What the heck is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia? Never heard of it.
Dyscalculia is kind of like the Jermaine Jackson of the dyslexia family...
Most people have heard of dyslexia, but dyscalculia is much less well-known. Dysclaculia is a learning disability similar to dyslexia, but where dyslexics have trouble with words, dyscalculics have trouble with numbers.
There is plenty of information available about dyslexia, both on off the web, but much less information about dyscalculia. In fact, dyscalculia is so much less well-known that most spell-checkers don't know the word. As I'm writing this, every instance of "dyscalculia" and "dyscalculic" are underlined in red by the spell-checker here at Squidoo.
I was diagnosed with dyscalculia, or mathematics disorder, when I was a junior in college. At that time there was very little information about dyscalculia -- all I knew was that I finally had a good reason to have gotten all those failing grades in math. What I didn't know was that this learning disability effects my life if dozens of other ways, many of which having nothing whatsoever to do with math.
I'm writing this so that others won't face the same paucity of information. I will talk about how dyscalculia is defined, different theories about what causes it, and the effects is has on the lives of people who have it. I will also talk about some of my favorite coping strategies, and what NOT to say to someone who has math LD.
Gratitude! Lens of the Day, February 1st, 2010!
Thank you for reading this!
I want to begin with a quick Thank You to NanLT who gave this lens its first Angel blessing. Thanks also to Stazjia and Prosperity66 for their Angel blessings. And thanks to Wednesday Elf for nominating me, and then the Squidoo powers that be, for making this the Lens of the Day!
It's always wonderful to get recognition, but these props aren't just about me. The blessings and LotD have helped get the word out about dysclacluia!
Thanks also to everyone who has read this lens, rated it, and left comments. It's a clear statement up support, and proof to me that my writing is having an impact.
When does "bad at math" become a disorder?
I could give you the whole "Diagnostic criteria for DSM-IV 315: Mathematics Disorder", and the "disturbance of Criterion A, B, and C" entailed therein (aww, good ol' Criterion A!), but instead I'll put it in English.
Dyscalculia can only be diagnosed by a trained clinician. This person might be a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or an educational counselor working for the schools. The test administrator takes a detailed academic and personal history, sometimes looking at old report cards and transcripts if they're available, and then administers a series of tests. These tests cover general intelligence and various sub-skills including several math components.
A person is diagnosed with dyscalculia if their math scores are substantially lower than expected given the person's measured intelligence, chronological age, and educational attainment. The person's mathematical abilities must also interfere significantly with their daily life, and their academic achievement.
Dyscalculia is generally diagnosed in people of average or above average intelligence. This means that we are not stupid, slow, or developmentally disabled. Some of us are even gifted. We simply have a brain difference that makes it difficult or impossible for us to learn math the way it's usually taught in school.
Dyscalculia in math class? Well, the good days were like this... - Sorry, you've been wangernumbed!
Mitchell and Webb, a hilarious British comedy team, have an entire series of sketches about a surreal game show called Numberwang. They all speak to my experience as a math student, the one that captures it best is the "German" version, Nümberwang. When you have severe dyscalculia, your math teacher might as well be speaking a foreign language.
... and the bad days were like this. - I had some pretty mean teachers.
I also included another episode of Numberwang which you should watch if you want to know what it feels like to be math disabled student with a teacher who's impatient, or worse, abusive. I could really identify with "Johnny", who is frantically guessing at the answers to nonsensical questions, only to be told repeatedly and angrily that the answers are wrong, until it's finally demanded of him, "Are you even trying anymore?"
Meanwhile, another student is getting all the right answers and is receiving abundant praise ... but to Johnny, those answers are equally nonsensical.
But you don't have to take math class anymore. So what's the big deal?
Dyscalculia and the rest of my world
Once a dyscalculic is free of math class, the disorder continues to have repercussions in daily life. Think of all the numbers you need to deal with as you go about your day.
You might need to write down an address, enter a new phone number in your phone, and balance your checkbook.
Then let's pretend you signed up for a new fitness class. You look at the clock and see that it's almost time to leave. You enter the address into google maps, call up the directions, print the map, and go, arriving at your class on time. You're a beginner, but you're able to do most of the movements more or less in a coordinated way, and you manage not to punch yourself or anyone else in the face.
For someone with dyscalculia, any of these activities can be extremely difficult. It turns out that dyscalculia relates not just to a person's ability to deal with numbers and math. Dyscalculics often have trouble keeping track of time, and can have difficulty relating a two dimensional object like a map to three dimensional terrain. Dyscalculia is also correlated with difficulties keeping time and coordinating movement, which can cause problems for someone trying to remember dance steps or follow an aerobics workout ... or remember where they're supposed to be on the playing field.
