The temperance in my father’s voice strained on the other end of the phone line. As I sat on the floor, in tears and on the edge of hopelessness, I listened to him drill for the answers to the most basic of times tables. This was a weekly occurrence; family meeting after family meeting attempting to tackle the problem of my ineptitude in the subject of math. This resulted in bargains and mathematical exercises that lasted for as long as it took my parents’ patience to wane. Each week was dedicated to a new table. But we found that when a previously memorized table was revisited the multiplicands had vanished, almost as if they had never been practiced at all.

My teachers up until the 4th grade were adamant that repetition was key. The idea was sound in theory but fell short in practice.

Children — girls especially — struggled in math they would say. The purportedly simple remedy for this was to merely repeat the exercises ad infinitum until it “clicked.”

My teachers would sit and start the process from the beginning, day after day, until they began to lose patience. Each time, I was told my perturbation was barring my progress. Adding to the complication, this private Christian school adhered to A.C.E; Accelerated Christian Education. The grades were divided into classrooms, each consisting of a single teacher with their assistant. They were responsible for all curricula. Booklets were organized in a hierarchy by twelve “PACEs” per level, and advancement was contingent upon individual proficiency.

Students were encouraged to grade themselves at designated stations in the center of the room, where the answer keys were located. Lessons were read by the individual (ages averaging 6 to 9 during my tenure) as they went along. We were essentially self-taught, devoid of oversight. Each lesson held a scripture that students were required to memorize, a compulsory facet of our education. In fact, the whole of the educational literature featured scripture as its cornerstone. The preferred nomenclature for history was “His-Story”, for example. Young earth creationism was the emphasis in science. English featured verb identification in sentences such as “Obedience will grant long life and peace”, “God’s Word grants instruction”, and “I shall obey Thy Statutes and Judgments.”

These flawed pedagogical metrics were structurally ripe for children with special needs and learning disabilities to fall into educational neglect.

Children — girls especially — struggled in math they would say. The purportedly simple remedy for this was to merely repeat the exercises ad infinitum until it “clicked.”

Christian love and patience were surely put to the test while trying to educate me. I transposed my numbers or omitted them altogether, which gave me completely different answers than expected. I used my fingers for simple addition and was often chastised when it was revealed I was counting them beneath the desk. When it came to borrowing and subtraction, I simply could not comprehend the idea of numbers within numbers.

Multiplication was my biggest source of frustration; 4 x 4 equaling 16 was completely counter-intuitive. Adding eight together twice just seemed more logical. After a time, I deduced that 4 x 4 was just 4 added to itself four times. But I had no way meaningful way to conceptualize that to anyone else.

“No,” my mother would sigh. “This doesn’t make sense. It’s multiplication, not addition.”

I began to count my multiplication tables with tally marks. Larger equations argued with the room on my paper. My homework was riddled with these cumbersome notches until I was told that they were distracting. I had notebooks upon notebooks devoted to them for my homework. This was frustrating for everyone, not least of all me. After all, I was supposed to know them off the top of my head. My method was just a cheap workaround for the problem without actually knowing it at all.

This only touches on a small portion of my childhood troubles. I was accused of purposely ignoring instruction for the sake of daydreaming when taught how to read maps, or that I simply wasn’t paying attention when shown how to read analog clocks. Given the religious environment of my upbringing, I was also accused of being willful and rebellious. In an attempt to camouflage myself, I would often purchase wrist watches, thinking it would throw people off my trail. In fact, this tactic often backfired because church and family members would purposely quiz me on the time. I still can’t read beyond full hours or half hours on analog clocks and the advent of the GPS has saved me on many a road trip.

I was accused of purposely ignoring instruction for the sake of daydreaming when taught how to read maps, or that I simply wasn’t paying attention when shown how to read analog clocks.

My struggles were Sisyphean in nature; at a young age, I became deeply depressed and starkly aware of my limitations. I believed myself to be simpleminded. “Uncomplicated,” in the words of one instructor.

Stupid.

