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Dyscalculia: Dyslexia's Lesser-Known Sibling

Updated on January 27, 2017

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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