Dyscalculia – the forgotten learning disability

Ever heard of dyscalculia? No?  Nor had I until watching BBC breakfast a few years ago when a woman who is a professor in mathematics was talking about her issues with basic maths. I’m really sorry that I can’t remember her name as I would like to email her and say thank you for talking about it and making me realise when it comes to maths I’m not stupid I just don’t think like everyone else.

I’ve hated maths with a passion for years. It was the only subject in school that I couldn’t’ get to grips with. In every other subject I was an A grade student. Maths was my nemesis!

Maths made me freeze up, even now the thought of not having a calculator when maths are called for can give me sweaty palms. Thank Goodness mobile phones (cell phones) come with calculators on them! At one point when I was working I owned 4 calculators so I was never without one.

Maths is everywhere you can’t hide from it. If you cook you use maths                 (weighing out ingredients, doubling up a recipe, cooking times etc) banking, shopping, telling the time, even playing a board game can involve maths. I could never join in playing darts down the pub because darts involves maths, the kind I just can’t do unless you have a calculator handy!

I knew something was wrong with me as a child but I thought it was plain stupidity. How can it be that I can be taught multiplication tables daily and still not know them? How is it I can’t add 8 + 5 without counting it on my fingers? It is 13 right? And yes I had to check by counting on my fingers even though I’ve been using this sum for two days in my head whilst preparing this post. Who does that?

The weird thing is I know that 8 + 4 = 12 and can do that without counting on my fingers. However I don’t see what everyone else would describe as the obvious when it comes to maths. That 8 + 5 has to be 13 because 5 is just one more than 4. My brain doesn’t see the connection and there’s nothing I can do to make it. I’m lacking the innate mathematical ability that the majority of people are born with. But that doesn’t make me stupid it just makes me different!

I was a child of the 80’s and I thank my lucky stars for that as digital watches were all the rage. It covered up my inability to tell the time beautifully. I actually couldn’t tell the time until I was 18. I was ok with quarter pasts, quarter to, o’clock and half past but the bits in between, I had no idea what so ever. Someone telling me I had to meet them at 25 (minutes) to, meant I would be there at half past because I knew 25 to, was somewhere between the half past and the quarter to but I just didn’t know where.

I developed a habit of being chronically early which endures to this day. My reasoning was if I got there early I couldn’t be told off for being late. Now if my husband and I leave the house later than I have planned in my head it makes me anxious and makes things seem like they are out of control. I don’t ‘do’ late and I get really cross when other people have a laissez faire attitude to time keeping. I’m getting better but I still have to stop myself saying something because its my problem not theirs – unless they are taking the piss and stroll in two hours late and I’ve had that happen!

Dyscalculia can be described as dyslexia and dyspraxia’s poor relation. It was identified as a learning disability 1974 by Dr. Ladislav Kosc. http://allaboutdyscalculia.weebly.com/history-of-dyscalculia.html

Little has changed since it was identified kids aren’t tested for it routinely and still all these years on kids like me are labelled as being “stupid” when it comes to maths. Where as many people including teachers are aware of dyslexia many people are unaware of the condition dyscalculia.

Testing for dyscalculia is still being developed and current tests are only available for primary school children. I’ve not been officially diagnosed as having dyscalculia but as with my medical conditions (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, Ehlers Danlos syndrome and severe autonomic dysfunction) when I read the websites the description / symptoms were me exactly.

Much research has been conducted on what area of the brain is involved in mathematical problem solving. Dyscalculia can be congenital or it can come about due to stroke or traumatic brain injury. My dyscalculia is congenital, Ive never known my mathematical ability or lack of it to be any different. It is also believed by some researchers to be an inherited condition.

Dyscalculia affects individuals differently we mainly have issues with mathematical concepts, learning things like multiplication tables as we can not retain the information. I have problems if a news article says someone has been awarded a six figure salary, it means absolutely nothing to me. I have problems with thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions. Not as written words but when they appear in their numerical form. So much so Im not even confident about writing what they would look like.

Another dyscalculia give away is problem learning to tell the time, I’ve developed my own coping strategies to deal with this. Even when I write the time I tend to run into problems as I write the time military style so 1810 not 18:10 or 6.10. I get really funny about people saying that they don’t know if I am referring to a year or the time. It may be funny to them to point out what they perceive as a mistake but to me it takes me back to the Friday afternoon humiliation of my primary school teachers maths quiz, where we weren’t allowed to write down how to work the answer out but had to do it in our heads. To a person with dyscalculia trying to work out something in your head is akin to learning a foreign language with no text book or teacher. I cant see the numbers in my head they just don’t exist. Now even thinking about the Friday afternoon quiz has upset me and made me angry. How as a child could I voice the fact I couldn’t do it when surrounded by 29 other individuals who could? And what if I had, would my teacher have known about dyscalculia or would have been just another weird thing I had said ?(I’m a lifelong vegetarian, with my sister we were the only vegetarians in the school) .

I am chronically oversensitive when it comes to maths and being perceived as stupid / thick/ unintelligent etc etc.

Dyscalculia can exist on its own, its believed 3-7% (depending on whose material you read) of the population has this learning difficulty. There are much higher incidences of dyscalculia in people who are dyslexic or dyspraxic. Some source material stating as high as 40-50% of those with dyslexia or dyspraxia also having dyscalculia.

Some websites describe dyscalculia as like dyslexia but with numbers. I don’t have dyslexia so I couldn’t tell you. To me it feels like I have a phobia of numbers / maths it terrifies me because I know no matter how hard I try I will on 99% of occasions get the answer wrong. Math causes me an awful lot of stress. To try and do mental math is impossible because in my head nothing is there it just goes blank. This probably sounds bizarre to those of you that don’t have this learning disability. Your ability to do mental math astounds me!

Its hard to explain my problems with numbers having never known what its like to live without this problem and the condition is so varied amongst those it affects there is no one size fits all description.

In very basic terms we don’t get numerical relationships, (don’t even get me started on fractions!) we don’t see what you would call the obvious and we can also have visual / spatial reasoning issues. The latter probably explains why I am rubbish at IQ tests, you know the ones where they ask you which number comes next in a sequence of numbers or what shape comes next? I must have baffled my teachers at school as clearly I wasn’t stupid but my IQ tests results would have put me south of average.

I remember my GCSE maths teacher coming and seeing me when I returned to the sixth form a month after the GCSE results had come out. I had been predicted an E for Maths GCSE. I actually ended up with a C, to this day I have no idea why or how! Mr C came up to me and congratulated me on my result. He said to me something along these lines ” whenever you handed in your basic maths coursework you would be in the bottom percentage of the class, but what I could never understand was when we were doing the advanced stuff you were the only one that ever got 100%. I just don’t understand it.” Well now Mr C you and I both understand why it happened I have dyscalculia!

I’m including some links that I’ve found helpful in putting this blog post together, for those of you who identify this in yourself or others around you.


If I could also ask a special favour of you as well? Please can you share this blog post to help other adults / children who have this forgotten learning disability. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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