Dyscalculia and ADHD: A View From the Inside

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My teacher told me to stop daydreaming and focus on my work.

When I was in 3rd grade, the teacher saw me counting on my fingers and told me I needed to do math in my head. I knew I couldn’t do that, so I’d count objects around the classroom instead. When the teacher noticed me looking around the room, she told me to stop “daydreaming.” Since there were a lot of times I actually was off task and not paying attention, I got told to stop daydreaming on a regular basis.

What I didn’t know at the time was that, in addition to ADHD, I have dyscalculia.

People with dyscalculia have trouble learning and understanding numbers and mathematics, as well as difficulty with spatial reasoning, telling time, and dealing with quantified information. It’s analogous to dyslexia, only relating to numbers instead of letters, and to math instead of reading. It’s not that those of us with dyscalculia can’t learn math; it’s that we learn and understand math differently and need more practice with it. It isn’t a well-known or well-understood disability, and most people probably haven’t even heard of it. When you have a disability that’s hard to see and is rarely discussed, it’s important that you see it identified and represented in fiction. While dyslexia is more acknowledged than it used to be, dyscalculia is not. In this article, I want to explain what dyscalculia is and what it’s like, so writers can better understand the condition and use it in their work.

Dyscalculia doesn’t mean you’re just bad at math. It isn’t something that you can be educated out of. Nor is it a learning disability that makes you unable to do math. For people with dyscalculia, math is conceptualized differently. When, eventually, I learned rules or tricks for doing math (like the “finger trick” to quickly do problems with the 9s times table), I was able to perform math tasks well enough to pass my classes. But I still don’t understand why math works.

Dyscalculia can be mistaken for attention deficit/hyperactive disorder, and is often associated with it. About 20% of people with ADHD also have dyscalculia, as I do. Dyscalculia and its effects can be made worse by ADHD. ADHD makes it hard to work on something that isn’t interesting to you, and believe me, when you have dyscalculia, math is certainly not interesting.

The stigma against many invisible disabilities, from autism to dyslexia, often manifests as being made light of or joked about. A person might misread something and say “I’m being dyslexic,” or something similar. There’s little such stigma against dyscalculia, if only because it’s not well known. It may also be because many people feel they’re not good at math or just don’t like it. These attitudes can lead to a dismissal of dyscalculia as a genuine disability. I’ve personally had people tell me that it could be overcome if I “just tried harder” or “found the right teacher.” But this isn’t the case. Dyscalculia is not something to be cured, and it’s not a phase. Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition that is a part of who you are as a person. While coping strategies can mitigate its effects on your life, it can’t ever be outgrown, changed, “cured,” or corrected.

When I was trying to learn the multiplication tables in school, I had to learn each one separately. The idea that 6 x 7 was the same as 7 x 6 didn’t make any sense to me. After all, D-O-G isn’t the same as G-O-D. And 1 + 3 + 7 is the same as 7 + 3 + 1, but 137 is not the same as 731. Rules such as the transitive and commutative properties don’t make much sense to most people with dyscalculia.

Like my 3rd-grade self, many of us with dyscalculia use our fingers to count, long after our peers have stopped. I struggle to memorize math facts since it takes more effort for someone with dyscalculia to remember numerical information.

It’s also common for us to have trouble measuring and estimating distance, volume, and time without using measuring devices. I can’t tell how fast something is moving (20 miles an hour? 60 miles an hour?), how far away something is from me (3 feet? 6 feet?), or how much is in a glass or other container (1 cup? 2 cups?). This has made sports, driving, cooking, and a whole host of everyday activities more challenging.

Telling time on an analog clock is hard. Time in general is a flexible thing. I’ll make dinner for my family and it’ll be ready half an hour early or late unless I set a timer at each step. I arrive early or late to appointments. I try for early; I wait a lot.

No matter how many times I’ve traveled somewhere, I can’t seem to form a concept of how long it will take me to get there. Using a travel timetable (or GPS and map apps) I can find out how long it will take to get somewhere, but if that time were wildly inaccurate, I wouldn’t recognize the discrepancy. Likewise, telling how long it’s been since something happened is difficult.

Directions are also confusing. I have a good sense of direction and can follow maps, but I can’t tell you which is my left or right hand without thinking about it. For some reason, though, cardinal directions aren’t as difficult.

Making sense of money is hard. It helps that coins are different sizes as well as different values, and that bills have words and pictures on them. But since each piece of money is different, why do they add up to something else? It doesn’t make sense. It’s as if someone told you there are three chairs around a table, so you have one couch. It’s frustrating and embarrassing to try to make change or to figure out a restaurant tip without a calculator.