Needless to say, math was always my least favorite subject in school. I avoided doing it whenever I could, my grades were awful, and I was always in trouble with my parents and teachers for poor performance.
I was told to check and double check my work -- oh goodie! I get to do every problem twice! -- but when I did, I came up with a different answer each time.
Since I was also in the gifted program, it was assumed by the adults around me that my only problem was that I didn't care. My parents told me I failed because I wasn't trying. My teachers told me I failed because my mind wandered during class. My parents told me I should ask my teacher if I needed help. My teachers told me I didn't need help, I just needed to apply myself. Help was for students with "real" problems.
I learned to stop asking for help. By junior high I was struggling quietly, but I was passing my classes, and my teachers had their hands full with other, more disruptive students.
I was the only one in my group of friends who wasn't getting A's in honors math. Actually, I was the only person in the honors section who wasn't in honors math at all. I had heard of dyslexia by this time, and I began to wonder if there was something just like it, only with math. On the other hand, I wasn't actually failing, so maybe there was my problem really was laziness. Maybe I just didn't know how to try.
I wanted to go to college, so I had to keep taking math classes. Geometry was a bright spot -- like many people with dyscalculia, I found geometry to be logical and sensible, until they started putting equations in with the proofs -- but by the time I took my last math class I was getting D minuses. My parents were not amused, but I found a small liberal arts college that gave heavy weight to admission essays, and off I went. I swore I'd never take another math class ever again.
So there I was, at a selective liberal arts college, finally and completely surrounded by my fellow nerds. I was in heaven, mostly. One of my classes was giving me trouble. I had signed up for a physics class because I liked science. It was a class for non-majors, with a qualitative emphasis, and what math there was would be simple -- supposedly required only basic algebra. Well, I thought, I scraped by with a B- in basic algebra. I can handle this, right?
Wrong. In the two years since I'd taken a math class, I'd forgotten all the algebra I'd ever known. I was also taking introductory economics and struggling with the basic math required for that. My political science major required me to take a statistics course. If I was flunking every single econ test because of the math, how would I possible handle statistics?
This was the last straw. Clearly, something was not quite right with my math abilities, and I needed to get that straightened out before the dreaded stats requirement. I got a referral for a learning disabilities assessment, and lo and behold, there it was: DSM 315.1. Dyscalculia: "Math skills significantly below normal considering age, intelligence, and education."
In addition to the dyscalculia, I was also diagnosed with a writing disorder called dysgraphia, and attention deficit disorder. I felt incredible relief and validation when I learned that my academic struggles stemmed from genuine, clinically diagnosed disabilities.
My life as an adult with dyscalculia
hey look, there's a light ant the end of the -- *splat*!
Knowing that I have dyscalculia has been a tremendous weight off my shoulders, but by no means has it meant an end to my struggles. I need to use a calculator for any math more complex than single digit arithmetic, and even then I often screw it up because I transpose digits (people tell me that 16 and 61 are not the same thing, but I suspect a conspiracy). This makes it impossible for me to balance my checkbook -- I tried once, and because I worked the math out with a calculator very carefully, and wrote everything down very carefully, I was confident of the amount I had in my account. I wound up bouncing several checks.
After my partner and I got married, we were assigned a ten-digit phone number comprised of ten different numerals, and it took me six months to memorize it correctly. When you're a fully-fledged grown-up and you don't know your own phone number, people don't exactly take you seriously.
For most of my working life I have been unable to make more than a few dollars above minimum wage. Do you remember being told to take a lot of math classes, because the more math you take, the more earning potential you'll have? Well, it's true, and that's bad news for dyscalculics. People with dyscalculia tend to earn much lower salaries than other people do.
I have also lost jobs because of my learning disorders. Apparently when people hear you use words like "epistemologically" in casual conversation, they expect you to be able to do simple math, and when you can't, they don't know how to cope. Sometimes easier for them to decide "you're just not a good fit" and fire you.
What's that you say? It's illegal? Why yes, yes it is! Have fun proving it.
What Are The Symptoms Of Dyscalculia?
I wish I'd known this years ago!
Dyscalculia can be indicated by many symptoms, and not all of them have to do with math. This list of symptoms can be found at dysclaculia.org. I reordered them to start with the bad-at-math symptoms, then moving on to general intelligence, and from there to other deficits that surprised me when I found out about them -- but that sure explained a heck of a lot!
Bad At Math
Dyscalculia is defined by an individual's math difficulties, which present in the following ways:
When writing, reading and recalling numbers, these common mistakes are made: number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals.
