Thursday, 3 March 2011

National Dyscalculia Day

As hundreds of adorable kids trundle off to school dressed up as their favourite literary characters (a colleague's son has gone all out to imitate the Caterpillar from James and the Giant Peach - bow tie and all. Very cute) for World Book Day, you might be forgiven in overlooking another cause who's awareness day lands on this date.

Today, March the 3rd, also happens to be National Dyscalculia Day. I'm  not expecting you to know what dyscalculia is, because that would be ridiculous, given that there is rarely any acceptance or information given out at school about this learning difficulty. So I'm now going to try and explain what it is.

Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty that according to studies, affect from 3-6% of people. That really isn't that many people. However, many more people suspect they suffer from it, despite not being diagnosed or receiving the help they need, because it is not as well known as other, similar learning difficulties such as dyslexia. As you probably already know, dyslexia is a neurologically-based disorder which makes it very difficult for the sufferer to read, spell and write in their native language. Words on a page can appear jumbled or blurred, and writing is extremely hard; the sufferer's handwriting may also be unintelligible. It was only defined as a specific learning difficulty in the early 1980s, until which point sufferers had been completely without help. Previously, dyslexia was thought to be a combination of hearing and sight impairments, and was often punished due to a perceived lack of effort on the sufferer's part. Since the 80s, huge strides have been made to improve the provisions put aside for dyslexic people, and it has been found that with timely support and intervention, it is possible for a dyslexia sufferer to read and write without much difficulty.

Dyscalculia on the other hand, was not defined as a true specific learning difficulty until the mid 1990s. dyscalculia, as a rule, is similar to dyslexia in that it hinders the ability to read, understand and dissect information; however, instead of being related to written and spoken language, it is based in and around numeracy. dyscalculics find it extremely difficult to read and understand numbers, whether alone or in a mathematical context. Although a dyscalculic person is mostly defined as a person with an average or higher than average IQ, no dyscalculic has problems with maths alone, but also struggle with problems being able to learn to tell time, left/right orientation, rules in games and much more. It is based around the logical and lateral thinking parts of the brain, and in many cases does not affect the sufferer adversely in creative or artistic endeavours. Because of the unknown or misunderstood nature of the disorder, many people do not realise they have a learning difficulty, and live their lives simply accepting that they are unable to "do maths". 

The most annoying statement I hear when I tell somebody that I have (as yet informally diagnosed - the resources were limited in my rural Aberdeenshire high school) dyscalculia is the grand old phrase: "Oh, I'm terrible at maths! I think I have it too!" Being bad at maths seems to be something people are perversely proud of, which I cannot understand. Numbers have mystified me for years. I wasn't always the bottom of the maths set - up until the age of about five or six I was one of the top in my class - second only to a genius child who would later be expelled for beating up a dinner lady. After that numbers became a sea of undefined shapes with strange, somewhat mysterious outcomes. As a rule, I try and explain dyscalculia as a "confusion disorder". Not a correct term, but it makes sense to me. There is no logical way, in my head, that when two numbers added, multiplied or worse, subtracted new numbers appear and they somehow make sense. I learn the answers to these sums, but I have no idea why they might be so. It's like telling me that the word "and" added to the word "shoe" makes the word "because". It just doesn't make any sense, but as most people think that it does, it must do, therefore I am the one with the issue. As with most other dyscalculics, I also have real problems telling left from right, when I read a map I have to turn it constantly to the way I'm facing, and I have terrible spacial awareness and balance problems. I'm basically a bit dumb, and fall over a lot. A slapstick dream.

In reality it isn't that fun. Counting change at a till is my worst nightmare. The shape of coins helps a lot, but simple additions and subtractions can send me into a swirling pit of anxiety and red-facedness. Even if I only have three items, I will not be able to guess at how much I might need to give the cashier unless I made the active decision to add it up as I went along or peer for an hour at the price tags. It could be £5, it could be £15. Debit cards have been a lifesaver. Just put in your card, remember the PIN (the shape it makes on the buttons, rather than the actual numbers) and away you go. No stress. Unfortunately, I did not know about dyscalculia until I had almost finished high school. Despite receiving fairly good/satisfactory marks for my other chosen subjects, I failed Standard Grade (GCSE) Mathematics twice. My stubbornness and refusal to accept that I was stupid meant I re-took it again in my final year, as an Intermediate-2 exam. I failed it again. My teacher at the time was unsupportive, and sat me at the back where I wouldn't disturb my year-younger classmates. He sighed when I asked for help. He called me stupid. He kept me behind and asked why I was wasting his and my own time. Four years later it would transpire that he was having an affair with an underage student at the time. (Completely unrelated, but I want you to know he was a total bastard.)

I do not want anybody else to wholly believe that they are stupid, clumsy and useless. You are not wasting anybodies time. Get diagnosed, and change the figures. There are more than 6% of us out there, I know it.

For more information, follow these links:
What is dyscalculia? The Dyscalculia Forum
What is dyslexia?
The British Dyslexia Association - Dyscalculia
The Dyscalculia Centre - Testing and Awareness
Follow @Dyscalculic on Twitter.


Lidia said...

It's like you've stepped inside my mind, stop freaking me out Taylor! I've always had a massive problem with maths and numbers. Like you say, they don't mean anything to me - I know the answers because everyone says that's what they are. I failed my Maths GCSE three times and scraped a pass on my fourth attempt by playing ip dip doo with the multiple choice questions, I can't even do basic times tables and I have to stretch my fingers out to make L shapes to tell left from right. My maths teacher said my inability to work with numbers was because I wasn't paying attention enough.
I get the mick taken out of me constantly at work for giving out the wrong change at least three times a day and I work myself into a sweaty anxious panic when a customer says "shall I give you this 10p to make it easier" after I've already keyed in the amount I've received on the till.
Hatehatehate numbers! And there definitely needs to be more awareness and resources on this because apparently it's completely unacceptable to not know what 48 + 13 is.
Rambleramble. In short, good blog! :)

Katie said...

I think we've had a chat about this before Lidz - we're both terrible at the easiest of tasks! haha

I'm glad you persevered and got a pass on your exam - I wish I had. People are so oddly proud of the fact that they are shit at maths. I hate that. I really wish I could do mental arithmetic or was good enough to be able to study physics. As it is I, like you, have to do the "L" thing with my hand to figure out which way left is. Waa!

April @ said...

It must be really difficult. I'm crap at maths, I'll admit that to anyone, but it's not something I'm proud of. I wish I was good at it, but that's just the way things are. It must be difficult having that condition, but it's good that you've got coping strategies in place. Really informative post, I'd never heard of dyscalculia before today.

Katie said...

Thanks a lot April :) Not a lot of people know about it, and it's very misunderstood, so thanks for taling the time to read about it!

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