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Dyscalculia, Green Day and Me

Summary

Through experiencing the world as a person with dyscalculia, I have often felt like I am some kind of alien that is trying to fit in on a planet that doesn’t accommodate for me. For me, Dyscalculia contributes to the anxiety I feel today, because I am always trying to avoid failure at all costs. Read more about Scott's story...

Experiencing the world as a person with dyscalculia

Through experiencing the world as a person with dyscalculia, I have often felt like I am some kind of alien that is trying to fit in on a planet that doesn’t accommodate for me. For me, Dyscalculia contributes to the anxiety I feel today, because I am always trying to avoid failure at all costs. It all started when I was about seven or eight years old trying to learn how to tell the time when I was sat on my dad’s knee. We would be going through a clock together. At the end of one of our lessons I would sort of understand how time works, but then, a few days later, I would completely forget everything we had just learned. This process went on for a few weeks until we stopped all together. Neither me nor my parents could grasp why this was happening as everything not related to numbers was not a problem for me. I also realised I had to individually count groups of things, whilst other people could recognise the patterns and counted easily.

I know now that much of this was due to my dyscalculia. I was diagnosed by a specialist dyscalculia assessor when I was around the age of fifteen. When I was 18 and at university, I was tested by Adult Dyslexia Consulting Ltd. I displayed all the symptoms that were associated with Dyscalculia.

The main emotion I felt with dyscalculia at school was shame and anxiety. Every time I had to do any maths, I faced high levels of maths anxiety and I spent most of my school life trying to avoid maths all together or trying to hide the symptoms of my dyscalculia. Looking back now as an adult, I suppose it was the same as a dyslexic person avoiding reading out loud to avoid judgement. On top of these feelings, I also felt frustrated that nobody understood my learning difficulty and that I had to work hard in order to change people’s perception of me. Once teachers understood my dyscalculia however, I felt a lot more supported but it took a lot of energy to change opinions.

Dyscalculia at school: not just a barrier in the maths classroom

When I was nine years old, I moved to Toulouse in the South of France and I was placed in a private school. The school was for children whose parents worked for Airbus. I remember in year 5, there were maths passports that everybody had to complete. As you got better at maths, you were given a passport to a larger continent. The larger continent you were on meant that the more developed your maths skills were. Everyone was getting called up to receive their passport for North America, South America and Asia. Meanwhile I was still on Europe: the smallest continent. As the smallest continent, this meant that I couldn’t move beyond my one and two times tables. I was subjected to plenty of ridicule by other children as I was called up to receive my award. It was said then that my maths difficulties would be ‘sorted out’ by the time I reached year 7.  My maths was not sorted out at all, and I went into maths in secondary with high levels of maths anxiety and high level of internalised shame because I couldn’t grasp at all what everybody else was learning. Because I never understood the building blocks of maths, I was never able to understand the maths that the teachers were teaching us. When we played maths games such as fizz buzz (a very popular maths game), I said random answers that I knew might be wrong so that that I could hide my dyscalculia from the other students and the teacher as well. I was accused of putting up a barrier to maths and not trying hard enough. This just wasn’t true.

In fact, the best way to describe the effects of dyscalculia to someone without it, for me, is that it’s like is you are looking at a maths question but really it is like you are staring at a brick wall covered with jumbled up graffiti that you can’t read. When you try to work things out in your head using all your strategies you’ve attempted to learn then you quickly forget the instructions that were provided to you merely seconds ago and subsequently get the wrong answer.

My Dyscalculia showed up outside of the maths classroom as well. For example, I would show up incredibly early to different lessons as not get caught out. I knew break time was an hour, but I never knew how long that felt like so I never took the chance being late. In history lessons, when we had to calculate using percentages how much a historical figure was responsible for an event, I would always say fifty fifty as that was the only percentage I knew that would end up adding to 100 percent. It was incredibly traumatic trying to explain why I choose fifty fifty to my history teacher in front of the whole class. It made me look like I didn’t understand what the class was discussing and then I couldn’t really contribute to the discussion even though I desperately wanted to. Meanwhile in Geography and Science, I struggled to understand graphs and data that were essential to the lesson. I specifically remember how in Chemistry lessons, I would look down at the sheets of paper full of maths and not understand any of it.  I also remember feeling a great deal of shame asking the chemistry teacher to go through the questions with me on multiple occasions whilst everyone was flying through. In Design Technology, I struggled to work out angles to cut and struggled to read measurements because I never learned how to read a ruler. Whenever I gained enough confidence to tell the other students about my disability, some of the time they would ask me maths questions and unwittingly contribute to my shame, embarrassment, and anxiety.

At lunch times we were allowed to leave school for food if we wanted to. Because I didn’t understand how money or change worked, I always ordered the same bakery meal deal because I knew it came to ten euros. This went on for pretty much my whole schooling life. it happened so much that it even became a light-hearted running joke with some of the teachers. I always responded with humour. They always knew what I had ordered from the bakery.

Green Day as a strategy for maths

In my mock exams, my grades suffered terribly because I rushed all of the questions. This was because I couldn’t tell the time and had no sense of time. I remember my specialist support teacher giving me a digital countdown clock which I could read in my real exams. This caused my grades to improve drastically. She also helped me with maths and to this day I am eternally grateful for her and what she did for me. When I did my physics exam, I decided with my Mum to avoid all the maths part of the exam and instead focused on the parts that I actually could do. This worked well as I ended up passing Physics.

