Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dyscalculia doesn't add up.

I have just tried phoning an old friend I saw for the first time in years last week in Chester, I wrote down her number and now I come to use it I can't read what I have written, are some of these squiggles even numbers at all? Bl**dy numbers! I'm vain enough to think of myself as reasonably intelligent. I was pretty much a straight A student all the way through school except for my one blind spot - numbers! 

When a group of people researching Dyslexia came to our school in the late seventies (showing my age there) I was put forward as one of the pupils to be tested as my consistent inability to do more than very basic mathematics (and then get a blinding headache) had always puzzled my teachers. They were baffled as to why one of their brighter kids consistently performed so badly in Maths, and seemed to be doing well in Physics and Chemistry classes except where we had to perform calculations. As you get older that becomes a more important part of any science subject (so I guess Particle Physicist was never destined to be my calling).

Anyhow, the Dyslexia testers were also baffled as I very definitely did not have Dyslexia as they defined it, no problems with words at all, even though I had gone to speech therapy as a small child. The problem was never reading words. At that time they didn't seem to test for specific numerical problems. One of the researchers did suggest to my maths teacher that it must be a related problem, but they didn't know how to classify it. I was at least relieved that my teacher believed me, as my Step-father was rather angrily of the opinion that I was somehow willfully refusing to learn just to spite him. He kind of brow beat me so much on the subject that I ended up half believing him. I worried that others also felt I was "putting it on" and that feeling has persisted to the present day about all sorts of things. If I don't do as well at something as I feel I should, I worry that I am somehow sabotaging myself, and whenever I am ill I convince myself that the Doctor believes that the problem is psychological. I have PTSD and when the problem is very much psychological I imagine that I am... imagining it, if that makes any sense? (I wonder if there is a medical term for such a deeply ingrained sense of self-doubt? ohhhh, yeah: Self Obsession!)

Years later and I have learned to cope with my numerical deficiencies. I have a reasonable memory and I learned by replacing single figures with "things" and that is how I eventually got the symbols 1 to 9 into my head and got them to stay put. Things get a bit more complicated after that, but as long as I am calm and as long as there aren't too many things to keep track of, I am fine. Maths for me is a pretty exhausting mental task that requires silence and a lot of patience. It's like trying to keep hold of marbles on a domed surface, I get all the numbers in a group but trying to do anything with them is well nigh impossible as the marbles start to roll away, that's the only way I can explain it. I find it very frustrating that I cannot learn numbers in the same way I can learn another language, when basically that is all numbers seem to be, a language I can barely understand. A language I keep misplacing. My numerical problem gets much worse when I am stressed or rushing and is virtually negligible when I am calm. Up to a point. I have worked part-time in many shops over the years to make ends meet and even been put in charge of cashing up despite explaining my problems to people. Who then look at me as though I have two heads but should still be left in charge of cashing up! Do people think I am kidding around (my step-father again!) when I state I can't add up? So I had to check everything over and over again and the cash-register that would take the average person 20 minutes to cash-up would take me almost an hour and a lot of piles of cash everywhere.

A friend recently suggested that there is now a name for my problem so I went over to that wholly reliable source of misinformation, Wikipedia, and found that it has been a recognised condition since the 70's (I guess the people who came to my small school in North Wales weren't up to date in developments in their own field!). Do I have Dyscalculia? Except that what they describe doesn't wholly correlate with what I experience. Yes, I sometimes have problems with understanding clocks and watches, yes, I sometimes have difficulty understanding which symbol represents the bigger of two things. But, it suggests that I should have difficulty with knowing how many "things" a person is holding up... that I should not know if there are 3 things or 5 things in front of me. Not at all, I don't have trouble with numbers in that way and have a very acute spatial awareness. I can see that one group of things is occupying a larger space than another group of things!

I am a product designer, a sculptor, and frequently work in 3 dimensions and always have to give the people who create what I design accurate dimensions. (1000m tall barbie anyone?) Back at art school I used to annoy my life drawing tutor by never resorting to the pencil as a ruler method when drawing models or still life subjects, yet still managed to accurately represent proportions. Given a blank computer workspace I still draw things in the correct ratio to one another. No, it's the actual symbols we have assigned to specific amounts of things that I am still having some problems with, I double and triple check all my work and the people I work with know to check written dimensions too. Numbers just will not always stay fixed in my mind and I sometimes cannot reproduce them. Using a calculator or keyboard has helped me immensely because the number system stays fixed. When I write down something like a phone number, if I don't have numbers 1 - 9 for reference I will sometimes substitute hieroglyphs of my own. Following recipes from a book has always been a minefield also and people are wise to pass on my offers of a home cooked meal!

