My left parietal lobe

I talk about other people's brains all the time so it is only fair that I share something about my own.

I have dyscalculia.

What's weird is that I didn't realize this until VERY recently. Figuring this out, by accident of course, has been like looking at one of those optical illusions where once you see the other image you can't switch back.

I started talking to friends about it lately, online and in person, and I'm finding a lot of people relating the same symptoms, to differing degrees. Also differing levels of defensiveness, resignation, and embarrassment. I have experienced all three, but mostly an intense curiosity about it. This discovery has explained SO many things about the trajectory of my life. Telling right from left, reading a clock, dealing with maps, doing simple calculations in my head, the complete inability to play backgammon... Why learning a new sequence of tap steps is so much harder for me than my classmates!

I know now that I found a zillion ways to compensate for these gaps in my brain, and that these compensations helped me in other ways to be successful - and also that I "decided" not to do certain things in life and "don't care" about certain things that may be more simply explained as "I can't, therefore I choose not to value that." Despite this number dyslexia I still tutored people in math, ran businesses, got an M.S., and manage my family's finances. I probably worked four times harder at these things than other people might, but I get by.

One thing I've discovered as I've researched this is if you can't read and write well people judge, but math weakness is written off as less important. Also that weakness in math may be associated with greater ability in writing (this, like other possibly apocryphal tales, is the kind of stereotype no writer will dig too deeply to dispute), but not the other way around.

I wonder, lately, if there had been a name and a recognition of this when I was a kid whether I would have been discouraged from doing things, or failed to try. Being labelled - an active debate in all mental health issues - is a double-edged sword. I'd like to think the naming of things helps develop tools and insight, rather than stigma and defeatism, but of course I know both are surely true.

(ps, for those who do not use Wikipedia, I point you to this exploration of dyscalculia: )


  1. Really interesting post Laura... And by the way, I always found mathematics very easy, it was my best subject at school, and as a kid I couldn't understand why some kids couldn't do maths. I LOVE numbers and equations.

    But I disliked English Literature (and was hopeless at it...), because I simply couldn't 'get my head around' the questions that related to discussing people's intentions, emotions, characters etc. Plus, I found literature (apart from fantasy and science fiction) terribly boring.

    In terms of the question about naming mental health and/or neurological issues and stigma:

    I think that it can help the person with a named comdition such as dyscalculia, Tourette's syndrome, Asperger's syndrome (etc.) to be less hard on themselves when they recognise how and why they find some things difficult that many others find easier. And, if we understand how our minds tend to operate then we can work on changing aspects of ourselves within our limits. Whether we choose to 'wear our diagnosis as a badge' and view it as an important part of our identity is up to us.

    In terms of my own diagnoses: I have found that some people are more empathetic when they realise that some of my diagnoses are neurologically based, whereas others 'back-off' and keep me at a distance. For the latter reason I am cautious about talking about my diagnoses to some (many) people lest they misunderstand me and imagine me to be something that I am not.

    None of us has exactly the same brain. Our inherent neurological characteristics can shape our temperament, personality, thinking styles and behaviours, but environment, life experiences (etc.) play a role too. The human race is made up of neuro-diverse brains. I think that sometimes we can become too 'hung up' on defining ourselves by some diagnosis. First and foremost we are all human beings.

  2. I believe in the philosophy that "to name it is to tame it."

    Have a great weekend, Laura!


  3. My husband is a mathematician, and I like to joke that I married him so that he could figure out the tip at restaurants for me....but seriously, our daughter has many dyscalculia symptoms. Through patience and daily work however, she has come to recognize her weakness and has learned how to work with it. As my husband recently said after working with her on an algebra problem, "she'll never be a math genius, but she is quite skilled now. I never would have thought that two years ago." The brain is an amazing organ, and having people around who can recognize problems and give support is so, so important!

  4. Laura, how neat that you figured this out. I am wondering if my D has it, too. She has always had trouble with Left and Right, can't read a map, can't comprehend north-south-east-west, has trouble with transcribing numbers, etc. When she sees her new doctors in January, I'm going to suggest they test for this. Even though she has been an excellent student, she has always said that she had to work extra hard on certain types of learning that seemed to come so much easier for other people.

  5. I do agree that as a child you probably would have been discouraged from trying at maths if your dyscalculia had been diagnosed. Children are wonderful at not knowing what they 'can't' do - until, that is, an adult tells them that they can't.
    As a primary school teacher I've seen a blind student race across the school yard like her peers, because no one told her she 'couldn't'. And I've seen a perfectly competent 6 y.o. nearly drown because her mother told her she wasn't a strong enough swimmer for the group she had been placed in.
    It is difficult as a teacher not to pigeon-hole students if we are told in advance who 'can' and 'can't' do things. I suspect you would have gone through school as 'the one who can't do maths' if you had been labelled early on. Although you probably would have benefited from special-ed to address differences in your learning style.
    However, having said all that, I can't imagine defeatism would ever be numbered as one of your I think you would have coped fine either way :-)

  6. I am so enchanted at the image of a blind student happily running across he school yard!

    That's me, that's all of us in some ways, I guess. And yes we will we bump into things, and need people to push obstacles out of the way and help us up when we fall - and teach us how to avoid trouble - with optimism and without pity.


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