It could be that you or they have dyscalculia, or the math equivalent of dyslexia.

From Wikipedia

Dyscalculia (difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics) was originally identified in case studies of patients who suffered specific arithmetic disabilities as a result of damage to specific regions of the brain. Recent research suggests that dyscalculia can also occur developmentally, as a genetically-linked learning disability which affects a person’s ability to understand, remember, and/or manipulate numbers and/or number facts (e.g. the multiplication tables). The term is often used to refer specifically to the inability to perform arithmetic operations, but is defined by some educational professionals and cognitive psychologists as a more fundamental inability to conceptualize numbers as abstract concepts of comparative quantities (a deficit in “number sense”[1]). Those who argue for this more constrained definition of dyscalculia sometimes prefer to use the technical term Arithmetic Difficulties (AD) to refer to calculation and number memory deficits.

Approximately 5% of the population has dyscalculia. Most probably don’t even know it. They probably thought they were just stupid in math and had given up on all math a long time ago.

Hello, my name is Casey, and I have dyscalculia. I am not ashamed (anymore) to say I can’t mentally make change, calculate tip, or estimate how much my grocery bill is as I’m shopping (I only find out I went over budget at the checkout lane). I see the numbers in my head, but barely, they tend not to “stick” but just vaporize into thin air. I just don’t visualize the numbers like I do with words. I was an excellent speller in school and could remember words or facts (other than numbers) very easily. Which is really weird, because I can remember 10 digit telephone numbers really well, I just can’t remember arithmetic sequences like 29 plus 37 long enough to get a result of 66 without really struggling. I have to force myself to really really focus, and even then, it’s still hazy. It’s a number memory problem I think, but still, it’s not quite readily explained because I can remember a 10 digit telephone number for years. Maybe because it’s attached to a memory of a person that is important to me. I really don’t know.

However, I am here to assure you that it is not the death sentence that it seems. Being bad in math doesn’t preclude you from having a functional life or even going after that degree that uses a lot of math.

I am one example. Despite my mental math inability, I chose science (biotechnology) as a career choice and it required a lot of math classes. I ended up choosing the calculus for engineers classes rather than for biology majors simply because I was too stubborn to admit math was really hard for me. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I really had something to prove to myself. I had earned my degree, and went on to have a 12 year career in biosciences – microbiology, forensics, and medical genetics.

But, I still can’t easily make change, and I blush heavily when I have to divide the tab and calculate tip especially when I am among friends (and I’ll be 38 this year). And, I struggle greatly when I have to calculate the percentage off when trying to look for bargains. I only recently found that 25 % off something means I just divide the amount by 4. And even then, it’s not always easy. Try standing in a store, trying to figure out how much 25% off an item that’s 24.99. Even when you call it $25, then divide by 4, it comes out to $6.25. Then subtract that from 25. The item should cost you $18.75. How many of you got that right without using a calculator? How many of you guessed that I used the calculator on the computer because I couldn’t do it in my head and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by getting it wrong? How many of you guessed that even though I used the computer’s calculator, I’m worried someone will come along and point out an error I made (whether or not I actually did, really isn’t the point. I could be right and still have that fear I did it wrong – can we say math anxiety anyone?).

In my searching for the answer to what this limitation is all about, I found another woman who chose a math oriented career despite her dyscalculia. Dr. Emma J. King, a British physicist who received her Ph.D. in Cosmology (the quantitative study of the universe) not only suffers from dyscalculia, she is not ashamed to admit it. In fact, she quite readily admits she can not add 4+3 without using her fingers. SHE IS MY HERO.

In a BBC Radio audio clip (scroll down to Programme 3 and click the audio button) , you can here all about dyscalculia and from Dr. Emma J. King herself.

The good news is that if you can get beyond the limitation of the arithmetic difficulties (sometimes employing more visual or kinestethic means of learning math through manipulatives and modeling clay), there are plenty of facets of math that actually are fun. Simple arithmetic may seem a burden, but that doesn’t prevent one from being good at algebra or geometry. By the time one gets to the higher level maths, the calculator is a great tool that enables one to do the basic calculations so that one can really start appreciating math as the art that it is.

Did I just say that math is art? Yes, I did. In a future post, I will go into why I believe that (and how math educators have really lost the point as to what math is meant for).

In the meantime, think of the arithmetic portion of math as the means to an end and if you can go easy on yourself that you (or your loved one) may have this condition and realize that dyscalculia is nothing to be ashamed of, you can let go of the burden of anxiety you feel when you encounter math in daily living. After all, you can always carry a calculator.

And, in my case, I’ve gone one step further – I married a mechanical engineer. He’s is a math god. I’m hoping our girls inherit his good math genes (particularly since his paternal great-grandfather could calculate 3 digit plus numbers easily in his head, despite the fact that he never finished high school), because mine leave a lot to be desired.

Coincidentally, I have a mild number dyslexia myself- I switch digits. It took me until I got married to realize why my checkbook never quite balanced. ðŸ™‚ The spousal unit does that now. Also a scientist! I back-calculate everything.

Your grocery probably doesn’t have them but ours have little hand-guns so you can check out as you go- and put things into your cloth bags, and all- that display a running total. It’s great.

