Parent's Perspective

I > Dyscalculia

By Irene Hila

November, 2014

The following article is based on a blog posting that appeared on
September 11, 2014, in the blog Lolligirl (


Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia. I let the word swim around a bit. It comes from the Greek words dys and calculia, which mean “difficulty with” and “calculations.” I really didn’t need to dissect it to know it means that I have difficulty with calculations and mathematics.

I am quite comfortable with the word itself. I can break it up into roots and branches, define it, research it, and consider it. Words have never been a problem. They comfort me, even as they define me.

But those pesky numbers! They have a way of switching before I consider them or running backwards when I need them to go forward. The first moment I hear a problem, I sense the answer almost immediately. It’s right there behind a very thin veil. If I squint just right…I know the answer. I know it; but as soon as I open my mouth to respond, something odd happens: the numbers aren’t there any longer. They’ve changed, they’ve switched, they’ve flipped and flopped; and they lay there giggling at me.

I am suddenly back in grade school, as that little girl trying to read the time and finding the shapes and lines failing me. All I needed to know was that when the small line is sleeping and finally raises its hand, it will be 3:00 and I will be free.

When the bell rings I run down the hallway with the broken fire extinguisher case, turn into the hallway with the mismatched tile, and finally burst through the door with the faded poster about a long-past event. That’s how I find my way. Don’t ask me where I turn right or left because it would take me too long to figure it out, and it’s possible I’d never be able to tell you.

For so long I felt so lost; but now, years later, sitting in the doctor’s office with new diagnosis in hand, I consider my options. I could feel devastated, embarrassed, or jaded. But I don’t. I feel liberated.

Sitting across from me, this doctor is the first person in my life who really heard me. She heard me say that the concepts are so easy. She heard me say that I listen to them and think, “That makes sense. I’ve got this!” Then I sit down, pencil poised on paper, and it’s as if I didn’t hear the last 45 minutes of instruction. She nods, points to the word dyscalculia, and says, “Yes, that is very normal.”

Normal? Me? How can you tell me I’m gifted in one breath, have dyscalculia in another, and then top it off with normal? I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished to hear someone call me normal!

I try to persuade her otherwise. I tell her that when she asked which numbers came next I felt like throwing something out of a window. Normal. I told her that I am in the middle of adding in my head and a number will just change, POOF!, and suddenly I’m subtracting a completely different thing. Normal. I told her I can’t follow patterns of numbers. I tell her I can’t do any math at any level, no matter how hard I try. I tell her I’m not gifted at all, and I feel like I am a failure because of my inability to do math. Normal?

Yes. Normal.

Of course, a diagnosis doesn’t mean it all dissolves. Yesterday I was searching for two dollars to give to my daughter for school. My husband walked over with two quarters, set them down, and said, “Don’t worry, you’re a quarter of the way there!” I looked down at them and my mind got stuck on the word quarter. “No, she needs two dollars,” I say. Every single human in the room stopped to stare at me; even the five-year-old. “Yes,” my husband says with a smile, “and $.50 is a quarter of $2.” I felt my cheeks go hot. Of course it is. I heard the word quarter, saw a quarter, and something stuck. It was jammed.

Here’s the thing, I just laughed. So did everyone in the room. I didn’t feel small at all. There is no time for small. 

I understand myself now and so do they. They know me, they love me, and they are able to laugh with me when my mind takes numbers and hands them to a juggling monkey riding a unicycle. Disability doesn’t dissolve because it is named, but all of the unnecessary pain and worry do.    

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