What it’s like to live with dyscalculia, the little-known ‘mathematical dyslexia’ that often goes undiagnosed

Do you add up using your fingers and leave bill splitting responsibilities to others at the table?

Is your watch always digital and never analogue?

Is punctuality an issue for you? Are bus timetables difficult for you to read?

If you answered yes to these questions, there’s a chance you have a mathematical disability that few in Australia have heard about: dyscalculia.

Yet, it has little of the recognition of its reading disability cousin, dyslexia.

The singer Cher has it, as do one or two children in every Australian classroom (estimates vary but experts broadly expect it to be at least as common as dyslexia at up to 10 per cent of the population). 

This has big implications for students with pure dyscalculia; whilst those with dyslexia might be given allowances and support, the low early diagnosis rate and poor awareness of dyscalculia leads sufferers to struggle and risk not fulfilling their full potential.

‘You can’t add up, you’re not smart’

Attributes of this neurological disorder include lacking effective counting strategies, inability to add simple, single-digit numbers mentally and poor fluency in identification of numbers.

For Chris Long from Maryborough in Queensland, it was the inability to convert numbers he was reading.

“I’ll be looking at a 4 but it doesn’t read as a four. I’ll remember it as a six,” the 34-year-old says. “I’ll sometimes struggle to interpret a table or graph, to assign that value to that number.”

At school, Long was told he “didn’t have the head” for maths. Later in life, he sometimes felt judged as people noticed him struggle with all but the most simple of sums, telling the time on an analogue watch and even his ten times tables.

“Everyone tells you you’re a bit dim,” he says.

It was in his first year at university studying nursing he learnt that he has a lifelong learning disability.

“A tutor noticed me struggling with my reading and the student support team referred me to a specialist,” he says.

He was diagnosed with mild dyslexia and, as an incidental finding, dyscalculia.

“It was a relief,” he says. “I’d had to resit maths to get into university. My diagnosis led to support showing me ways around it, and it wasn’t going to push me out of the nursing career I’d long desired.”

Even today, he faces mockery for counting on his fingers.

“A colleague recently noticed and said ‘are you a child?’ When I told him I have dyscalculia, he tried to laugh it off. People don’t see it as an actual disability.”

‘They’ll struggle to add 9 + 6’

Neuroscientist Brian Butterworth is the world’s leading authority on dyscalculia. Having studied it for 20 years, he can dispel myths.

“It’s quite a distinct condition from being bad at maths in the same way dyslexia is different from just being bad at reading,” he says. 

“Even very basic number tasks will be difficult for dyscalculics. For example, if you show them four dots on a display and ask how many there are, they’ll have to stop and count them.”

Other potential indicators and symptoms include the inability to do simple mental calculations — such and 9 + 6 — without using fingers, difficulty remembering financial information such as pin numbers, phone numbers and bank account details, and calculating when to leave to arrive on time.

The University of Melbourne has conducted the world’s longest longitudinal study on dyscalculia. But such research is rare, which, according to neuropsychologist Dr Jacob Paul, is why diagnosis and awareness levels are low.

“Part of the reason we hear more about dyslexia is funding. It receives more than 50 times the [research] funding of dyscalculia,” he says.

Nicholas Parker is an education advisor for those with specific learning difficulties at SPELD Queensland (an abbreviation of “SPEcific Learning Difficulties”).

A person with long brown hair uses a calculator at a messy desk.
A symptom of dyscalculia is the inability to do simple mental calculations, such as single-digit addition. (Pexels: Karolina Grabowska)

He says that dyscalculia’s lower profile could be because people think being bad at maths is a natural state, or they attribute it to poor teaching.

“You can scrape by in school on poor maths, whereas a reading disability affects every subject,” he says.

There’s also the discrepancy between social stigmas: “People seem happier to say I’m rubbish at maths than saying I’m having trouble reading [and] writing,” he says.

This is ironic, given the very real impacts of dyscalculia.

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What it’s like to live with dyscalculia, the little-known ‘mathematical dyslexia’ that often goes undiagnosed

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