Monday, January 07, 2008

So That's What It's Called

I'd always wondered if there was an equivalent term to 'dyslexia' for people who had difficulty with numbers. I've only just discovered that there is: it's "dyscalculia".
It doesn't mean 'bad at maths' but something much more profound and related to brain function.

I read about the symptoms with astonished and delighted recognition because I've suffered from this malfunction since childhood. It caused me misery at school, particularly as it was then called 'stupidity'. But I knew I wasn't stupid because I was outstanding at English.

One characteristic of dyscalculia is that where most people can recognise the number in a collection of dots, dyscalculians (if that's the collective term) have to actually count the individual dots. Don't laugh, but I still do this when I'm doing basic mental arithmetic. If I'm on my own I even point at the imaginary dots with my finger. I'm OK with a pattern of 5 or 10 dots but over 10 and I start getting confused and often have to go back to the beginning again.
So for people like me the calculator was one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.

Numerical concepts mean nothing to me. For me, the fact that 2+2=4 is something I take on trust. I don't actually believe it as such. I don't see why it shouldn't equal 5 or 7. They're only names or labels after all. But I have to behave as though I believe it in order to function in a world where 2+2=4.
The odd thing is that, unlike many people, I'm fine with abstract concepts and the language we use to describe them. My tutor at university said I was one of the most gifted people at dealing with philosophical concepts he had ever taught. But had he asked me to do some simple arithmetic he would have decided I had severe learning difficulties.

Another feature of dyscalculia is difficulty in understanding the rules of sports or games. It had never occurred to me that this was linked to problems with numbers. But presumably it involves the same part of the brain.
It explains why my brain shuts down when someone tries to explain the rules of a card game or board game.
It explains why I always threw the ball forwards in rugby, although I always thought I did that because of the logical absurdity of throwing the ball in the opposite direction to your direction of travel and the place you had to reach in order to score. Needless to say, the games master was in no mood to discuss logic with me and muttered a word that, at that time, had not yet been heard on late night television.
When I was 16 some friends asked me to join a game of darts in a pub. When it became apparent that I couldn't understand the rules nor hit the dartboard and after I had almost put someone's eye out, they asked me to keep the score instead. You can imagine what a disaster that was.

Dyscalculia also impairs your ability to understand musical concepts (though fortunately not your ability to enjoy music). So that explains why I was told to read a book during music lessons and why I spent two miserable years of private violin tuition before my mother accepted defeat and the violin teacher had a nervous breakdown.

Tonight I shall go to bed a happy man, knowing I'm not the only dyscalculian in the village and knowing that what seemed unrelated failings are all the fault of genetically fucked-up neurons in my brain.
Apparently, it's a condition that affects about 4% of the population (isn't that 4 in a hundred? You see how hard I've been trying).
That's about the same percentage as people who are gay, if you leave aside bisexuals, the LibDems of the sexual spectrum. Not that there's any connection. It's just that if I don't mention sex in a posting, I don't get so many hits coming from Google.

Talking of which, if you Google 'dyslexia' you get 6,510,000 pages. But if you Google 'dyscalculia' you get only 144,000 pages. Even the most extreme sufferer from dyscalculia can see what that means: we're an unrecognised, downtrodden, stigmatised minority.
We need to come out.
We need a Dyscalculia Pride March.
We need T-shirts with patterns of dots on them and the slogan 'If you have to count these, you're dyscalculian.'
And we need an anthem. I suggest the Pet Shop Boys song: "One and One Make Five."


At 6:38 AM, Blogger ellyodd said...

Well, you can start spreading the word on the first international dyscalculia day in history on March third ;)

Check out if you haven't found us yet. Lots of people to talk to.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Many thanks for that link. From the website I discover that the plural is 'dyscalculics'.
On the symptoms, I score 8 out of 11 which is pretty high.
My blog post was light-hearted but it's terrible that kids are being stigmatised through ignorance of this condition.


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