Over time, someone with dyscalculia may adapt to it, or may never find ways to adapt. They may accept it as part of who they are or fight against it. But in any case, it’s a part of who they are, and it always will be.

Fiction writers can include dyscalculia in their work if they approach it sensitively. Since it’s an “invisible” disability, characters with dyscalculia or those around them may be unaware of the condition. It might be dismissed as not a serious disability (“Just practice, you can learn!”) or the character could be treated with scorn or anger (“Why can’t you do this? It’s so simple!”) Alternatively, their dyscalculia might cause others to treat them as less intelligent (“You can’t even add two numbers?”). It could also be overlooked, since the condition can be a part of someone’s life without dominating their life – it might only affect certain activities. Seeing these attitudes confronted and resisted in fiction would’ve meant a lot to me as a kid.



About Author

David Howard

David Howard is a short-story writer and novelist who lives in Wauwatosa, WI with his wife, two sons, and a grumpy cat. He's been a writer since he could hold a pencil. When he isn't writing, he's reading, dreaming, and on the internet.

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33 Comments

  1. Thank you.
    This is one of those disabilities few people talk about, and those of us who deal with it — hide it. I got a lot of math shaming as a kid, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    • Nalijah Winfield on

      I agree, books with children with different disabilities are rarely heard of, which isn’t fair. They also need to be able to read books and be able to relate to them to now that they’r not the only ones and things of this nature happens sometimes. However, I will say that it is advertised on television more especially Disney channel to a certain extent. The reason why I say to a certain extent is because they don’t have many characters with different disabilities but it is an amazing how some of the actors have ADHD, dyslexia or both. It is extremely important for children to see themselves in the novels that they read. Seeing characters that they can relate to gives them a special kind of hope and opens their minds up to many positive things.

  2. Thank you so much!
    I stumbled along this article while I was looking at another – and I can’t believe that other people struggle with this as much as I do. I have thought for the longest time that I was simply just bad at numbers, or likened it to having dyslexia for numbers, but it was never taken seriously. I didn’t know that dyscalculia was a thing!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with it!

    • Talitha Darby on

      Thank you David for writing this article. My 10 year daughter Madison has both ADD, and dyscalculia. We are just figuring out the dyscalculia part. She was also just diagnosed with ADD last month. It has been a struggle for almost 2 years now. But I’m thankful for your article and http://www.understood.org for bringing this very important topic to more people’s attention. My husband and I have been in IEP meetings with her school for over 1 year, sitting around the table trying to figure out why she doesn’t get the math and no one ever mentioned dyscalculia.

    • Keeley Owenby on

      Great post! I personally did not know this was even a disability. After reading this post it really made me think about how much I’ve struggled with things like this. I thought it was all just classified as dyslexia. I believe as educators we see things like this on a daily basis but like parents we tend to brush it off. We believe the child may just not be trying hard enough or is distracted. This can make the child feel bad about themselves and give them less motivation to try harder. I know as a child who often got told I wasn’t trying hard enough in math, it really made me hate math and feel as if I would never get it. To this day math is still one of my biggest weaknesses. I believe educators need more information on things like dyscalculia so we can begin to work on the issue when it first come up .

  3. Great blog! I’m really glad I stumble upon your blog. As a future educator, this post has really opened up my eyes. I’ve always heard of dyslexia, but never dyscalculia. I believe that this disability should be more noticed, this could really help students who are dyscalculia and they don’t even know it.

  4. Summer B Mitchell on

    Wow, this is an interesting read. I have never heard of dyscalculia before, honestly, at first, I thought you spelled dyslexia wrong. Reading your blog post opened my eyes to truly seeing the unawareness that our education system and even the world around us has to invisible disorders. I believe that it is important for such disorders to be more confronted and talked about whether it be in fiction and even the classroom. No one should ever be dismissed for something they cannot help. As a future educator myself, I want to be aware of my students’ struggles and areas of learning that they can’t grasp easily. The learner should not have to work at this alone, it should be a joint effort from all parties involved in their education. As well, the classroom must engage various learners.
    Awesome post, I really enjoyed learning about dyscalculia.

  5. Aundia Robinson on

    Great post! It’s very informative. Many times teachers along with parents overlook the possibility that a child and/or adult may have a disability. Instead they are perceived as being difficult or not staying on task, I believe this post give educators a more open eye and understanding that it may not be that the child isn’t listening or off task etc. the child may just have a disability preventing them from doing what is asked of them.

