Blog of Steel

Each To Their Strengths - An Introduction to Dyscalculia

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“Each to their strengths” is a bit of a motto I use within my family. It basically means that we all make different contributions to the household, according to what we are good at. My wife is very good at looking after the money and all the mortgage stuff – and I am happy to let her do it. I do… other things. Like, putting the books away!

This story starts a few months ago, when my wife made a slightly off-the-cuff and tongue-in-cheek comment about my “glazing over” whenever she tried to talk to me about finances, and wondered aloud if it might be down to some form of “number dyslexia”. As someone who has always struggled with maths and hated anything to do with numbers (with the exception of football squad shirt numbers. Look it up on Twitter - there’s thousands of us!), I couldn’t really argue with her assessment. It’s probably not the first time she’s made this comment so I didn’t really think much of it.

Recently I attended a training course for Accelerated Reader, an online reading scheme that takes the noble pursuit of reading for pleasure and turns it into data and statistics.  I work as a school librarian, alongside other freelance work I do based around literacy, reading and comics. This was a full-day course and, about an hour into it, I realised that I was really struggling to keep my interest levels up. I was trying. I really was. And yet I kept looking at the screen and thinking “I have no idea what you are talking about”. I even took to making a list of all the strange mathematical terms the trainer kept using, probably as a way of justifying my own stupidity to myself.

Obviously, there were hours of this course left and I was already at the point of no return. I started to wonder if my wife’s earlier comments about “number dyslexia” might have a kernel of truth to them. Never having been a big fan of wasting my time, I decided that the best way I could spend the rest of the day was to do some research about number dyslexia using my mobile phone’s Internet connection. I started with Wikipedia and the first fact I discovered was that the word I was looking for was “dyscalculia” (although I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce it at this point). This led on to looking at some other British sites about this learning disability… although I was surprised at how little information there was out there (in the UK anyway) and how nearly all of it was aimed at helping dyscalculic school children (and their teachers) deal with it and progress.

The aspect of dyscalculia that interested me the most was the symptoms. The more I read about what dyscalculia sufferers struggled with the more I thought, “This is me! So much of this just describes my life”. The problems with so many aspects of maths; with the anxiety often caused by working with finances; with judging time and punctuality; even with spatial stuff too. When I was a little kid at primary school, I was “academically inclined” and quite able at all my subjects - and extremely good at English. Reading, writing, spelling tests – these were my strengths and I revelled in them. Maths, however, was an altogether different experience. I struggled from day one and fudged and conned my way through much of what my teachers were attempting to teach me. Long multiplication, long division, imperial measurements of height and weight – all seemed like ancient and magical incantations to the 10-year-old me. Times tables were a big problem. It was very important in those days for students to be tested on their times tables knowledge… and I regularly failed. Badly. So much so that I – along with two other students – were taken out of class once a week for some specialised one-on-one tuition. The whole class approach was not working for me. Eventually, with enough direct instruction, I managed to memorise enough of my times tables to gain some acceptable results in these tests of multiplication.

I eventually became of the opinion that this was natural and that being good at English meant that I was destined to be poor at maths. Yes, there were exceptions to this rule. Of course, there were children that were excellent at both subjects… but they were rare and clearly “freaks of nature” (in my simplifying, youthful mind anyway). People who were good at maths did not have a fully developed imagination and were not big readers. They certainly weren’t in my league. Funny the things you make up to make yourself feel better about your own deficiencies. As I moved into my adult life I did what I imagine many dyscalculics do – I found a range of coping strategies designed to avoid problems and minimise any reliance on maths. Addition is my default setting for all mathematical equations and, if I can use my fingers and/or a calculator, all the better!

