the time properly and im 18!). i wish i knew about dysalculia while i was still studying maths in lower school, maybe then i wouldn't have got so frustrated. its really knocks your self esteem! knowing about this has made me feel alot better, thank you!

mariah osborne 6 years ago

I think i have it especially with the time thing im 13 and still can only tell time by a digital clock

Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 7 years ago from West Virginia

After posting this I remembered something else. I remember having to stay after school in 6th grade to learn my times tables.

Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 7 years ago from West Virginia

I took Algebra 3 times and failed it all times. I took history and government and failed them too. It wasn't what happened that I forgot it was the dates that they happened that I couldn't ever remember. I took finance and failed it because I could not remember which went on what side of the equation. Although if you tell me --it makes perfect sense, it is when I do it myself that it gets totally confusing. I don't even get it as to why it works -r shall I say --doesn't work that way in my brain.

Thanks for the article.

Guardian1 profile image

Guardian1 7 years ago

I have to navigate even familiar places by landmark. I have trouble with step by step anything. I do have difficulty with math but have learned to compensate by reading the teacher's mind for the answers. ;-)

K.D. Clement profile image

K.D. Clement 7 years ago from USA

Yes!!! I have had issues with every single thing you mentioned. Clocks, math, reading sheet music (even though I can compose music and play by ear quite well). I just learned that my daughter has dyslexia. There is a genetic component to all this. Great, very imformative hub. I like you writing style as well.

Jase 7 years ago

...I love you for posting this! Too few people know about dyscalculia, even now; when I was at school, next to nobody knew about it- as with you.

The main problem, I think, is that it's not as obvious as dyslexia. After all, all subjects include reading and writing- history, geography, even art. Maths, less so, but there was still some. There's going to be a red flag going up somewhere if a child's having difficulty in ALL these lessons, despite trying and having the intelligence.

Me, I was smart; and did well in almost every subject. But when it came to maths- and physics once equations kicked in- I was lost. I couldn't understand. Even now, the only way I can work things out is through patterns.

Luckily, I'm very good at spotting patterns, and can work out basic equations (such as adding xx.xx and yy.yy together, for example, what the tip plus the bill comes to.) But make it anything more complicated and I'm lost.

Whilst it took me a very long time to learn to tell the time (as with you) I can actually imagine a clock, and mentally move the hands to work out what time it would be in x hours and yy minutes. In short, I've worked out ways to cope with it; and even though I was told constantly I was "lazy" in maths class and it was constantly put down to a lack of effort, nowadays there's very few red flags to give me away. In fact, I would say that over-compensating my entire life has made me quicker on my feet (metaphorically) than many people who never needed to think too hard about it.

Rachel 7 years ago

Honestly, I've always had a sneaking suspicion I've had dyscalcula, though I've never gone and looked much up or went to go have it diagnosed or anything. I've learned to cope with many of these same symptoms (for the most part... I'm still completely lost the second I put foot out of my doorway...)

Excellent hub, and thanks for posting it!

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

Well, I think I have it. I just didn't know there was a name for it. I just cannot hold numbers in my head--still have to count on my fingers to do simple addition(thank God for calculators) and have a lousy sense of direction. As a kid they were always shaking their heads about my tests. In 6th grade my reading comprehension tested at college level, but Icould not do long division and had to have special tutoring. Don't even ask about algebra and geometry. I don't know how I got through them. When I took the SAT's a million years ago Igot in the high 700's on the verbal and the low 400'son the math aptitude. I remember the college counselor told me I had a "lopsided mind"LOL. INteresting to run across this hub. Think I'lldo a little google search. Funny, just made a related comment on the forums. Whaddaya know.

Mary Tinkler profile image

Mary Tinkler 8 years ago from Gresham

Never heard of it....I have no problems with directions (always can orient myself east west, etc, and I have had no problems telling time...or learning. I can roughly calculate percentages in my head, but I don't know HOW I do it.