Thanks for posting, Jenny. I don’t know if it surprises me or not that you have a mild issue with numbers too. It’s a bit comforting to know I’m not the only one.ðŸ™‚

That’s a fabulous idea with the scanners. We have them, but only for creating gift registries, not general grocery shopping (at least not here in suburbia – they might have some in the closest big city [Chicago], but I don’t know . Our stores are trying to go slightly more environmentally conscious and they are providing cloth bags for a fee (usually $1/bag).

You sound just like me (with the exception of the science career that is!) I have recently discovered that dyscalculia is at the root of my math anxiety, fear, phobia, and originally my belief that I was “stupid at math.” Lo and behold I have discovered that I’m not bad at math, but at Arithmetic!! Who knew they were different things?!

It is nice to know you are not alone and success is possible despite this constraint. (aren’t calculators wonderful?!)

BTW – I couldn’t figure out what process to use to figure out the 25% off, let alone completing the math in my head. Impossible in my world.

Yes, calculators are a wonderful tool. Oh, and it was my husband who informed me of the trick that 25% was dividing it by 4. I mean, of course it all makes sense why, but I never thought of it until he told me when I was out shopping with him one day (I was about 30 when I found that out). Of course prior to marrying him, I rarely shopped for much. As a single girl I didn’t really need much, so I didn’t shop much. Then I got married and had kids. I spend a lot more time in the stores than I really care to.

I am good at simple or basic math, but higher math eludes me. Even with a calculator or other help, it dissolves into thin air for me, too. So I totally understand.

Algebra is where it all started going terribly wrong for me. Since then, I use basic math and fractions, decimals and ll of that much more than algebraic formulas so it hasn’t affected my life much.

I did okay with algebra. Geometry with all it’s proofs really almost did me in. Fortunately, it was only for a semester, then I went on to trigonometry. I loved trig. It was geometry without having to prove anything. Oh, and one of my high school math teachers (I think Algebra II or pre-calculus or something), really almost made me turn away completely from anything math oriented. I can’t remember now why, but he really made me angry. I decided I was going to fail the class. Literally. I gave up trying and I got an F. Fortunately, it wasn’t a required course at that time (only 2 years of math was required), so it didn’t really affect me much. I ended up retaking it in college and doing just fine with it.

Great post! I’ve lived with the ‘shame’ of presenting statistical analyses of defect frequencies to CEOs and being unable to accurately split the lunch bill at the restaurant afterwards. I pay by credit card when my friends and I go out to eat so we don’t have to divide the bill. (Expensive to be shame-less.) I just recently got out-mathed in 2 digit subtraction problems by my 3rd grader and my 8th grader won’t give me the chance to help him in math (thank heavens!).

I’m coming to realize now, with more and more articles about dyscalculia, that this twist-of-nature may have contributed to my angst over the last 30-odd years since HS. For me, geometry was the first and only course that every stuck: I loved doing the proofs – because I could SAY them, coule WRITE them. But the conjurations of doing sine, cosine, derivatives, hypergeometricandrelativsitic… you get my drift. Can’t even write about it. And I figure I’ll get my 7-times tables around my retirement date.

Thanks!

Discalculia huh? I figured out a while ago that math wasn’t my thing. I knew I was a little slow at basic addition, and subtraction, and that any multiplication past 5’s were going to require a calculator, same basic thing with division, but I didn’t really think it was a problem.

I definatly chose the right profession though, I got a D in college algebra the first time, and quit the second time only to find out the school I am going to says it’s okay because I’m an art major, they don’t stress the one math requirement, because tecnically I passed. Whew!

I clearly remember staying after school in fifth grade to do math drills. I hated it. I also clearly remember bursting into tears when I couldn’t get 8 * 7 right away. It was lame.

So how clear is this problem? Where can I get tested for this to make it official? I’ll check back.

Well, I would start with someone who knows about learning disabilities like dyslexia. My nephew got testing by a neuropsychologist for dyslexia (both auditory and visual dyslexia), though I’m not sure that same person also had expertise in dyscalculia (but only because I didn’t ask).

I probably should do some research as to where information could be gotten, but I’m pretty sure when I was looking online, there were even support groups online for it, so they may have more specific information.

As for me, I managed to do okay in spite of my limitations, and it is just now a minor annoyance/embarrassment that a calculator will fix.

Halfway down the page on this link is a good list of specific tests to determine dyscalculia.

HTH

If you ever want to talk to other dyscalculics, go to http://dyscalculiaforum.comðŸ™‚

Thanks tykke. I’ll have to keep an eye out for my red-headed daughter. I see on the website, there might be a link between red-heads and dyscalculia. It would be interesting to find out.

I just stumbled on this article – nice to see all sorts of scientific folk with arithmetic trouble coming out of the woodwork.

Remember – arithmetic is to maths as spelling is to Shakespeare (or as bricklaying is to architecture, or as…. pick your own metaphor!).

Oh, and yes, as the lady said, never leave home without a calculator! (I love my iPhone…ðŸ˜‰ )

Dr. King,

Thank you so much for replying. I am honored that you stopped by to comment. When I read about you, it put my mind so much at ease. I had never read about anyone who had actually been so open about their math difficulties and yet were so successful despite them. I must say you are a bit of a hero to me because of that. I so appreciate you talking about it and making it seem not so debilitating. It is an inspiration to others.

Because of my own math difficulties, I do have lots of math manipulatives at home for my girls. I’m hoping that lots of early exposure might make a difference for them, or at the very least have hoped that they inherit their father’s math abilities and not mine. We shall see.

Take care and good luck with all your future endeavors,

KC