I researched as much as I could from online sources, including a half-decent online screener (where the time taken to answer the questions was a factor) that classified me as “at risk”. I thought that was a good starting point and carried on my research. When I felt I had exhausted all the UK websites that covered dyscalculia (again, this was not as numerous as you might think), I paid £30 to access another online dyscalculia screener (that promised much but turned out to be little more than a set of maths questions aimed at nine-year-olds and was completely useless!). I did find one huge source of encouragement though in the book It Just Doesn’t Add Up by Paul Moorcraft. Moorcraft is an award-winning novelist, highly experienced war correspondent, visiting professor at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies plus Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis. Put simply, he’s no slouch and knows his stuff. Perhaps most importantly though… Moorcraft is a dyscalculic himself and writes from hard experience, not from a purely academic perspective. He discusses what dyscalculia is and how it can affect both children and adults. He presents specific ways of working around maths problems. Just as dyslexia does not mean a sufferer cannot read (which many people outside of education wrongly assume), being dyscalculic does not mean we can’t do maths. It means we struggle in certain areas, some of us get anxious about our deficiencies and that it generally takes us longer to do things that most other people take for granted. As with all learning difficulties, there’s a scale. In the foreword by Professor Brian Butterworth (this country’s leading expert on dyscalculia research), he mentions how, after testing Moorcraft, he was amazed that he’d ever managed to gain a qualification in maths when he was at school. The only explanation he could come up with was that geometry would have been a key component of the maths curriculum at that time, an area of maths that is less mired in mental arithmetic and formula. Clearly, this suited the young and dyscalculic Moorcraft.

I read all of Paul Moorcraft’s book, cover to cover, in under a week. Kudos to the author on making his work so accessible! One of the most important parts of the book for me was the checklist for adults suspecting they may be dyscalculic. This was not a scientific test but was instead a collection of symptoms that encourages adults to analyse their own relationship with maths and how it fits (or doesn’t) into their everyday lives and their previous years in the school system. Of the thirty symptoms highlighted by the author, I could recognise twenty-five of them in me. At this point, I think I’d made my mind up that this was the final confirmation of my theory. I am, and always have been, a sufferer of dyscalculia.

At first, this slow revelation felt like someone opening a heavy pair of curtains and shedding sunlight onto an area of my life that had always caused me feelings of inferiority, shame, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion and worry. It explained a part of me that I could never understand. How was it that I could memorise a whole soliloquy from Hamlet but had no chance of being able to remember and recite my eight times table?! Finally, I had an explanation for this illogic! It wasn’t me just being thick or lazy. My brain was just wired differently. Paul Moorcraft talks about how many dyscalculics he has met could be described as “mavericks”. They do things differently. They don’t simply follow the herd. It’s a term he happily applies to himself and, as anyone who knows me professionally or personally will probably testify, it applies to me too. I consider it a source of strength, even if it sometimes leads me down a rockier path than I would like. Conversely, I have also been aware that studying dyscalculia over the last couple of months and applying it to my own life has had an unexpected impact on my own self-confidence though. Not much really, just a little. And I will deal with it and get over it. I guess that going back over my school years and remembering all the times I sat in a maths class without the first idea of what I was supposed to be doing has brought back some long-buried feelings of inadequacy. I hope these feelings will pass as I accept where I am now from a new and different perspective.