BUT I have always had trouble transcribing or typing numbers, and sometimes early on, trouble remembering numbers. They start to float around on the paper. I have somewhat overcome it, but in early years it belied my IQ! Numbers are part of my work, so I am very very careful and do the math 2 or 3 times, even though I was usually right the first time.

Umberellas 8 years ago

It took me such a long time to be able to tell the analog clock. Directions..... ugh not my specialty either. Currently I have a specific math learning disability and have ADHD.... the AdHD has gotten better thanks to neurofeedback! An awesome thing that! Oh yea... just because you have a learning disability doesn't mean you're stupid! I actually excel in language. I'm pretty ok in science( except biology! ick!) history is ok(Currently I'm taking Economics!) .... the math.... I feel your pain!

Brandy Owens profile image

Brandy Owens 8 years ago from Wherever life takes me

Wow, I had no idea that there was even such a thing. If I did, I might have realized that I seem to have it, which would have made a huge difference in adapting to it. :P Something I have found that's useful in the inability to calculate math in my head that you might be using or might want to use is to get a cell phone that has a calculator in it (even better if it has a tip calculator), and take that with you, whether the phone has service or not. It really does help with the inability to calculate numbers. :)

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 8 years ago from New England

Wow, I had no idea. I can relate to everything on here... and all these years I just thought they just didn't feel like teaching me math (being a girl in a small town and all.) I did fine in math until algebra too. It was then they gave up all hope and shoved me in the SPED class... where I learned a calculating patience and how not to kill my peers. (Though don't get me wrong, had 'teach turned her back just once a few of them would have gone missing.)

Thanks for this informative article!

Isabella Snow profile image

Isabella Snow 8 years ago Author

Thanks, Doc! :)

docjim505 profile image

docjim505 8 years ago from No. Carolina

Interesting hub. I'd never heard of this disorder before.

As a general comment, one of the things that makes your hubs so interesting is the sheer breadth of your knowledge and interests. One never knows what you'll be writing about next, and that's interesting.


Isabella Snow profile image

Isabella Snow 8 years ago Author

EA - Thanks! I barely passed with a C in Algebra, I think. It sucked! ;)

JT - LOL, thank you! :)

Mr. Marmalade - 75%.. tell my ex-boyfriends that. ;)

Aman - Thanks!

Teeray - Thank you!

teeray profile image

teeray 8 years ago from Canada

Great hub - informative and interesting. Thank you!

Aman deep Garg profile image

Aman deep Garg 8 years ago

Informative .Keep it up.

MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

A Magic hub. I believe what you say that God gave you the ability and sense for a photographic mind and memory

Thank you for sharing this painful knowledge.

Anyway who cares if you tip 75% money is meant to go around

J.T. profile image

J.T. 8 years ago

I will shout it out loud, you´re not black but you´re proud, or at least i am to know you, here at hubpages, you are a damn good hubber.

Just wanted you to know



Earth Angel profile image

Earth Angel 8 years ago

WOW!! Wonderful Hub Isabella!! I have never heard of such a thing!! But I can sooooooooo relate!! I sold commercial real estate for almost 25 years but can't find my way out of a paper bag when it comes to directions!! I still have trouble telling my right from left!! I too, got straight A's in school until algebra; I took it three times and finally passed with a D-!! I made up for it by getting a degree in accounting but that was because I had a calculator!! I over tip all the time and just pass it off as being generous!! Sheet music looks like a foreign language!! I even have trouble with where 'west' is . . . and I live near the ocean!! GREAT insight!! Thank you soooooooooo much for sharing!! I continue to admire so many things about you!! Especially your life success in spite of these things!! Blessings, Earth Angel!!

Isabella Snow profile image

Isabella Snow 8 years ago Author

Kenny - I can find my way, as long as no one tells me how to get there. ;)

Zsuzsy - Thanks! :)

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Great information!

I guess you function well, so what.

Great HUB

regards Zsuzsy

Kenny Wordsmith profile image

Kenny Wordsmith 8 years ago from Chennai

I don't have it except for getting lost and being utterly hopeless finding a place I've been to even twice, but I learnt that you are 31!  


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