K's Dyscalculia Experience
I can recall quite clearly the very first time I realized there was something wrong with me.
We were in Primary 4 (approx. 8 years old) and had started learning our “times tables”. We had been set homework of learning one of the tables and that day we were to do a little test.
I had struggled the night before to remember anything, and couldn’t quite grasp the whole multiplication thing. Yes, I knew in theory, and could visualize 3 sets of 3 for example, but as the numbers got bigger, this visualization, where I could count the result of the imagined multiplication, became more and more difficult.
That morning, as the teacher called out her questions (“What is seven times eight?”), I got to work and started thinking. While I continued to rack my brain to figure out this question, all my classmates were writing already.
How could this be? How was everyone figuring the multiplication out so quickly? As this thought was in process the teacher called out her next problem, and again, everyone started writing. I panicked, I hadn’t even gotten the first one yet. And she kept going. When it came to “seven times ten” or “seven times two” I wrote those easy answers down.
I still couldn’t understand how everyone else was getting this so quickly though. Wasn't I top of the class in English, science, art, and all? Wasn’t I one of the “talented” ones, who had been picked out for choir, to learn an instrument (I can play almost any instrument you give me, I will learn a tune by ear and play it back within a few attempts, however I could NEVER learn sheet music, no matter how hard I tried, which made Orchestra practice awkward as I had to learn the entire tune by heart and figure out how to play it)? Wasn’t I in the top reading group and got 100% on all my homework thus far?
My teacher called me to the front of the class and told me off for not doing my homework. I tried to explain that I had done my homework, or at least tried, but she didn’t believe me, saying if I had done my homework at all I would have got more than 2 out of 10 on the test. I couldn’t understand. Everything else came so easily to me, why was this so hard?
Cue the next couple of years struggling to understand multiplication and division. I had never really struggled with addition, and only a little with subtraction. When I had to do my “Eleven Plus” as all children in Northern Ireland do, my parents hired me a tutor. I didn’t need any help with English or science, it was only maths.
The tutor was excellent, she helped me learn “how” to do a maths equation, even if I didn’t understand what I was doing, I knew how to make the working out “look” right, and therefore get most of the points even if I got the eventual answer wrong. I got an A overall.
This same strategy also worked for my maths GCSE, which for some strange reason I did a year early (the
“smart” people were grouped into a different maths class and we all did our exam a year before the rest). It was hell.
Normally a diligent student who got along well with her teachers, this one hated me. I was cheeky and disruptive, I hated the teacher back because she made me feel stupid. I thought her communication skills were lacking as she would only explain things in a way that made sense, I felt, to the maths whizzes of our class, who seemed to get everything first time around. I hated the class. I felt horrible and stupid. I cried at night and begged my mum to write me a note excusing me from the class. Because everyone needs a maths GCSE to get even the most basic job I had to slog it out. My tutor, through helping me learn the equations, practically by rote, helped me get a B in my exam eventually.
Everyone who passed the maths in the first year was expected to do “higher level” maths the next year, when I had 10 other exams. I point blank refused, arguing that I had completed the obligatory maths GCSE, higher maths was completely unnecessary and if I was to even attempt it my entire mental energy would have to be focussed on this one subject, to the detriment of all else. Of course I eventually got my way, I was on the debating team after all!
I had a similar issue with maths in my science classes. I had no issue with biology but with chemistry and physics, anything that involved an equation, everything fell apart.
Up until that year I had been looking forward to going to study to be a vet, my lifelong dream as I love animals. I struggled so much with the GCSEs I decided not to take sciences as my A levels, and my path to veterinary medicine was closed. I instead pursued English Literature, Art and History, coming out with easy As at the end of my school career.
Its amazing the difference in my skill set between certain subjects at school. By no means a teacher’s pet I used to complete my English essay homework in 15 minutes at break time. I would then, much to the distain of my friends, be called upon to read out my essay to the class as an example of best work. It was almost too easy.
When I got to University College Dublin I wanted to study psychology. Of course, as the readers of this essay will know, this involves the dreaded statistics modules. Hoping I could somehow avoid doing these altogether I went to the university’s disability services to get a learning disorder evaluation.
I can’t quite remember the finer details but the test was online and involved a number of different types of questions. At the end, the person conducting my assessment showed me my results. There was a bar chart with 3 bars. Two were very high and the third was very, very low. He also believed I was using a compensation strategy for certain things.
“This is unusual”, he said. He showed me some other examples of results, mostly the three bars were all middling out, some slightly higher than the others but nothing as extreme as my result. “You should get a formal assessment”, he advised. “But whoever assesses you has their work cut out for them!”
I attended a university- run study group for statistics. The older students running them found me very difficult to teach. I just didn’t “get” it. I stopped going because I felt they were talking down to me. Of course I understood the concept, but I just couldn’t do the math, alright?
