Earlier this week, a Malaysian curator discuss something about learning disabilities and SPM result which I think struck a cord to me. While I am obviously not dyslexic (in my family, I think my cousins have them and can’t comprehend my obsession with reading), the curator did discuss a lot on Dyslexia and some of the users tweeted about Dyscalculia.
Ironically… I do admit it, I have Dyscalculia.
Dyscalculia is defined as “A condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence.”
Because I generally do differential diagnosing on medical cases for exams, its not that hard for me to diagnose that I do have these.
I did talk about it in series of tweets but I find it generally limiting.
This is a fact by the way. Even no one in my family ever notice it. They just think I was a slow learner. Naturally, I don’t have a fancy therapist to get me out of it nor I use it as an excuse to every mathematical exams I had.
I remember hating math since forever in my childhood. I still have some mathematic phobia. Its real.
If I hadn’t search Dyscalculia while I was learning Psychology 101 in my first year of university, I probably never realize I had it even until now. But I rarely talk about it since I don’t use a lot of maths anyway but this is a blog post especially discussing about something that was really close to my heart.
Clue to you, if you are seeking a reason why you always fail in your exams, this is not one of them. Because you suck in math doesn’t mean you can stay that way. I tell that to myself constantly.
It can be tolerable but it took a loads of effort.
Years of effort.
Let me start on my childhood. I always love science since forever. Then, my mom was a science and biology teacher and my dad work in chemistry department lab as narcotic/forensic staff, so I was surrounded by science book since I was born. Naturally, it usually involve reading a bunch of science books and watching science fiction. I do read fiction but my first love is a good children science book. I never was a fiction bookworm until after I was 12.
Add to that my mom always bring me along during science fair and teaches me about making neat tricks with crystal salts and stuff and my dad kept dragging me to his workplace and workplace exhibition which turns out having a lot to do with Genetics and Science Forensic and thus I know a lot of it even before I went to university.
Unfortunately, during my time, I don’t learn Science until I was in standard 4 and I have to suffer through math since I was in Kindergarten. Imagine those intervals where people don’t ask me about who is the famous scientist, how vaccine was created and stuff… and I had to suffer through endless mathematic homework and always look stupid because I simply couldn’t answer questions. I don’t understand how some things is greater and less than a number when they’re the same set of numbers from 1 to 10.
This is not an overstatement. I have the inability to concentrate on numbers. I have really poor short term memory with numbers. These two is what I am still having now. I can do memorization with words or pictures but numbers always alludes me.
I remember when I was 6, my kindergarten teacher point two question on subtraction I remember prior to that being proud of myself knowing how to add until I saw what subtraction paper. I felt like I want to cry. scream and run away. I think I have kindergarten report card saying I have “moderate numerical ability” like 3 out of 6 point.
Around 9, I switched from a village school in Penang to a girl convent school in Kuantan, Pahang and I could say, I have a culture shock. As usual, I never had much a problem with other subjects with all but maths and cursive classes. When I was 9, we have this really thick green math book and I always didn’t know that I have homework until Mrs Chang folded my workbook and numerous times send me to do several hundred times “ketuk ketampi”/”ear squat”. These squats hurts by the way. If I travel back into time, I would say that the teacher is a total failure at teaching kids because negative enforcement make things even worst. But I was so ‘tardy’ that she send me off to practice choir for an Aladdin production during her late afternoon classes.
So the solution that I have from the teachers then.. was ignorance and perceived laziness.
My sort of nightmare if I had to do this with my brain….
I think by that time, I have this habit of throwing pencils over the “fill in the blank” answer papers and just tick it out of random. Oh, I end up being in the last class like most of the time because I end up failing maths. (little did I know, I was amblyopia which I found out about it when I was 14… yes, I wish I found out a great deal of things about me this earlier too)
I dislike mathematics but the lucky thing of growing up was leaving these confusing number things to higher level of maths (like algebra, calculus, geometry, arithmetic, trigonometry). And soon, I can use calculators for most of these which is a life savior and mathematics became enjoyable. I still insist, Additional Mathematics IS enjoyable for me.
After years of Ds and Cs in periodical exams that spans 11 years…. I got A1 in Modern Math and B3 in Additional Math and later I got B+ and B in Matriculation Math.
For a dyscalculic, these is a huge improvement and finally I could accept that I am not dumb in math like everyone think. In fact, the first degree the UPU sign me up before I apply for an appeal was Bachelor in Decisions Math which utilize mathematics, accounts/economics and computer science. I cry for days after I found out that I got “Sains Pemutusan” since didn’t want math degree at all so I switch university. But the point is, I was so afraid of taking a math degree because of my fear that I would fail it.
Here’s the fact. I can’t do mental arithmetic. At all. Not just as a child, but as an adult. And even as an adult, I count by using my fingers either by jotting it down so I could see the problem and for simpler adding and substraction and division and multiplication. I usually do a lot of advance math on paper too because I can’t use mental image for it. I have poor memory of numbers but I could do equations and logics. In fact, I came up with a trick last minute during UPSR to scrap a B in Maths by noticing, if I kept adding the same number all the time, it came up EXACTLY like multiplication table. Division became simpler after that.