Inability to grasp and remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence (order of operations), and basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Poor long term memory (retention & retrieval) of concept mastery- may be able to perform math operations one day, but draw a blank the next! May be able to do book work but fails all tests and quizzes.
Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Poor mental math ability. Poor with money and credit. Cannot do financial planning or budgeting. Checkbooks not balanced. Short term, not long term financial thinking. Fails to see big financial picture. May have fear of money and cash transactions. May be unable to mentally figure change due back, the amounts to pay for tips, taxes, etc.
People with dyscalculia are often gifted in other areas of academics and the arts:
Normal or accelerated language acquisition: verbal, reading, writing. Poetic ability. Good visual memory for the printed word. Good in the areas of science (until a level requiring higher math skills is reached), geometry (figures with logic not formulas), and creative arts.
Sports and Games
Math class was awful, of course, but so was gym ... turns out there's a reason for that:
May have poor athletic coordination, difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing physical directions like in aerobic, dance, and exercise classes. Difficulty remembering dance step sequences, rules for playing sports.
Difficulty keeping score during games, or difficulty remembering how to keep score in games, like bowling, etc. Often looses track of whose turn it is during games, like cards and board games. Limited strategic planning ability for games, like chess.
Problems in All Four Dimensions!
Between dyscalculia and ADD, it's a miracle that I'm ever on time:
Difficulty with the abstract concepts of time and direction. Inability to recall schedules, and sequences of past or future events. Unable to keep track of time. May be chronically late.
May be unable to comprehend or "picture" mechanical processes. Lack "big picture/ whole picture" thinking. Poor ability to "visualize or picture" the location of the numbers on the face of a clock, the geographical locations of states, countries, oceans, streets, etc.
Poor memory for the "layout" of things. Gets lost or disoriented easily. May have a poor sense of direction, loose things often, and seem absent-minded. (Remember the absent minded professor?)
Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name/face retrieval. Substitute names beginning with same letter.
I've been studying music since I was 7, so finding this out was kind of a big deal for me:
May have difficulty grasping concepts of formal music education. Difficulty sight-reading music, learning fingering to play an instrument, etc.
Do all dyscalculics have every one of these symptoms?
Nope. To be diagnosed as dyscalculic, you have to have most of the "bad at math" symptoms, but the other symptoms are a collection of difficulties that tend to co-occur with dyscalculia. Their incidence and severity vary based on the individual.
For instance, I am chronically late, physically uncoordinated, and have difficulty with such sophisticated and complex card games as "Go Fish", but for some reason I do well with maps and directions. I also have varying degrees of difficulty with formal music education. I took intro theory three times before I really grasped voice leading practices, but now it's stuck in my brain for good; whereas my sight-reading ability continues to be weak, in spite of a few decades of practice.
Dyscalculia does not equal Stupid
If you remember nothing else from this lens, remember this! Dyscalculics are not stupid or lazy. We are smart people who struggle with math because of a neurological difference.
Top Ten Dyscalculia Coping Strategies
... at least, I think it's ten. But then, I'm probably the wrong person to ask.
Learning to cope with dyscalculia has made my life a lot easier. I've slowly learned to manage my space, my time, and my health, and recently I've started to earn decent money working for myself. Here are my favorite strategies for number avoision (it's a perfectly cromulent word!):
1. Request a phone number that's easy to remember. I didn't know you could do this, but fortunately my partner figured it out, and since the disastrous first phone number he's gotten phone numbers with as many repeating digits as possible. I can usually remember them in a few weeks instead of a few months.
2. Throw out your address book. Keep all your contact information in your cell phone, and back it up on your computer.
3. When you need to get someone's phone number, have them call you on your cell phone. You can send the call straight to voice mail, and your phone will give you the option of saving the number as a contact.
4. Use e-mail, rather than the phone, to set up appointments. E-mail allows you to cut and paste street addresses right into the search bar of mapping software, so you'll get the address right, which means that you'll arrive at the right place.
5. Use gmail to manage your schedule. Gmail is a free, web-based e-mail system that includes a great calendar feature. You can cut and paste dates and times into your calendar, and then customize reminders in the form of SMS, e-mails, and pop-ups.
6. Outsource your accounting. Fortunately for me, my partner is good with the math and is willing to handle accounts. If you don't share a household with a math person, hire one. You will save yourself money in the long run.
7. Consider a time tutor. "Time tutors" are often ADD coaches who people with Attention Deficit Disorder learn how to manage their time, but they're a great idea for dyscalculics as well. I have my schedule mapped out on my gmail calendar as different colored blocks; for instance, I work out during "green" blocks of time and I do chores during "blue" blocks of time.
