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This is What it Means to be Dyscalculic

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This is What it Means to be Dyscalculic: The learning disability hardly anyone knows about


I don’t care because I don’t understand it so it’s easier not to care.

I am in kindergarten. I love books. I love to read.

I love books so much my mother has to purchase a set of of those Dick & Jane readers to keep me from stealing them from the school.

Later, in first and second grade, my mother reads Nancy Drew books to me and I get impatient with her pace and insist on just reading them myself.

(Much later, my mother tells me she thinks she let me read and “be too much of a free thinker” as a child.)

At this point, my mother is very proud of me, thinking of all the things I will be and do with my life.

I have yet to be introduced to math.


I am in fourth grade. I’ve done okay up until this point, but now I’m behind in math. My mother enrolls me in the Sylvan Learning Center for extra math help. I hate every moment of it but it must have helped to some degree because I always passed math classes, if only barely.

I am in sixth grade. I receive my final report card for the year. I have a B in math and nearly break into tears thanking the teacher for that B. Confused and probably overwhelmed, he assures me I’ve earned it. I don’t believe him, but I also don’t care. A B in math!

I would have been nearly as grateful for a C.

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I am in high school algebra. I don’t know what grade, it doesn’t matter. None of it makes any sense. Sometimes I think I see the connections, sometimes I think maybe… is that… but almost as soon as I notice it the clarity is gone again.

I hear people who hate literature and reading but love math say that literature is abstract and the meaning can change. Math, they say, is consistent. Reliable.

I wonder what math they’ve learned because I always come up with different answers every time I try an equation.

Found it.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be MacGuyver. I wanted to do the cool kinds of things he did with the simple parts and chemicals lying around. In one episode, he refers to himself as a physicist so I decided to be a physicist.

In high school, I find out physics is mostly math.

I will never be MacGuyver.

This is What it Means to be Dyscalculic: The learning disability hardly anyone knows about


I’m in college now. By this point, my parents understand that a D is technically a passing grade and that this is likely going to be the best they can expect from me.

However, I am not going to make a D in college algebra.

In fact, I am failing college algebra so spectacularly the instructor practically begs me to drop the class before the deadline. I would love to; my parents refuse because to them, dropping is giving up and giving up is failure and besides, they paid money for that class so I’m going to finish.

I fail. The grade goes on my college transcript.

I have to take the equivalent class at the community college and transfer the grade. The community college isn’t interested in real learning and even though I receive a B I don’t feel like I’ve earned it or learned anything.


I’m working a job out in the real world because my English degree doesn’t mean anything when I don’t want to teach. I have to handle money; I’m flagged more than once for my count being off because I lose track of where I am and have to count the money many times before I’m confident in the outcome. Even then, I’m wrong sometimes.

One of my co-workers tries to teach me an alternate method of counting change, but I can’t even follow her explanation.

I’m frowning at an analog clock. My current place of employment has an event that takes place every twenty-five minutes but they don’t give out a schedule of times and a customer has asked what time to come back in the afternoon. Internally I’m screaming because why couldn’t it be every thirty minutes, or every fifteen, or every hour? I know this shouldn’t be this difficult.

I also have to deal with the embarrassment of a supervisor obviously thinking I’m stupid because I’m not confident in my ability to give correct change from an old-fashioned cash register rather than the iPad we normally use.

It’s because the iPad does the math for me and once we move out of numbers that end in 0 or 5, or are longer than two numerals, I can no longer be certain I’ll count it right without a calculator.

I hate feeling stupid.

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I’m in graduate school. I’m taking the required statistical and data analysis class. I cry while taking every quiz. At least they’re online so I can cry in the privacy of my own home.

In class, I think I understand. When I get home and try to do any of the work I can’t remember any of the concepts that seemed so clear to me earlier.

I think, why can’t I get this? Why can’t I remember?

Oh no help.

Because of the stress, I start therapy. I’m able to begin in the school’s counseling center for free, but at the end of the semester they recommend I seek long-term counseling from a licensed therapist outside the school.

The building isn’t large; my new therapist’s office is down the stairs in the small basement within eyesight of the steps.

The first few times I go to an appointment, I exit her office and the space is completely unfamiliar to me. It takes me a few more seconds than it should to locate the stairs. This happens often, even in spaces that have become familiar to me.

