A Plea From a Learning Disabled Adult
I was never a stupid child. I taught myself to read when I was three years old. By first grade, I spent a good chunk of my school day in the Gifted and Talented room, happily learning to spell six and seven letter long words while my classmates were still working on spelling ‘cow’ and ‘red’.
However, when I hit second grade, it became clear that my advanced skills did not encompass every subject. Mathematics became my great downfall. I could not for the life of me memorize my times tables or the steps in long division, and if I did, the information was gone the very next day and I would have to learn it all over again. And again. And again. Numbers mystified me in a way letters and words never did. They were all the same to me, yet different. They could mean one thing one moment and another the next. They moved on pages, transposing, skipping to different lines, bleeding off into arcane nonsense. Sometimes I could almost grasp what was happening, how to do a specific problem, but it quickly slipped away.
I was ripped out of Gifted and Talented. They put me in Special Education instead. I could not be in both at the same time.
I was confused. I was sad. I was angry.
It never got any better from there. My mother paid for private tutors. I went through several. There were many late nights spent struggling with math homework. My mother gave me flashcards, activity sheets, learning toys. They did absolutely nothing for me. Frustration grew. It grew within me, within my parents, within the teachers. Over the years, I drifted in and out of Special Education, usually passing my math classes by the skin of my teeth and the mercy of lenient grading.
My already questionable home life was affected. There were regular threats of summer school if I didn’t ‘pull my act together’. I was called lazy or stupid. I was accused of simply not paying attention. At one specific low point, my mother sat on the couch showing me flashcards, my stepfather standing over me with a flyswatter. I stood between them, trembling, humiliated, in tears. He would hit me every time I got one wrong. Occasionally, when I actually got one right, he pretended as though he were going to hit me, and laughed when I flinched.
Middle school math had mostly been regurgitation of past years, and while I never fully grasped these teachings, they were at least familiar. High school brought with it advanced math I had never seen before, impossible to do when I still did not understand elementary and middle school math. I look back fondly on the teachers who compassionately stayed with me for up to three or four hours after school, patiently trying to catch me up. They failed, but at least they gave me their time and the benefit of the doubt. Junior and Senior year were spent entirely in Special Education for math. They completely gave up on trying to put me with the regular classes.I was just too far behind.
Without the normally required math credits, I graduated on a special exemption.
College, however, has no special exemptions. I explained my problem upon admission to college. Offering extra time on tests, access to a calculator, and remedial classes were all they could do for me. I was tested and placed in their lowest remedial math class, for which I received no credits. Desperate to continue my higher education, I sought help from a learning center. It was no good. I failed that same remedial class three times. Badly.
No math credits, no degree. Of any kind. I could stay in college until I was old and gray, taking as many classes as I wanted, but without those math credits, it would be pointless.
I dropped out of college. Any career dreams I once had were dashed.
It was still a couple more years before I discovered that my demon had a name. Dyscalculia. This word was never said in the entire time that I was in school and Special Education. I suspect they, like me, had no idea what it was. Because they do not know what it is, that it exists, they have no idea how to deal with it. The very people meant to help me were completely ignorant that an actual disorder might be the problem. I was furious all over again.
Those who have severe dyscalculia like myself will probably never experience higher education. Those with lesser degrees of dyscalculia need to be recognized and helped so that they can get by. We need educators to know about dyscalculia, especially those who work with challenged children. We need them to be able to recognize the signs, the younger, the better. We need more studies and insight into this. We need to find the cause, and find what can be done about it, if anything. Those with dyslexia have been fortunate that it is known, talked about, studied. It has been in medical journals, media, even talk shows. Mention dyscalculia, and no one knows what the hell you’re talking about. You have to explain. Over. And over. Again. There are so few resources for this that it becomes disheartening.
Possible Signs of Dyscalculia
(many of these overlap with symptoms of its cousin, Dyslexia, and it is possible to have both!)
-difficulties telling time, especially on an analog clock
-difficulty seeing straight lines as straight
-spatial reasoning issues
-short term memory blackouts
-difficulty following patterns, directions, or sequenced instructions
-severe problems remembering names, places, faces, and dates
-trouble remembering one’s own age, the day of the week, or even the month or year
-trouble keeping money matters straight
-inability to retain mathematical procedures
-skips, goes backwards, or repeats numbers when counting
-severely unbalanced abilities (terrible in math but excelling in something else)
It breaks my heart to know that there are children in school right now who are going through the exact same things I did. No one is helping them. No one knows how. These children are crying in bathroom stalls and dreading being called on, they are being ridiculed and belittled, they are wondering if they really are just stupid. Their education and by extension their very futures could be in jeopardy. This needs to change, and the first step is awareness.
Please help me to spread that awareness.