I believed that these issues permanently marked me and that they would bar me from doing anything meaningful with my life.

This is a familiar story to those with cognitive disabilities. These struggles followed me well into adulthood and were complicated due to homeschooling. My parents decided that the formal education system was failing me and believed a radical approach to home education was the answer. Unfortunately, I did not see a marked improvement in this educational setting either.

In fact, the situation further deteriorated. Neither of my parents had an educational background and were not equipped to handle learning disabilities. The educational style of “un-schooling” was employed, believed by fundamentalists to be a purer setting for young minds. Normal teenage angst was amplified by my loneliness and frustration. My inability to grasp math became contentious and it had palpable effects on my self-worth.

By the time I had reached my early twenties, I still used tally marks when making simple calculations. I still counted on my fingers and struggled with problems marginally more complex than long-form division.

I failed the GED exam three times. My scores in Social Studies, Science, and Reading averaged in the 90th Percentiles, with Mathematics bringing up the rear in the 3rd Percentile. One of my GED preparation instructors sat down next to me after reviewing my latest score, with no small degree of kindness that matched the pity in her voice.

“Sarah, have you ever been tested for a learning disability? I swear, I’ve seen these patterns before while I was in a workshop for students with special needs…”

My struggles were Sisyphean in nature; at a young age, I became deeply depressed and starkly aware of my limitations.

Special needs? It was bad enough that I was “uncomplicated,” now I was the dreaded “r” word.

In spite of passing every other subject on the GED with flying colors, my math scores were embarrassing. One instructor mentioned that this was elementary level math, was I sure I hadn’t done my best? My third failure on the GED saw me quitting my classes and scouring the internet for other options. Answers. Something. It was here that I found the Home School Legal Defense Association article regarding the Department of Education’s letter stating:

“Several colleges around the country have refused to admit students who are home school graduates but are still technically under their state’s compulsory attendance. Some institutions also stated they would admit such students only if they obtained a GED. These schools were concerned that they would lose certain federal benefits if they were to admit such students, or were to admit them without a GED. For several months, HSLDA has been working on this problem with the General Counsel’s office of the U.S. Department of Education and congressional committee staff. On April 19 [2002], the Department of Education, Office of the General Counsel, issued a formal letter resolving the issue … This means that any home schooled graduate, regardless of age, is beyond the age of compulsory attendance under federal higher education law. The result is that institutions may enroll such students, regardless of age, without fear losing eligibility for federal benefits.”

Eric H. Jaso, Deputy General Counsel

This information was new. It was always conveyed to me that a GED was prerequisite for college from homeschooled individuals. In fact, this is still a commonly held belief in many homeschool circles. At the time, I didn’t realize that the Department of Education had clarified what colleges could require of those who had been homeschooled. Out of everything that I could have hoped to find in my search, hope was the last thing I expected. Armed with this information, I marched into my local community college, homeschool diploma and transcript in tow, with a copy of 20 U.S.C. § 1091(d)(3) printed out. Page after page from the Home School Legal Defense Association separated each document.

Admissions barely glanced at my supporting documentation before admitting me that day. It was decidedly underwhelming. I was required to start in remedial math classes per my low placement testing.

But I was in.

It was in one of these remedial classrooms that my instructor mentioned that I had some very specific patterns to my work and that I ought to see a professional for it.

I was twenty-one when I was formally diagnosed with dyscalculia. Sitting in an office for developmental psychology, the doctor’s warm demeanor contrasted my shock.

I had spent my entire life believing I was lesser, that I was stupid, that I would never amount to anything. In short, I had spent my formative years contemplating suicide over an undiagnosed learning disability.

Adding insult to injury, my psychologist informed me that I was a textbook example of dyscalculia. “Anyone could have caught this if they had spent enough time with you,” she said. While this wasn’t true of my time in a religious school, it was certainly the case for every classroom I’d been in since. Resentment set in far more quickly than relief did; I instantly believed that I had been cheated.

Robbed.