I have always had peculiar “spatial awareness” issues, another more curious symptom of dyscalculia. I can parallel park my car with the best of them but I’ve always had poor physical balance (not in a Jack Douglas way!) and I frequently walk into things, or smash my knuckles into the edges of shelves (a nightmare when you’re a librarian!). I’ve also had a perpetual struggle with the concept of time. Some dyscalculics can never master telling the time on an analogue clock but, for me, it’s punctuality that has forever been my Achilles’ heel. It’s not because I want to be late to places or that I enjoy the attention in some perverse way. I think I have a hard time conceptualising how long something actually takes to do and this has a knock-on effect on other areas of my life. When I worked in a bookstore in my twenties, my inability to get to work on time got me in a little bit of trouble with the manager. The way I got around that was to use public transport instead of the car. This is a very effective coping mechanism and one that still works for me today. An immutable timetable offers a great incentive to those who struggle with “tardiness”. Several years ago, I was working in a school where I was really enjoying my job. It was fulfilling, creative and I felt valued and respected. And yet I was still frequently late every morning, despite my best efforts (I thought they were my best efforts anyway) and my actually being excited about getting to work every morning. I came to the conclusion, after years of trying to “cure” myself of this malady, that if I couldn’t sort this out now then I never would. It was just an unfortunate part of me that I needed to accept and stop trying to fix. It was a double-edged sword anyway. I may have struggled to get to work on time every morning but I also found it impossible to wrap things up and leave work on time too! The more I read up on dyscalculia, the more I realised my issues with time awareness (and subsequent management) were part of a larger problem across my whole life. To be able to realise that it’s not down to some deep, inherent selfishness or thoughtlessness on my part has allowed me to start trying to deal with it in a much more positive manner. This all might seem like a stupid thing to admit to publicly when I’m in the business of being hired by schools for events. Indeed, admitting to all of the different facets of this learning difficulty might seem ill-advised and self-damaging. This is a cathartic process for me though and something I needed to get written down, both as a form of self-expression and as a way of reaching out to other sufferers. Hardly anybody knows anything about the existence of dyscalculia… and yet nobody refutes it either. It exists but research is about thirty years behind that of dyslexia. In fact, as I write this, Google Chrome’s spellchecker is driving this point home by refusing to even recognise it as a word (it does recognise dyslexia though)!

So where am I today? Well, I have discussed it thoroughly with my wife, my mother and a good friend of mine with experience of working with maths in a school SEN (special educational needs) department. I spoke to my mother first and asked her what she thought when I was being taken out of regular classes for one-to-one, intensive maths work as a ten-year-old. She said she didn’t overly worry about it. It was something the school thought was necessary and that her eldest son (me) had “never been interested in anything to do with mathematics”. I was just no good with numbers. Interestingly, a couple of weeks later, my mother was at my house, looking after my kids whilst I was at work. I had left my copy of It Just Doesn’t Add Up on the windowsill and, whilst my youngest took a nap, she decided to dip into it and have a read. When I arrived home, she told me she’d been reading it and she said “This is definitely you”. What had initially been a non-committal response and mild confusion on my mother’s part transformed into a real sense of clarity and understanding. Her middle-aged son wasn’t thick or lazy. He was dyscalculic. She got it.

My wife and I agreed that the next logical step for me would be to be officially assessed by an educational psychologist (as children currently in the school system would possibly be). However, we also didn’t see as that would really change anything in my approach and that spending hundreds of pounds trying to confirm something that I already knew would be tantamount to turning this into some sort of vanity project. And what would I do if said psychologist disagreed with my own conclusions? Scrap everything I’d read and researched? No, I’d probably disagree or go off trying to find another psychologist I had more faith in. I’ve certainly seen enough parents do that over the years when they feel 100% certain that their child has some sort of learning disability but can’t find an education professional that will believe them. My friend with SEN experience knew all about dyscalculia (maths was a speciality for him) and he has been incredibly supportive during our chats about it. He agrees with my conclusions, which has been extremely helpful. Working with children with learning disabilities - and with maths in particular - has been his specialism for many years so his opinion is extremely valid and important to me.

No, the best way forward is to try and talk to other people and hopefully raise awareness. So… this is me reaching out. I am aware that all this could be construed as a self-indulgence on my part and as part of a life-long desire to “be different”. I don’t think that’s the case though. I think I am self-aware enough to be able to recognise this as a possibility and then analyse it further, objectively. I don’t need to invent a learning disability to make myself stand out from the crowd or look different. I’ve been doing that for years – both physically, philosophically and professionally. This is me sharing my own experiences and letting others know that dyscalculia isn’t going to rule my life or my career and that it isn’t something that I’m going to be ashamed of.


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