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.