This affected me in my part time job as lounge staff in a pub nearby my student housing. On my first
day they told me I had to use a float of €50, take the customer’s order, process the order, give them change from the float and bring them their drinks, then “pay” for the drinks at the bar.
At the end of the night I should still have €50 to give back to the till. I told them straight away I can’t do that, but I’ll be happy to make the extra runs to the bar by taking the money from the customer, having the bartender give me the change and returning the change to the customer. No, that’s not how we do it here, just try it and see. Well, almost needless to say I messed up somewhere, and I was missing €10 by the end of the night. I was almost in tears. “I told you I can’t do it like that!”. The manager relented and I was allowed to work sans- float for the next few nights.
Every time I came in to work over the next few shifts I met new bar men who would ask me, “where is your float? Why are you not using a float?” and I had to explain why. They would look at me funny and tell me “Its easy, you just take the money from the customer, give them their change, then pay for the drinks at the bar here and then you’ll have the same amount left at the end of the night.” I felt like snapping at them, “I’m not completely stupid, I know HOW it works I just CAN’T DO IT!!!!!”
Now at 27, I work as a business development manager for a major brand. I like certain aspects of my job and perform very highly in some parts, mostly negotiations and relationships. I am incredibly good with people and I know how to work around people to get what I need from them, from a business perspective.
I am a good sales person and can easily “sell” my ideas and concepts to the people who matter. My superiors are always complimenting me on my work, my attention to detail, my great relationships with my key contacts and my creativity.
Where I fall down is sales forecasting and filling out return on investment sheets. Again, a colleague with good intentions has tried to explain to me HOW to do these things, and I am at my wit's end explaining to people that I understand the concept, I know what I am meant to be doing, it’s almost like there is a disconnect between what I know I should be doing and me actually doing it, almost like a break in the circuit.
My line manager has been quite gentle with me, and because we have some difficulty getting data out of some retailers it has been easy to fob off the “data analysis” part of my role because “they didn’t provide me with data”, and I was also managing a shop floor sales force around the country of between 18 and 25 people depending on the time of year.
Now we have a dedicated manager for those people who I am currently training in, and my manager wants me to focus more on the commercial (i.e. numbers) side of my role and I am terrified because I know I can’t do this to the level that is required.
Other things that I find very difficult are names and faces, which is a bit awkward as I tour the country and meet the same managers of shops over and over. Sometimes I walk straight past someone I have met a few times without recognizing them.
I am awful with names and faces of celebrities, apart from the super famous ones or my favorite ones. However, put a reasonably well-known piece of art in front of me and I could likely tell you the artist and the name of the work. Ask me to write you a short story with any topic and I will bang it out in a matter of minutes, but my spelling will be terrible. Tell me a story and I will be able to retell it to you a few years later.
I can (and do) read books in a matter of days. I love to dance and I am active and do lots of aerobic and
fitness classes but I find it difficult to remember the steps and the order I am meant to do things in. I can follow basic instructions but I find it hard to follow a very long list of instructions.
I am terrible with technology, but I can work out basic mechanics and electricity (eg.o Figuring out why the electric has tripped in my apartment and fixing it). I hate spreadsheets. I am a good poker player and pretty good at chess but cannot get to grips with backgammon or Yahtzee. I am a good cook but a terrible baker, I can’t really get ratios quite right. I like sports but find it difficult to keep score, and remember all the rules (eg. Rugby). I hate any activity or game that requires precision.
I love to travel and I am fine at reading maps, and rarely get lost, I have a reasonably good sense of direction, however my partner can take back roads to get where he wants to go without any maps or GPS and I am always amazed he can find his way, whereas I will stick to the same route and make my way back along that same route.
I am very good at critical thinking, in part thanks to my training in psychology. I have no problem with budgeting or money management but when I speak to banks or try to learn anything about savings, investments, “APR” rates or stocks I can’t understand anything.
My dyscalculia is incredibly frustrating for me. I get angry very quickly when trying (and failing) to do anything even mildly numerical and will snap at people who try to “teach me” because they will explain everything in very simplified terms and I feel very stupid.
I feel like it is holding me back as I would have loved to study veterinary medicine but was afraid of the organic chemistry module. I want to excel at every part of my job but feel ridiculous when I can’t even remember basic facts about my region I manage like “how many stores does X retailer have in your area”.
My very understanding line manager is leaving for a different role and I have been told they will be hiring someone with a real focus on the “commercial” side of things so I am really scared I am going to be pushed harder for these things I can’t do and ultimately, let go from my job because I’m not capable.
I wish I could be formally diagnosed but to this day I can’t seem to find anywhere near me that can do this, at least without paying a massive amount of money to get a “you probably are” response that doesn’t leave me in any better position than I am today.
I hope this story helps professionals better understand aspects of dyscalculia and that I have somehow contributed to research in this area by writing this so that younger generations don’t have to go through what I have.