I used music in order to get from my school to my train on time.  It was around this time that I started listening to the band Green Day and turned into a super fan. Their song Jesus of Suburbia is nine minutes long, and I remember that that’s roughly how long it took me to get to the train station from school. When I was doing maths with my specialist support teacher, I was given a picture of Green Day one day before a lesson and was asked to picture it in my head then say out loud what they were wearing. If I didn’t think of Green Day, then I would soon fall asleep. This was because my brain easily got overwhelmed. If I did the Green Day exercise before doing maths, then I was able to do maths. Whenever I work with anything to do with maths, I still picture Green Day now and I am now 24 years old.

Dyscalculia, Green Day and Me!
Photo of Scott with Green Day's American Idiot poster behind him.


Maths GCSEs and the Multiply Programme

I never sat my GCSE maths as it was said that I would be unlikely to pass a GCSE or a Foundation GCSE. I think if the student support network in my private school was larger, I think more resources and time could have been spent  in order to help me gain my Maths GCSE. An understanding of the learning difficulty would have gone a long way as well at an earlier stage. As an adult, there has been a mind set change. I am now fully motivated to gain my C equivalent, so that I can prove to my younger self that I can do it.

I am now taking part in the Government’s Multiply scheme. My tutor has been so supportive and has been going back to basics with me. As an adult, I use my endless enthusiasm and curiosity to understand the maths I am learning in my Multiply course. By doing maths homework and having lessons every week with my tutor, I am slowly picking away at the shame and anxiety that I have associated with maths for all of my life. When I am getting answers right in my lessons now, it bring me great joy because I know how much it would’ve meant to younger me.

I know that maths is a key subject and is important but I can’t help but feel for all the young people who could have dyscalculia that are being forced into doing something that gives them high levels of maths anxiety. Should the government push forward with this agenda, I would need to know what crucial support will be given to people with dyscalculia in the classroom.

Dyscalculia and Adult Life

Dyscalculia has had a huge impact on my work. When I worked for a solicitors as an apprentice legal assistant I made the mistake of trying to explain my disability to my work mentor. In hindsight, perhaps I could have explained my symptoms better, but once I did disclose my dyscalculia, they did not understand it at all, and then made assumptions about the things I could and couldn’t do. No reasonable adjustments were made, and eventually I had to leave because it wasn’t the right fit for me. On a positive note, I now make employers know about my struggles right from the very beginning. This is so they can have a better understanding of me as an employee and I can have better understanding of how they could potentially support me.

In my last role with Cancer Research Wales, I tried to explain to my colleagues about my dyscalculia, but I am not sure they ever really grasped what it entailed. It was a similar reaction in previous jobs too. You can see that some people really want to help, but because they don’t know what it is or have never heard of it, they are not sure how to help. I find this often ends in confusion for both parties, and then we tie each other into knots until it gets to a point where people assume I can’t do my job because I can’t do maths. They were certainly more supportive compared to other jobs I have had in the past.  Though, there is definitely a long way to go for complete understanding.

Learning to live with dyscalculia

When I was younger, I used to hope every day that somehow my dyscalculia would magically go away. My main goal was to be ‘normal’ just like everyone else. To be someone that wasn’t taken out of class for extra maths. I would be lying to everyone if I said that I have now completely accepted my diagnosis. Some days are harder than others, but I am slowly learning to accept that my brain processes things differently compared to everyone else.

The most important thing for me is learning to accept the things I struggle with so that I can get the help from friends and family. I often talk to my friends and family about dyscalculia. When I open up about my problems, I no longer had to hide my symptoms away from people. This has caused me recently to go on a journey of self-acceptance. My journey is not finished but I am on the road to understanding myself. Talking about my dyscalculia openly has helped me so much.

Since understanding dyscalculia, my parents have supported me in the best way that a person can be supported. For example, my dad will help me navigate a new train station that I have never visited before. This is to help me avoid being stressed about train times. We go together if we can, and it really helps to know what I need do on the day that I am travelling. Having understood my dyscalculia, they have become my biggest champions and have helped me during my studies at university, as well as taught me everyday maths in a way I can understand.

I feel that having dyscalculia has also made me the poet and short story writer that I am today. I use all the negative emotions that I have to create impactful work. Because of my drama background, I can use my in-person communication skills to raise awareness of dyscalculia.

Three tips for someone with dyscalculia

  1.  Don’t try to hide your symptoms away from people. Although you feel as though it might protect you in the short term, it will cause you to lose your identity as a person in the long run.
  2. Be open and honest about what you struggle with so that you can get best support you can. That could be from teachers, friends, or family.
  3. As a person with dyscalculia, I listened too much to the negative inner critic inside my head. Instead of gathering negative evidence that will prove you are not good enough to yourself, focus instead on the positive achievements you have accomplished. Also focus on all your positive personal qualities. I know from experience that that is easier to say but trust me – it will help you in the long run. Always remember, you are much stronger that what you think you are.
Dyscalculia success! Photo of Scott at graduation
Dyscalculia, Green Day and Me

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