Dyscalculia: ‘I am just wired this way, and that’s okay’.
As a child, I knew that I preferred reading and writing over any activities that had anything to do with numbers! I was acutely aware that numbers caused me a deep sense of frustration and sadness, so I avoided them as much as I could.
As an adult, I have come to accept the different ways in which my brain functions as a neurodivergent person.
Dyscalculia is a maths learning disorder that makes mathematical reasoning and computation difficult. It not only impacts academic and career prospects but has a significant impact on everyday life. People can be dyscalculic even when they have adequate education, when they are intelligent and when they have proper motivation.
Dyscalculia : How to pronounce it: The “cu” in dyscalculia sounds like the “cu” in calculator, also pronounced to rhyme with the name Julia.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with dyscalculia. I remember the day I got my diagnosis very clearly. It is a day I will never forget because of how I felt (relief) and because of the kind and reassuring words said to me by my kind but stern assessor. I will come back to this a bit later on.
Whenever I tell people that I have Dyscalculia, the usual response is ‘oh I am bad at Maths too’! Professor Brian Butterworth, a Cognitive Neuroscientist, University College London, has explained the difference between Dyscalculic and someone that’s just a bit ‘crap at Maths’.
He says that there are lots of reasons for being ‘a bit rubbish’ at Maths, for example; not having a good maths teacher, not liking the teacher and not attending maths classes. With maths being a cumulative subject, unlike History, if you miss many lessons, it’s very hard to catch up.
Dyscalculia on the other hand, can occur in people that attend every single maths lesson (like I did!), they try ‘very hard’ (like I did), they are motivated to learn, they come from supportive backgrounds, they are intelligent, they pass all their other subjects with flying colours and yet they are unable to do even the most basic tasks in maths that everyone else in their class can do.
So, there is a big difference and that difference is that dyscalculia is a medically recognised neurological condition.
Let’s take it back to my childhood. For a long time, my dyscalculia went undiagnosed and life was very very hard because we live in a world dedicated to sequences and numbers.
Childhood – my early signs of Dyscalculia
Monopoly, Mario Kart, all things Nintendo Wii, Snakes and Ladders, ichiyenga (A Zambian game), all signified ‘fun’ for my friends. For me, these things had connotations of dread, stress, anxiety, aka not fun at all. It’s not that I didn’t understand the rules, it’s just that I was terrible at the numerical side of it, working out for example when it was my turn or keeping score. It was all alien and foregin to me. For the most part, it’s still foreign to me. It was as simple as that. I didn’t get it. No matter how hard I tried.
In primary and secondary school, maths classes were also a foregin language to me. I struggled to understand anything in class. That’s not an exaggeration. I really didn’t get it. At all. None of it! The best way to describe my formal education when it came to maths is, I was always in the room, but the teachers spoke a foreign language that I did not understand.
In high school, the school’s solution was to move me to what they called ‘the bottom set’. It never occurred to anyone to question why I was getting A*s to C grades in all my other subjects and F and Gs (basically Fails) in Maths. In their defence, they probably hadn’t heard of Dyscalculia at the time, many people hadn’t, myself included. Even today this learning disability is still 10 years behind Dyslexia in research!
During high school, my mum noticed the discrepancy in my grades and got me a maths tutor. (Thanks mum for looking out!) For 2-3 years, before I took my final GCSE Maths exams, I spent a few days a week after school with this maths tutor.
However, as the underlying issue I had was my undiagnosed dyscalculia, despite hours of maths lessons in school and despite my maths tutor’s best efforts, I did my final GCSE Maths exams and still only managed a G (the equivalent to a 1 or 2 in the new grading structure – also known as a Fail).
College and University – still undiagnosed.
Despite my maths struggles, I was otherwise a high achiever and managed to secure a place at college to study Law, Politics and English Language (A Levels). But my offer was on one condition; I had to retake my GCSE Maths!
The long and frustrating story is that I was at college for 2 years. Each year I re-took my GCSE Maths exams. I failed again in the first year of college and got a very low grade in the second year. During the same time, I completed my A Levels and obtained grades AAB in Politics, Law and English. At this stage, I had retaken my GCSE Maths 3 times. That’s right THREE!
It was an emotional battle that I struggled with as a child, in my teens and in my early twenties. I often felt a sense of shame, guilt,embarrassment and that sadness. Guilt that maybe I was just not trying hard enough. I paid attention and went to every class. So it just didn’t make sense! WHY COULD I NOT GET THE HANG OF THIS!!!!!?!??!! I often cried about this out of sheer frustration.
As with most things, life goes on. I passed my A Levels, so off to University I went.
At this stage, I had gotten by in life without maths adversely affecting me and I dealt with that shame and guilt by never really speaking about it. But, I got to university and wasn’t doing very well in my Tax Law, because… you guessed it NUMBERS!
At this stage, I had just turned 18, left home, and was living in the real world (almost) at university. Everyday things like counting the right change, reading bus times tables/trains, getting to places on time, and reading clocks were definitely a challenge. I had to do these things for myself and now that I wasn’t living at home any more with mum not there to help me, I definitely found some of these basic life skills very challenging.