  6. Kieran McElvaney on

    Great blog post! It is really important that educators and anyone involved in education be aware of more learning disabilities and the signs of them. Too often kids with disabilities that aren’t visually evident are left struggling through school and not getting the proper attention they need to get an effective education. I think you’re right that more literature coming out that discusses these disabilities and shows kids not to be ashamed if they are struggling whether its because of a disability or not.

  7. Brenda Aguilar-Hernandez on

    Awesome blog! I’m really glad I came upon your blog today. As a future educator myself, this post has really opened up my eyes as well as made me ponder deeply reading through your blog! I’ve always heard of dyslexia, but I never heard anything about dyscalculia. Clearly, there is so much to learn everyday on a daily basis about our world and our people in it. I think that this disability should be more noticed and talked more about. I think this could really help not only those who are dyscalculia, but as well as those who are around them. I’ve always thought that knowledge is power! Being a future educator, it is extremely important for me to know all my students well as well as their struggles. Again, interesting and exceptionally informative post. Thank you for sharing, as I enjoyed reading this.

    • Melanie Joseph on

      Hey Brenda,
      I enjoyed reading your comment. I definitely agree that dyscalculia is a subject that not many people know about. I think more people should be educated about the disability, and I also think that educators need to be taught strategies on ways to teach students to are experiencing this. Maybe some things in our country’s school curriculum need to change.

  8. Kelli McMillin on

    I am a 25 year old college student who is pursuing a degree in early education. I have severe ADD. Every day is a complete struggle to get through without forgetting everything. I attend counseling and therapy for it now to help me understand how to sort my thoughts and prioritize. I struggled all through elementary and high school with it before I was evaluated and diagnosed about four years ago. My teachers always told me that I didn’t try hard enough and that I was carless. As a future educator I feel as though it is vital for teachers to be able to recognize and understand that these disabilities are indeed real. Teachers need to be knowledgeable of the specific needs of students with disabilities so they can be successful in learning just as the rest of the class.

    • aushana white on

      i complelty agree. i cant even tell how long i had dyscalculia because i found out that i had it
      my jounier year of highschool . growing up having it in elementry schoool was hard because when i was growing up was the era were being in things like discovrey and your child be acepted in these magnet programs was the big thing so it was alot of pressure to do good in school . and for some reaon it was really hard with me when it came to math every standerdize test that i took when in school growing up i always scored extreamly low in math to the point were i had to go to summer school and get extra help so i could move to the next grade . i felt dumb and helpless because it dident matter what i did or what help i tried to get i still failed and had a hard time with math

  9. Michelle Grenevitch on

    This post is amazing. I have to say I have never heard of dyscalculia, but I have heard of the other learning disabilities and disabilities as a whole. I also can relate a little to this post, because when I was first starting school I was told that I was slightly autistic and dyslexia. Even though I only am low on the spectrum there are still several things that are hard for me to understand and comprehend. Most of these areas are not in school but more in socializing. Thank you also for mentioning that people need to accept that the learning disability is part of who they are. It is also essential for classmates, parents, and teachers to accept it as well. As someone who wants to teach one day, this article is extremely helpful. Even though I do not have dyscalculia it makes me aware of another learning disability to be aware of and gives me information to help students with dyscalculia.

  10. Laney Stubbs on

    This is such an AMAZING BLOG!! As a future educator I believe that it so important that educators understand and learn about disabilities. Until I read your blog I only knew of ADD, ADHD and ODD, this seems to be something that very few people know about. Dealing with family members who suffer from autism and ADHD this really hits home and given me an idea to what they go through on a daily basis even though they do not speak on it. Your blog would be awesome for teachers who have students with dyscalculia and given them better understanding. I absolutely agree that more literature is needed for kids know that is okay and they do not have to ashamed.

  11. Melanie Joseph on

    Everyone is saying that this is such as a great post. I don’t want to sound repetitive but it really is. I know I struggle with math, but to hear from this viewpoint is truly amazing to me. After reading this post, I feel as though teachers have a lot to take into consideration when teaching different subjects in school. I would like to more research on the disability to know how this is diagnosed. Lastly, I firmly believe that disabilities should be addressed in books. I believe that it benefits everyone. Kids are able to identify with a certain character, and I think books addressing those topics would be a great segway for a teacher to discuss the bigger issue at hand.

  12. Tina-Maria Bordes-Benfield on

    This was a very enlightening post. I had heard of dyscalculia before but only once from a friend who has it. I understood it was like dyslexia but for numbers but I didn’t realize the complexity of it. This helps me understand now that the children I tutor might have more than just an issue with math, they may struggle with the entire concept. Teachers should really be more educated in learning disabilities so they can help students at the root of the problem rather than just telling students to try harder or stop daydreaming when they are trying in the ways that make sense to them.

