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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12 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.

  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!

  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.

  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.

  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. 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.”

  11. 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! 🙂

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