I have excellent memorizing ability with stories, novels down to plots characters and stuff and also memorizing case studies, chemical pathology lists, and other science fact and stuff but I fail at memorizing numbers and also dates too. Like, one of those things was multiplication numbers. I learn multiplication when I was standard 3 but I could only do x2, x5 and x9 easily but it took me years to be good with the rest of the number. Just don’t throw random numbers at me and expect me to solve it in 10 second because I can’t.
Usually, I kept counting and counting three times just to be sure I got it right (counting BBW stash last year is one of them). This is especially when I buy things without a calculator with me. I am talking even the basic RM2.48 + Rm5.99 in a basket. Most people can easily sum it up immediately but I still took it a lot more slower than most folks. (I would put 0.01 from rm2.48 to make rm5.99 as 6 (with finger) and then add 2 finger to 6 and minus 0.01 from 0.48 to make rm8.47…. and yes, I do this all the time too)
But I can do quadratics, cos sin tan, matrices, probability, limits rather easily. But that is, if I don’t need to memorize a long list of formulas like I do during geometry trigonometry. I still suck at that though. Thats why I didn’t always get A’s.
I even have a problem with chemical equation and calculations. But its a lot tolerable but I still have problems memorizing chains of methyl in things and etc. My biochemistry thesis involves a lot of calculating and even its hellish for me. But I survived.
On another thing, I am really am good with Sudoku but I just can’t do these crazy math puzzles.
I just cant. My mind really did went blank. I don’t know how to solve this. This is rather ironic for a HOG puzzle lover like me but it just is.
I don’t exaggerate this. Even most people who know me since grade school are impressed that I didn’t get kicked out of university. (namely some relatives who I rather not name or I shall ooze resentment)
But like I said, its manageable for me. Maybe its lot harder for anyone else with the same condition, but I learn long ago that ignoring these things won’t solve anything… especially when you are on your on.
On another hand, I can remember sequences of pin numbers and long passwords (of course). But it took me days, weeks and months just to memorize 6 digits. Sometimes I just didn’t choose to memorize a set of number (like my uber long FIM matric number) because some numbers aren’t worth to be memorized.
For the rest, I use another kind of memorizing techniques which works until it got embedded in my subconscious. Sound intriguing right? I just have to memorize these numbers according to sequences and rhyme/sing it. Like Pizza Hut’s delivery jingle “7552525”. I even use it for phone numbers especially my own. But I still fail at memorizing my bank account number.
But it doesn’t mean I can’t detect numerical anomalies especially in accounting and statistics. That’s why I have a habit of doing triple checks with numbers. While I was researching for a case study or my experiments, I deals with a lot of numbers and averages. I tend to sort these out by picturing the big picture and stuff and even SPSS helps a lot with analyzing things. It adds more work for me to understand everything but overall its good enough for me.
Its a challenge to be a dyscalculia. But from my experience, its not much a disability unless it bugs you.
As of this moment, I still can’t hear and make sense math equation unless I have a note book with me. I can barely make adding, subtract, divide and multiply numbers at the same time without a pen and paper. I still have problems with numbers but I use other stuff like memorizing techniques and calculators to ease my student life.
But from all these, in my experience with Malaysian education system, they just dump people like me into the last class because I couldn’t catch up as fast as the first classes. As a child, I grew up surrounded by dyslexics and Down syndrome kids with teachers basically ignores and dumb down everything that they teach and often time punish and others humiliate. That was in the 90s and I don’t know how it change now. I learn for years that perfect straight A’s results doesn’t define you anything especially when you’re a rare creature who have a rare 6% of population condition. I don’t think its fortunate or unfortunate but I just use another method which proved effective during my school years and frankly people still think I’m weird whether I like it or not.
If I have kids who have the same problems as mine, I would think twice of labeling as stupid. You’d be surprised how I was called that almost all the time in my childhood. I didn’t get better mark than the rest of my sisters nor my cousins. But by the time I was in teens, I realized that I don’t need people to label me as such.
I just define it for myself .
I still like to read about various subjects like world history, medicine, space physics, English literature and theoretical maths. You’d be surprised that a lot more branches of math doesn’t even deals with just basic mathematical arithmetic. Learning about wonderful things like applied mathematics when internet became even better was one of those things that made me lose the edge off my original math fears.
I learn to get over it. Its a disadvantage as a child where standard education doesn’t understand individuality. I outgrew it on my own.
Just don’t be quick identify yourself with this condition merely because you can’t understand math. What I mean by being Dyscalculia was literally it is a brain condition. You felt there’s something wrong with you when you feel this blankness and confusion when facing these stuff that people try to teach you and they sound completely nonsense as the questions they gave you.
But I learn that logic is not a faraway thing for me and I am a scientist in literal sense and if I could understand science then why not advance math which is science by itself. Just because you have inability to count things, doesn’t mean you will suck later on. Thats why as an adult, I don’t feel this condition affect me as severe as it did when I was a child.
Sometimes its just psychology. Try to forget about the folks who think you’re too slow just because you cant make sense why 32 divide by 4 is 8 . If you can, focus on the real side of maths, the definitions, not the steps that you need to solve it. Its vital for your understanding WHY it have those steps.
There’s a possible infinite knowledge out there that schools don’t teach and with our current times, more and more people started to research more and more to understand this condition. Maybe there will be a time where I don’t have to find these things on my own by struggling childhood dyscalculia.
Seriously, you are not dumb, you’re just seriously misunderstood.