  13. Kelsey Robinson on

    Thank you David for a well written entry on dyscalculia. I assume most people are uninformed about dyscalculia and are more informed about dyslexia. I recognized what dyscalculia. was, but did not fully understand how much of an impact it can have on someones life. I just assumed people who had this learning disability had trouble with math. I did not know that they also can struggle with the concept of distance (regardless of times traveled). I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a very young age and it was hard for me to accept that I had a learning disability. I still misspell words and have a hard time pronouncing certain words. I have now grown to accept my learning disability, but not let it cripple me. Like you said in your post “it’s a part of who they are, and it always will be.”

  14. First of all, thank you so much for being open and sharing what you have experienced. As a future educator, I find it necessary to learn all the possible things students can struggle with that way I am aware of how I can help in the classroom by being sensitive to the student and learning different learning strategies. I had never heard of Dyscalculia before, but after reading this article I definitely know many friends and family who struggle with this as well.
    I noticed that you said “finding the right teacher” wouldn’t necessarily help and I understand that this wouldn’t make dyscalculia disappear but I do believe the right teacher can instill confidence in a student so that they believe they can learn. Maybe their learning isn’t like everyone else, but NO ONE learns exactly the same way. A good teacher has the flexibility to allow and encourage students to learn the best way they can.
    I hope to one day help a student with Dyscalculia discover what works for them and for them to embrace who they are just as you have! 🙂

    • Alexis Clark on

      I agree with you Katie. As a future educator my main goal is to provide for each student no matter the situation. More awareness is needed. No individual should go overlooked.

  15. Hi David,
    I enjoyed reading your blog and I like the fact you mentioned that “about 20% of people with ADHD also have dyscalculia.” I am a teacher and your blog made me realize how important it is to understand students who experience the symptoms of these disorders.
    Now that I have a little bit of knowledge about this, I will be able to better help my students succeed in their studies. I also relate to your blog because I was diagnosed as having ADD. Over the years, I have learned how to cope with this difficulty and how to stay focused and succeed in everything I do, even though it requires a tremendous amount of effort.
    In addition, I very much agree with you that it is hard to work on something that is not interesting. I like to find creative ways to become interested in everything I need to do such as school work. As you mentioned, many people think that people who have this disability can just practice overcoming it, but as you know, it is not true at all. It will always be with us; some people already know how to handle it and manage these difficulties. This is the reason that as a teacher, it is critical to embrace and understand the students who experience these difficulties. It is also very important to cultivate the self-image of all these students so they will not feel different and left out because this can lead to depression. As a teacher, I will do everything in my power to help these students because I know how hard it is to try to succeed in a place where one finds it difficult to focus and fit in with their peers.

  16. Sabrina Balkum on

    Wow I must say your blog is inspiring as well as enlightening. Thank you for revealing the experiences you endured. I am very shocked and surprised that dscalulia existed, as the previous commenters, I as well was not
    aware of dyscalulia. You discussed how your previous teachers always assumed your were joking around or
    daydreaming, when in-fact your were struggling. That statement in itself was very heartbreaking. I think it is very essential as a teacher to be able to identify children with disabilities and to properly help them thrive.
    Thanks again.

  17. Wow I must say your blog is inspiring as well as
    Enlightening. Thank you for revealing the experiences you endured. I am very shocked and surprised that
    dyscalulia existed, as the previous commenters, I as well was not aware of dyscalulia. You discussed how your previous teachers always assumed you were joking around or daydreaming, when in-fact you were
    Struggling. That statement in itself was very heartbreaking. I think it is very essential as a teacher to identify children with disabilities and properly help them thrive. Thanks again

  18. Lorraine Zabat on

    As an 23 year old college student that has mental illnesses along with ADHD, hearing about this disability is new. My parents told me that I was showing symptoms of dyslexia at an young age. I was in the slower classes from math and reading. I have overcome my problems with math questions as long as I knew what I was doing. Reading, on the other hand, is still hard to do. I still avoid using BIG vocabulary in essays. I have an feeling that my all teachers can sense that struggle.
    Dyscalcuia is a new disorder that I have learned today from reading this article. I actually have an close friend with this disorder. Or we think that he does. Since this disorder has explained a lot of problems with understanding math. His passion of doing simple math is hard on him.
    I would love to learn more about dsycalcuia and other disorders and how authors can bring them into future characters. As an future special needs educator, I would love to help students with this disorder figure out how to work with math.