It also states on Wikipedia that people with Dyscalculia have problems with short term memory - B*LL*CKS is all I have to say to that, not my problem at all... except when it comes to numbers, the damn things just seep out for my head at any opportunity! Does this all sound crazy or does anyone else out there have similar problems? I'd be interested to know as I have never met anyone else with a similar blind spot.


Georgina said...

I've always been "mathematically challenged." When I returned to school in my late 40's, I had to take algebra..tested into the the beginners class, since it had been several years since I had to seriously bother with it.

So, during my returning student days, my Universe was all about good grades in the remedials, but when it came time for the real college level course, I struggled. I do feel part of the problem was the prof, this Muslim woman who's English was limited and it was her first time teaching in the States...I felt so sorry for her knowing what the students were saying about her. I liked her as a person, as she me, but as a teacher, she stunk!! One day she came in completely frustrated with the class since so many of us had tanked her exam the Friday before...she yelled out to us, "I don't understand, it's just numbers!!" Of course, being the wise-ass that I am and the oldest one in the classroom, I told her "...then you throw in those letters, we're gonners!!" She didn't get it, but everyone roared with laughter.

The week before the final, as usual, I was asked to distribute and collect the teacher evaluations and take them to the Math building on campus. As the last person turned in their survey to me, I put them all in the envelop and asked her to come back into the class. I then BEGGED her to pass me with a C. She said she thought I already had a C average, but I told her to please pass me with a C even if I tank the final. I told her I was an art major and used simple math, ratios and measurements...that's it. I assured her I never have or would need to know quadratic equations, matrices, logarithms, vortex, etc. in my life.

Two weeks after the finals, I received my grades and as I opened up my envelop, I had earned 4 A's and one C!! That C was the best Christmas present EVER!!! LOL


Yve said...

Wow, you are way better than me if you got a C! Congratulations!!!

I was continually classed as "unclassifiable in Maths exams because I frequently wrote down other symbols than numbers, it all looked the same to me and basic adding, subtraction and multiplication were baffling to me. This was before you were allowed to use calculators in exams.

My 'o' level maths teachers was very sympathetic and used to play chess with me instead of me doing the lesson sometimes if he knew we were way beyond my capabilities. Because I was doing really well in every other class I wasn't allowed to take an easier level of Maths, how stupid is that? So I had to sit an exam that everyone knew I had no chance of giving a single correct answer to.

What I do for a living suggests that I have a good grasp of geometry and very good spatial awareness and yet ask me to do the actual figures and I'm lost.

Paul said...

Hi Yve, stumbled across your blog when googling Dyscalculia. I have an 8 year old son who has recently been diagnosed with Dyscalculia. I've known for several years now that he had an issue with maths, and he has many of the issues you mention. Dyscalculia is still a relatively new term, it's probably understood at the same level now as Dyslexia was 15 years ago I.e. not a lot. But it most definitely is a real condition. My son is very good with reading, he has a reading age of 13 and I think it his brains way of compensating for the maths deficiency. You are obviously very articulate too so it's been really encouraging to read your blog. Over the years I've done a lot of research on Dyscalculia, so if you'd like to know more please do contact me. Keep up the good work!

Yve said...

That's good to hear Paul and I hope it's encouraging to hear that it has never held me back. I was also very advanced in reading and writing as a small child and I guess that set my parents expectations way high so they got quite frustrated that I couldn't do maths.

I remember being upset as a child because I couldn't understand why I was different, why I couldn't understand what other, less "quick" children had no problems with. The fact that you are researching your sons condition means that he has sympathetic parents, so he should be a lot more confident generally.

In some ways I find the definition of Synesthesia more fitting with what I experience than Dyscalculia though. Something is definitely happening when I try to read or manipulate numbers and it literally makes my head ache after a short while. I get all kinds of symbols and images come into my head very fast, it's as though some part of my brain is searching for information very quickly but always comes up with the wrong thing. Go figure (tee hee!) ;o)

Charlotte said...

What a relief to find someone who has the same inability to hold numbers in her head. I find numbers are like water, the slip and slide away.
I have no idea of how big they are, what they mean and what they do.

Despite this I am a primary school teacher and the kids love it that they are all better at maths than me.

If it is any consolation, MRI scans show that dyscalculic brains have a different physiology to mathematical brains.

Yve said...

It's so funny that since I wrote this post so many people have fessed up that they have a problem with numbers too! All this time I have thought it was just me ;o) It's nice to know I'm in good company!