I went on to graduate college five years later with a Bachelors of Arts in Cultural Anthropology and Technical Writing; I graduated with honors, boasting two grade-based honor societies. My entire life up until that point had been predicated on the notion that I could never attend college, much less graduate. I believed I wasn’t good enough. But I did it.

My greatest personal struggle has been measuring my intelligence by numbers. For years, I thought college would be the lens through which I could see my abilities and worth. I believed that attending higher education meant that I was “just like everyone else.”

I had spent my entire life believing I was lesser, that I was stupid, that I would never amount to anything. In short, I had spent my formative years contemplating suicide over an undiagnosed learning disability.

Yet, these struggles only paint a very small part of the larger picture that is dyscalculia. It took me years to realize that it wasn’t an issue of me not trying hard enough. Of someone being able to “fix” me with a little time and effort. That I was certainly never “uncomplicated.” That I had ascribed intent to the instructor who mentioned I might have special needs.

She certainly didn’t imply I was less than in any way.

It’s estimated that roughly 6% of the population is dyscalculic. It isn’t “math dyslexia” and it isn’t something that you grow out of. Most importantly, it isn’t something that only affects one’s education. It’s a neurobiological impairment in subitizing (defined as the ability to know how many objects are in a small group without counting). It’s an impairment in understanding the relationship of yourself to the space you inhabit. Its primary symptoms are visual-spatial, working memory disruption, and executive function dysfunction.

People with visual-spatial impairments have difficulties measuring where objects are in space. This includes how far objects are from themselves, and from each other. Abstract characters and material objects find themselves within this framework. The visual-spatially impaired may have difficulties reading maps, analog clocks, and judging time. Current cognitive neuroscience believes that dyscalculia primarily resides in the intraparietal sulcus, which is responsible for your perceptual-motor coordination and visual attention.

It’s theorized that dyscalculia affects your directive eye movements, visually guided pointing, and object manipulation. It has further been suggested that numerical and working memory functions may converge in the intraparietal sulcus. Dyscalculics may also struggle with deficits in their working memory and executive function as they relate to the prefrontal regions of their brain. This appears to have co-morbidity with ADHD. Additionally, according to this fMRI study of developmental dyscalculia, neurotypical brains are distinguishable from their dyscalculic counterparts based on the activation of the prefrontal cortex.

We have difficulties processing what our eyes see; the cognitive system responsible for storing temporary information isn’t functioning as expected, and we have difficulty organizing and acting on information. These functions are interrelated and successful processing of the world requires their coordination.

But what does this mean for the average dyscalculic? The expression of this disorder is varied enough that no two people will share the vast majority of its manifestation together. It appears that we have a gap between our potential and our achievement. We seem normal, yet we are unable to demonstrate the expected skill level for someone our age. As such, learning disabilities are often called hidden disabilities.

For me, dyscalculia feels like peering through an opaque window; you can make out indistinct concepts, but no effort on your end brings them to focus. Imagine a constant sense of dejéjà vu, or the word you’re looking for being just on the tip of your tongue… and yet somehow always out of reach. It’s like forgetting the process of a task you’ve been completed dozens of times before. Or somehow managing to get disoriented in a crowded corner of your own home. The rush of anxiety for large counts during dance class. Getting lost in your own neighborhood. Running your bike into a post because you couldn’t visually measure the distance between it and a car.

It’s like trying to navigate vaguely familiar forest with a compass that functions intermittently.

You’ve been here before. You’ve done this before. Which road takes me home? I’m sorry, can you show me that again?

“Sarah, I know we’ve covered this before. I know we’ve been here before. Why can’t you pay attention?”

This isn’t to say that the life of a dyscalculic is pitiable. In fact, individuals with learning disabilities are generally regarded to be highly intelligent. An interesting line based on this fMRI research of developmental dyscalculia states:

Dyscalculic children seemed to compensate for relative under-activation in the primary visual cortex through an upregulation in higher visual areas.