  19. Antwanette Gordon on

    Prior to reading this post, I have never heard of Dyscaculia. The comparison that was given to ADHD was pretty interesting because I find that the term is used very loosely and a large number of people that have been diagnosed with ADHD are misdiagnosed. The tie between ADHD and Dyscalculia makes sense. I remember something my brother said to me once before, he said, ” everything is everything”. Which in this specific topic makes a lot of sense. Having issues with math correlates with being able to cook when measurements have to be used, or being late for a meeting or work or even a personal engagement. I find that people laugh and criticize often when they don’t understand. I have fallen victim to making a joke about ADHD.
    It admirable that you were able to understand exactly what it is, understand what helps as well as educate others. I cant imagine how tough it was for you to be in class and the teacher constantly telling you to focus and stay on task. I am in school for Early Childhood Education and this post alone has influenced me to be more in tune with my future students to make sure everyone is learning and grasping the concept the best way they know how. Thank you for sharing with the world your struggles. You are certainly not alone!

  20. This blog is absolutely AMAZING! I myself also struggle with ADHD, and now am able to put a name to something else I believe I suffer from as well, Dyscalculia. I too struggle with math immensely and never fully understood what I was actually supposed “to be doing” or “figuring out” when it came to math. I also was able to understand just enough to remember equations but was never able to understand why. I had no idea this disorder actually existed, but it definitely puts me at ease knowing I could put a name to something that i have suffered for long with. I use to hate when I would have to make change for customers and they were standing in front of me. I would completely become still and unable to figure out exactly what change made up to correct amount to give back to the customer. I can also remember as a child in school, counting the corners of things in the classroom, and not really understanding why. This article has helped me immensely to be more understanding and aware of a disorder. Becoming an educator the more aware I am of disorders and disabilities small and big, recognized and not the better teacher I will be able to be to my students. The more knowledgeable I am will only allow me to be a more proficient in my teachings and help cater my teaching styles to my students needs.

  21. I am currently a college student, pursuing a career in the education field and your post really opened my eyes to the unfairness going on inside classrooms. I started to reflect on my time back in primary school. There were many students in my classes that struggled with focus and had an especially tough time with math. Our teacher often deemed the content common and simple; stating that it should not take any of us long to calculate the answer. Our lessons were always fast paced and the teachers tended to focus more on the amount they could fit into our lesson rather than efficiently getting each student on the same page. It is important for educators to understand that children learn differently and at a different pace. It is disheartening to imagine a child feeling like they are not intelligent enough because they are not fitting the majority category. I had never had much knowledge of ADHD or Dyscalculia until reading your post. Thank you for providing me with the motivation to continue my journey in the education field. I hope I can make a difference!

  22. As a future educator, I’m really glad to have stumbled upon this blog post! I truly believer that educators and teachers should be informed about different disabilities. I personally did not know about dyscalculia before I read this post. I find it very sad and unfortunate that when you were in elementary school, your teacher did not try to take action to help you or see if there was a problem but rather just discouraged you and made you feel less than. It is our job as educators to know our students and to accommodate to their needs to help them learn in the way that is best for them. I feel like disabilities are often overlooked and simply labeled as “not being attentive” or “easily distracted”, etc. It’s important that educators are aware of their students and making sure they they are getting all the resources they can get to help them learn. I hope that I can become an educator who is able to recognize and help my students of all backgrounds and needs.

  23. Thank you so much for introducing and sharing your experience about dyscalculia. As a math major and future educator, I have learned and then think about dyscalculia. I have seen many students who are suffering from ADHD and dyslexia, but I have not met a person with dyscalculia, so sharing experience is so important for me to understand how hard them to learn. For most of teachers, they have ADHD and dyslexia in mind, but about dyscalculia, I am not sure how many teachers aware of it and knows a warning signs of dyscalculia. As A future teacher, I should keep this in mind and will help future students who might suffer from dyscalculia.

  24. Awesome blog! I’m really happy you gained enough confidence to share this informative blog with us. As a future educator, this post has really opened help me understand the differences between the two. Before reading your blog I was always familiar with the term dyslexia, but not dyscalculia. I believe this disability itself needs more awareness. This blog needs to be talked about. There could be many people out here with this disability and they aren’t even aware.

  25. Alexis Clark on

    Thank You so much for sharing this information. I never heard of Dyscalculia before. But after reading this article I have a clear understanding. I am sure a lot of people aren’t aware of this disability. Many people may have this disability and don’t even know it. If more awareness is brought to this disability it could really change some lives.

  26. Great article. I could not stop but wonder if my daughter may have this disorder (she also has ADHD and her 3rd grade teacher sounded like yours). She is going in to 4th grade and I was nodding my head to every indicator that you suggested. I know you said even menial tasks can be hard for you but was there anything that ever helped you grasp multiplication? How did you find out that you had this disorder?
    Thanks for sharing.

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