Discovering Dyscalculia in my Mid-20s

Sarah Nabi talks us through her lived experience of discovering she had dyscalculia in her mid-20s and how it solved a lot of the questions she was asking.

(Photo by Unsplash)

[Image: The Mathematical Bridge in Queens College, Cambridge, on an autumn day, with punters going underneath the bridge. ]

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had an affinity with words. My love of reading and writing was obvious to those around me, whether I was rapidly racing through a whole book in a day or stapling together sheets of paper my dad had brought back from work to create ‘books’, scribbling away my own attempts at stories.

If words have been friendly companions, numbers have always been the worst of enemies (yeah, I’m a bit dramatic. My love for the thriller genre has definitely influenced my writing style indirectly). I have struggled since primary school with manipulating numbers and understanding mathematical concepts. Anything beyond the absolute basics is baffling to me. I was taught formulas in the morning and they would drop out of my head by the afternoon. As for mental maths? Forget it. All I can say is, thank God for calculators.

Going through the school system, my poor performance in Maths wasn’t seen as a problem. I think this speaks to how we view maths and science in society vs the humanities and creative subjects. Maths is viewed as inherently tricky, therefore my struggles were easily overlooked.

I spent a lot of time doodling in my workbook because I was bored stiff, unable to comprehend what I was being taught. Maths lessons were something I had trained myself to endure for an hour and unsurprisingly I developed a lot of anxiety around them because I just didn’t understand things the way I was ‘supposed’ to and it was becoming embarrassing that it wasn’t sinking in, no matter how hard I tried.

I attended extra revision classes and my mum organised tutoring for me with a lovely lady down the road…but something just wasn’t clicking. Exerting all my efforts, I left school with a D in maths and I thought this would be the last time I’d have to bother with it.

This hasn’t exactly been the case. In college, I was forced to retake Maths over and over even though by this point I knew that it wouldn’t make a difference. I eventually became disillusioned and skipped classes, which led to my Maths grade dropping even more because I had stopped trying. I’ve had to make adjustments to my career path, skillfully ducking and dodging any job role that might indicate I require a C in Maths or accepting my inevitable failure as soon as I sit down to take a Maths exam in order to be able to progress my application.

I was tested for and diagnosed with dyscalculia last November.

To give you the formal definition dyscalculia is defined by the British Dyslexia Association as: "a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education, and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities."

It is often referred to colloquially as ‘maths dyslexia’. The reason it’s taken so long for me to get a diagnosis is that I simply didn’t know this kind of learning difficulty existed. Learning about the existence of dyscalculia has been life-changing because I’ve always put my failures with Maths down to ‘I’m just not a Maths person’, accompanied with a self-deprecating grin before swiftly moving on. I’d also like to note that dyscalculia can manifest differently for individuals. Dyscalculia, like other forms of neurodivergence, operates on a spectrum so my experiences and struggles could be very different from someone else's, although we would likely have similar traits across the board.

Whilst I have managed to use the number sense I do have to find workarounds in everyday life, through my diagnosis I’ve learned that a lot of things that I thought were just ‘the way I am’ are actually due to dyscalculia. A good example of this would be the fact I struggle with retaining directions and navigating with a map. Turns out, dyscalculia affects so many different areas of my life beyond the classroom and I’ve just been out here vibing, thinking I’m a little bit ditzy.

Receiving my diagnosis has given me a deeper insight into why I think the way I do and a much kinder approach towards myself but I always wonder what it would have been like to have received it earlier. If a student isn’t achieving, it indicates that they need additional support and potential adjustments rather than being subjected to a ‘one size fits all’ standard of teaching. My relationship with Maths might be totally different today, had this been the case. It worries me that dyscalculia isn’t well known, given the recent government proposal to gatekeep those who do not achieve a C in Maths and English from obtaining a student loan, in my eyes cutting off access to higher education to neurodiverse pupils. I’m grateful to be in a position where I am able to express my struggles with maths through my love of writing and I want to make sure I keep talking about and raising awareness of dyscalculia well beyond Neurodiversity Celebration Week.


Sarah Nabi is a writer with features in the likes of Gal-Dem and is from Bristol.

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