If your brain is receiving a weak signal, it responds by increasing receptors to increase the sensitivity to that signal. I have a finely tuned sense of tactile intuition. I know what a pound feels like in my hands. An inch is roughly the width of my thumb. A yard of fabric is the distance between my face to my outstretched arm. In dance class, step one begins on my heel, and step two begins on the ball of my foot. Because my brain isn’t processing accurate information about my environment, I can’t rely on my eyesight alone to quantify the world around me. Sensory compensation helps me negotiate my world. And even when my placeblindness gets the better of me, an understanding party with directions is just a phone call away. Just as a person born with congenital colorblindness was born unable to distinguish colors, I have never been able to distinguish distance, weight, location, or numbers as space or in space.

I didn’t learn all of this on the day I was diagnosed. I’ve learned it over the course of years, as each one of the vaguely odd things about me were examined with my diagnosis in mind. I’m not simply a disorganized, directionally challenged klutz that can’t keep a tight schedule; my brain struggles to calculate the input it receives.

The vast majority of neurodivergent individuals have spent a large portion of their lives being made constantly aware of their limitations. Of having any minor shortcoming attributed to their disorder. But because we have had to adapt to interact with the world on an alternative level, we have keen skills that developed out of necessity. The average dyscalculic tends to have strong verbal reasoning, reading comprehension, and expressive writing. For example, my Written Expression according to a subsequent Woodcock-Johnson III test scored in the 92nd Percentile. My Broad Math Cluster according to the same test scored in the 3rd Percentile. In fact, my entire Working Memory Index scored in the 2nd Percentile.

We use the terms neurotypical and neurodivergent to describe the differences in cognitive function across myriad disorders. But I have a distaste for them on the grounds that it often creates an “us vs. them,” or a “healthy vs. unhealthy,” or even a “normal vs. abnormal” mentality. These definitions are being applied with greater frequency to a variety of conditions, which begs the question… is anyone truly “neurotypical”?

If nature favors mutation, why are we pitting cognitive functions against each other? If we accept that genetic variation evolves from pressures in the environment, why do we exclude the infinite variation of cognitive function in humans, bar one? We could say that there is a baseline for brain function, that all others must be measured against.

Or we could accept the idea that differences in brain function helped our species measure the world for a more complete illustration of being. Neurodiversity asserts the infinite variation of cognitive function as a normal aspect of the human condition. But the fact that this needs to be stated at all implies that we are still arguing against the idea of a “normal” brain.

Thus, I believe that if you have been described as not being neurotypical, you’re in good company with the rest of the world.

If you’re reading this and looking for looking for answers, I urge you to reach out to a qualified developmental clinical psychologist. The diagnosis for dyscalculia is not inherently difficult. But individuals with this disorder are often overlooked because trials in math on any level are considered par for the course. Ordinary education did not work for me. I had to forge that path on my own, after years of self-loathing and self-doubt. I had to find my own answers. And I no longer try to measure my intelligence by numbers.

There may be many things girls aren’t good at. Trying to keep their heads above water whilst having features of their education overlooked and their struggles attributed to their gender is chief among them.

Growing up and finding one’s place in the world is can be a misadventure for all of us, but the task is exacerbated for those with hidden disabilities. For those whose brains render the world map apart from the so-called norm, the journey is all the more difficult. For me, religious zealotry only compounded the problem. It took me a few years to realize that I didn’t need higher education to prove I was capable; this only complimented my natural abilities.

Anthropology not only changed my view of the world, it made me a better citizen of it.

With a proper diagnosis and the correct support network, you’ll be able to find your way too. Even if your compass functions intermittently.

What, I wondered, would the visual world be like for those born totally colorblind? Would they, perhaps, lacking any sense of something missing, have a world no less dense and vibrant than our own? Might they even have developed heightened perceptions of visual tone and texture and movement and depth, and live in a world in some ways more intense than our own, a world of heightened reality — one that we can only glimpse echoes of in the work of the great black-and-white photographers? Might they indeed see us as peculiar, distracted by trivial or irrelevant aspects of the visual world, and insufficiently sensitive to its real visual essence?

— Oliver Sacks, The Island of the Colorblind


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