A friend makes a post on Facebook about dyscalculia, a term I have never heard before… but I see the words “learning disability related to math and numbers,” and my interest is piqued.

The list of symptoms sounds eerily familiar.

Inability to grasp and remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence (order of operations), and basic math facts (+-x/).


Poor memory (retention & retrieval) of math concepts- may be able to perform math operations one day, but draw a blank the next! May be able to do book work but then fails tests.


Experiences anxiety during math tasks.


Uses fingers to count. Loses track when counting. Cannot do mental math. Adds with dots or tally marks.

I often use the number of angles or curves in the physical representation of the number and count them that way.

Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Bad at financial planning and money management. Too slow at mental math to figure totals, change due, tip, tax.

I feel called out by this list of symptoms, honestly.

Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name-face association.*

Wait, that’s related to a math disability?

I decide to talk to my therapist about the possibility of being assessed.

Still in grad school. Same program, different class. Psychometrics. At this point, I have been assessed — the doctor who performed the assessment checked for a number of conditions, not just dyscalculia — and I’ve been speaking with the psychometrics instructor since before the assessment.

She assures me there will be little to no statistics or calculation.

Every quiz is statistics and calculation to some degree.

When we do our group project, I am happy to let someone else do the statistical and data analysis.

I still have no idea how I passed that class.

In the doctor’s office, she tells me I have three diagnoses.

Moderate unspecified ADD (my ability to focus and on what shifts too often to be more specifically identified).

Moderate MDD, or major depressive disorder.

And mild dyscalculia.

At first, the “mild” part confuses me; I knew it wasn’t severe as there are some dyscalculics who can’t even recognize numbers. But I had thought it would at least be moderate.

She tells me that my verbal and non-verbal reasoning ability are so high, they have compensated for the learning disability. This is interesting, but I can’t understand why it would shift the actual intensity of my learning disability from moderate to mild.

After all, I may be a really good guesser, but I still don’t understand the basic concepts.

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THIS is MacGuyver. There are no other MacGuyvers.


I’ve written this story in present tense, but now we really are in the present. I’m almost 39 years old and have had these diagnoses for a year. I may write later on the ADD and MDD separately. Right now, I’m about to graduate with an MS degree and the dyscalculia is what is most on my mind.

Often, I think about the way I was deprived of the proper accommodations for learning I needed. I was a child in the 80s and learning disabilities were only just beginning to emerge into the general public. Children who didn’t perform well were just lazy. I was a strange mix — I wasn’t lazy, I just had difficulty understanding the basic principles of math so I hated it and avoided it when I could, but in every other subject I was bored. If not for my math scores I might have ended up in the gifted and talented program.

My graduate-level instructors become frustrated with me because to them, it sounds like I’m saying I can’t do statistics — technically, I can’t, not right now. Not to the level I need to in order to really succeed.

I’m not actually saying this, though, what I’m saying is that trying to teach me advanced-level math of any kind is a losing game because I never grasped the basic concepts. I never grasped the basic concepts because what I needed was support, time, and repetition to a degree the school system was not at the time prepared or willing to give students. I’m pretty sure school systems today aren’t really equipped to deal with dyscalculic students because it’s not as well-known as its sister learning disability, dyslexia.

I’m going to have to go back to the beginning. Re-learn (or rather, learn for the first time) everything I should have learned in elementary school, in middle school, in high school, and undergraduate college. I’ve found some online tutorial systems that might be a place to start, but suspect eventually a human tutor will be in order.

The moment when one realizes not everyone understands certain concepts to the same degree is an odd moment — when you become the one who can’t understand something everyone else does, it’s devastating.

Learning it isn’t your fault, that you’re not actually stupid, is a relief in some ways, but traumatic in others. I keep thinking about what would have happened if I’d been diagnosed as a kid, if the school had been able to accommodate me to the degree I needed, if I had been given the tools I needed to understand and succeed rather than just being pushed along with barely passing grades because at least I passed.

How would my life be different right now?

Dyscalculia is real. If you or anyone you know nearly has a panic attack when thinking about math or trying to perform math, I recommend looking into this learning disability.

It’s worth it to know that you’re not lazy and you’re not stupid.

This is What it Means to be Dyscalculic: The learning disability hardly anyone knows about