8. Try visual-tactile solutions to manage your budget. Get some colorful poker chips, and assign a denomination to each color chip -- say green is $100, blue is $50, red is $20, yellow is $5, and white is $1. Put them in cups for each budget line item. For example, If you have $100 a week to spend on groceries, put five red chips in a cup marked "groceries". If you spend $60 dollars at the grocery store, take three of those chips out of the cup. Pretty soon you'll be able to visualize your budget in a concrete way, and it will be easier to manage.
9. Get a cat. Or a dog, or fish or rabbits or geese. Animals are great stress relief because they don't care if you can do calculus.
There, I guess that's ten. Right?
Five (or something) of the dumbest things people have ever said to me about dyscalculia
and the things I wish I'd said back
1. What are you, retarded?
No. I have a learning disability, which is only diagnosed in people of at least average intelligence. By definition, I am not retarded. And if I were, would you really make fun of me for that? You'd pick on someone with a developmental disability? Wow. I hope you feel big.
2. You could understand math if you tried hard enough!
Would you tell someone in a wheelchair that they could run a mile "if you just tried hard enough?" No? Didn't think so. Then why on earth do you think it's appropriate to tell someone with an invisible disability that their only problem is a lack or willpower?
The fact is that those of us with dyscalculia have tried to do math. We've tried harder than you can ever know. We've struggled a lot and we've failed a lot, but we're still here because we've had to develop the kind of strength you can only imagine.
3. Don't worry, this math is easy!
For me, there is no such thing as "easy" or "basic" math. No, don't try to tell me that this math is somehow different. It's not. It never is.
It's also really embarrassing to have to tell you that the math you're describing as "idiot-proof" or "so easy a first-grader could do it" is nonetheless beyond my capabilities. So, thanks for that.
4. I know just how you feel, I'm bad at math too!
No. You don't.
If you didn't go to bed every night of your childhood believing you were hopelessly stupid, if you don't have panic attacks every time you have to figure out how much to tip your server, if nobody has ever asked you just how dumb are you, really? when it's taking you too long to find the correct change, you do not know how it feels to have dyscalculia.
5. Have you tried using this new thing called a calculator?
Wow! No! Never! What a brilliant suggestion! In all my life it has not EVER occurred to me to try using a calculator! Holy crap, you've just changed my life! How can I ever repay you!
The fact is that dyscalculia often can't be solved by using a calculator. Dyscalculics transpose digits, drop decimal points, and forget signs, none of which are things a calculator can correct.
And seriously, why does anyone assume that a calculator wasn't the first thing I tried? Sheesh.
6. It can't be that big a deal. It's not like you're expected to do calculus every day!
Yeah, it's not like I ever need to read the correct number on the bus, or keep track of time, or have any idea whatsoever how much money is in my bank account!
Dyscalculia causes difficulty with numbers in every way, shape, and form. It's not just about doing advanced math. It's about doing easy, everyday math. It's about keeping track of phone numbers and addresses. It's about reading bus and train schedules. It's about all of those little things that non-dsycalulics do all day, every day, without having to think about it.
So if someone you know has dyscalculia, or seems to be struggling with numbers in any way, this has been a list of what NOT to say. We've heard 'em all, we've had enough, and one of these days one of us will snap and begin throwing calculators.
OK, uncoordinated dyscalculic that I am, if I were to start throwing calculators I probably couldn't hit anything.
Still, it pays to be nice.
Books About Dyscalculia
When I was first diagnosed, I could find hardly any information about dyscalculia. Now there are more than a dozen titles on Amazon alone.
The first book looks like it actually contains dyscalculic coping strategies. I haven't read it but I'll be checking it out soon. The others are aimed at teachers, parents, and tutors of students with dyscalculia. I've found that when I read about math teaching strategies I get incredibly triggered, so be warned.
"What The Heck Is Dyscalculia" is One Year Old!
How many candles is that?
I'm on Squidoo today for the first time in a long time. I've had to look for full-time work, and that's taken all my time and energy for several months now. But for some reason this evening I decided to log on and play with my lenses and I noticed that this lens has been up for a whole year!
In that year, 1523 people have visited this lens. You, dear reader, are adding to that number (adding is where the number gets bigger, right?). Every time someone visits this lens, or clicks the "like" button, or makes it a favorite, or links to it, its page rank goes up and makes it easier to find. Every visit to this lens increases the chances that someone in need will realize that they're not alone. That maybe there's a name for what they're going through. And maybe that name is "dyscalculia".
You, dear reader, rock.
Do you have dyscalculia? Do you know someone who does? Did you learn something new?
This was my very first lens on Squidoo, about a very important, personal topic. I'd like to say a big "thank you" to everyone who critiqued it, made suggestions for improvements, and to all visitors and commenters. By learning more about this disorder you're helping everyone who has it.