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Dyscalculia and Neurodiversity: Reflections on the Dyscalculia and Dyslexia Shows


In this post, Peter Cherry reflects on what he felt at the UK’s first Dyscalculia Show, what it means for the Dyslexia Show to make space for those with dyscalculia, and the empowering, yet sometimes simultaneously disempowering, nature of ‘neurodiversity’ discussions for lesser-known learning differences.

By Peter Cherry

It’s a week since the UK had its first Dyscalculia Show. The brainchild of Arran Smith, the Dyslexia Show is the UK’s leading exhibition dedicated to dyslexia and neurodiversity with tons of organisations descending on Birmingham’s NEC to dispense help, advice and new assistive technologies all designed to empower dyslexics.

This year, the Dyslexia Show really demonstrated their commitment to neurodiversity by expanding their remit to create the Dyscalculia Show. Seeing the words ‘Dyscalculia Show’ in bold purple next to the ‘Dyslexia Show’ was an emotional moment for me. Although the effects of dyscalculia are all too real for many of us, dyscalculia can often feel like an afterthought. It’s apparent in the way we are generally forced to define dyscalculia as ‘dyslexia in maths’ to the millions who don’t know what this very common learning difficulty with maths is, as if our struggles and difficulties can only be understood through a very different, if often co-occurring, learning difference. But here on this sign, for the first time, dyscalculia was neither compared nor playing second fiddle to dyslexia, but alongside it. Independent but connected.

What is dyscalculia?

So what actually is dyscalculia? It’s a persistent learning difficulty that affects someone’s ’sense of number’ and is experienced by roughly 6% of the UK population (that is 3-4 million people). It can affect assigning to value to numbers, subsitising (recognising quantities without counting), mental arithmetic, sense of direction, and memory of numbers – an essential part of our everyday life as this means PIN numbers and passcodes. As dyscalculia is rarely diagnosed and maths teachers have no compulsory training to support students with dyscalculia, many fail their maths GCSEs which creates problems with finding work as well as with their confidence and mental health. As adults, people with dyscalculia suffer with the number elements of jobs and managing finances – with many finding themselves in debt with families and banks that simply don’t know how to help.

‘Life for those of us with dyscalculia has become harder’

In recent years, life for those of us with dyscalculia has got worse. With the loss of jobs and opportunities in sectors like the arts and culture which traditionally people with dyscalculia excel in, and changes in education that emphasise the importance of having GCSE Maths with no accompanying investment in support for children with dyscalculia, the system increasingly feels designed to fail those with dyscalculia. The Prime Minister’s Maths to 18 proposed policy is only the latest in a string of moves that could cause untold harm to those with dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia and neurodiversity

Dyslexia and Dyscalculia Show also helped us talk to other members of the neurodiverse community. Many of us, myself included, are not only affected by dyscalculia but also by other co-occurring neurodiverse conditions. For me, this is dyspraxia. For many others, it is dyslexia or ADHD, or a combination of many. To get the full picture of what is going on in our brains, we need to understand how all these differences affect life skills like numeracy or literacy.
Neurodiversity is an important label which acknowledges that our brains are different and that there’s not only dyscalculia or dyslexia that shapes how we are. Who knows for example if my struggle with left and right is due to dyscalculia, dyspraxia or a bit of a both? Like the term ‘queer’ which has been repurposed as a an umbrella term for people who don’t conform to cultural norms around gender and sexuality, neurodiversity can speak to all the multiple ways our brain can be and act.

Making space for dyscalculia in conversations about neurodiversity

However, I want to end by thinking back to that ‘Dyscalculia Show’ sign sitting next to the ‘Dyslexia Show’ sign. The truth is that the term ‘neurodiversity’ can both empower and simultaneously disempower. It is all too easy for lesser-known yet keenly felt learning issues to be glossed over, ignored or not given the space they need when other better-known and better researched neurodiverse conditions have louder voices. As evidence, think how the word ‘dyscalculia’ still comes up as a spelling mistake on many word processors. Or how most people with dyscalculia have to explain their learning difference as ‘dyslexia in maths’.
Yet, in making the Dyscalculia Show, Arran’s team showed they were sensitive to this and they recognised that dyscalculia needed this space. I think a time when we don’t need to describe dyscalculia as ‘dyslexia in maths’ is a good aim for us at the Dyscalculia Network to work towards. It’s an aim that can drive us for 2025’s Dyscalculia Show which will be bigger and better – and yes sitting proudly next to the Dyslexia Show.

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