For the first time in my life, I thought to myself something is very wrong here, I didn’t know what it was but I knew something was wrong. ‘’What if I can’t get a proper job when I finish uni because of this’’? became a constant thought at the back of my head.
I successfully completed my 3 year degree and obtained a 2:1 Bachelors in Law (LLB) and thankfully, I also managed to pass my tax classes. Phew!
The real world
Queue entering the ‘real world’. It was time to get a job, my first proper ‘big girl job’. Most jobs I was applying for required me to complete verbal reasoning and mathematical reasoning tests. I will let you guess which test I would pass and which one I failed and caused me to not move forward in the recruitment process! #Sadtimes!
It was in 2012, 2 years after graduating that it dawned on me that I can’t avoid this, (whatever, ‘this’ was) forever and that the consequences of avoidance were far greater, than the consequences of facing up to whatever was going on.
After a bit of research, I ended up going to a private assessment centre in London, Kings Cross and did a full dyscalculia evaluation /assessment with an Educational Psychologist. The kind but stern assessor I mentioned earlier!
Although dyscalculia is a recognised medical condition, unfortunately it does not readily come under the ambit of GPs or the NHS. So, I had to go private to find out what had been going on with me all these years! I don’t remember how much I paid, but I remember it being expensive. Sadly it’s still very expensive to this day, a quick scan of the internet tells me it’s around £450, depending on where you go.
I spent a couple of hours with the assessor and I did various tests. From what I remember the tests included quantitative reasoning, computation skills, maths fluency, mental computation and I was also given some geometry tasks ! (Pure stress – hated it! I remember it now). The Diagnosis I received that day was that I had severe dyscalculia.
I was relieved I now had a reason and understood why I was 23 years old, still didn’t know my times tables, still couldn’t work out what my change should be in the shop and still counting using my fingers.
As I was leaving his office, the assessor stopped me and said words that live with me to this day and always will, given that Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition.
He said ‘’there is nothing wrong with you. There are strategies and ways to deal with numbers and maths and ways to manage your diagnosis. Focus on the things you’re good at and you can still do well in life.’’.
He clearly saw that I had been troubled by this learning disability all my life and from the conversation I had just had with him, he realised I was having a real awakening. I stood there wondering what this diagnosis meant for me and my future.
I got home and I cried. Tears of joy and relief mainly. I could finally stop blaming myself. Finding out my diagnosis offered a sense of relief and although I was still going back out into a world largely dictated by maths, numbers and sequences, I left that office a very different person.
2022: So what about today: how is my life going as a 33 year old Dyscalculic?
As an adult, I have had to work very hard to change my mindset around my dyscalculia diagnosis. I no longer feel guilt, shame or embarrassment. The way I see it, is that ‘this is just the way I am wired’.
After my diagnosis, I promised made a promise to myself to be kind to myself and to not beat myself up when I couldn’t catch on to a game I was playing with friends and to correct any hurtful comments from people; whether intentional or unintentional about my often slow reactions to games/understanding or even counting my change on the rare occasion I pay with cash. (Monzo bank is a life saver for me because of how it really helps me to keep an eye on my spending and the Monzo ‘pots’ are great! )
In 2012, I decided that I was only going to focus my career aspirations on things I was good at like problem solving, writing, critical analysis and made sure to apply for jobs where my strongest skills would be at use. I owed it to myself to be the best version of myself.
I am very open about my dyscalculia diagnosis. You know why? Because disability, no matter how profound, does not diminish personhood. As a person with an atypical brain, I am fully human, just like everyone else. I truly embrace the fact that I am just ‘wired’ differently and this ‘wiring’ has in fact given me a competitive edge throughout my career, because I have strong skill sets in other areas that someone else might not have. I have focused on those skill sets and I can safely say, I am a dyscalculic that’s doing alright in her career!
It also takes a lot of energy to hide this part of you and can be emotionally draining. Finding myself in places (socially and professionally) where people accept me for me has given me happiness and freedom I could have never imagined. Equally removing myself from environments and people that make me feel less than has also brought me joy.
I might get the odd, funny look from people for still using my fingers to count at 33 years old and that I can’t tell you what 9 x 4 is without using a calculator (or any other times table calculation for that matter!) , but as a Strategic Estates Manager (Project Management) working for a well known public sector organisation, I tend to hyperfocus as a result of wanting to make sure that I will get things right,especially where numbers are involved. My employers in the last few years, as a result of my dyscalculia disclosure have made reasonable adjustments for me in most cases, eg, giving me the extra time I need to do tasks involving numbers and providing a calculator for me to use.
Being dyscalculic is a one part of who I am as a human being, just like being a black person and a woman are also parts of who I am. These things are important parts of my identity but each aspect alone does not define me.
Line Rothmann during her TED Talk, perfectly summed up her dyscalculia diagnosis when she said she does not identify herself with her brain, her right foot, her thumb or her heart. She says ‘dyscalculia is not her personality but she cannot run away from it being a part of her personality…’ and that her hope is that we can embrace our entire selves.
You can watch Line Rothmann’s Ted linked below. Worth watching – only 11 mins long.