Guest article by Kevin Wiltshire
To make sense of my thoughts as a potentially dyscalculic adult – who faces specific challenges with logical thinking – I probably need to start with some context.
At primary school, long division took me years to master, and there were always strange little things I just didn’t get or couldn’t do that others found easy (despite me apparently starting off well ahead in intellectual maturity and reading age)… I also always lost at Monopoly! Nevertheless, apart from a few such uncomfortable wobbles and blocks, I was able to keep up well into secondary school, even taking a couple of exams early.
However, as we moved to A level, I stalled at maths and physics completely, failing repeatedly and miserably in tests, while my friends forged ahead and my requests for extra information and context were ignored or laughed off. I had no idea why I was suddenly so stymied and started to lose self-confidence and shut down; if no-one would give me the information I needed to move forward, I would stay still.
I was starting to get puzzled about something else, too: in addition to their maths capabilities, my peers were now foreseeing (non-personal) consequences much more quickly and effectively than I. Apparently, I lacked an unknown but useful function, and this got all the more confusing as the landscape became increasingly complex and nuanced – at times, I found myself wondering how they worked out the things they knew.
Ultimately, I dropped out of sciences and tried for music (which significantly improved matters). The change in study direction paid off: I started to progress again, eventually becoming a musician, and – apart from occasional muddles over dates and times, which I put down to being unfocused – I more or less forgot about my earlier difficulties for years. The blocks I was acutely aware of at school didn’t rear their ugly heads at all in that context (though, in hindsight, I can see where I was quietly sidestepping some problems, and still hitting others).
Fast-forward to 2015, when I met a friend who’d been a professor responsible for supporting neurodivergent students (and was himself high-functioning autistic and Aspergers). By this time, I’d moved on from music and had been working in various offices for a while, and was starting to see some emergent (and familiar) patterns in the challenges I faced.
After talking with me about my experiences, my friend put forward that I wasn’t neurotypical, indicating it could be dyscalculia but not a form he’d come across before. Pretty much instantly, a lot of things clicked into place (with a massive sense of relief)… I got why I trip up over film schedules, why I turn up an hour/day early/late sometimes (and struggle with multiple trip stages), why others can quickly make accurate assessments about charts and stats while all I get is tumbleweed in my head… and why puzzles are just a scary mind-boggling chaotic mess to me.
With this enabling realisation, I began to wonder whether other challenges I faced were related (I think this pattern-matching is a coping mechanism). I considered whether being stymied by logical extrapolation and multi-threaded sequencing was a facet of dyscalculia, too, including my abysmal performance both in arguments and fathoming out how to optimally go about doing commonplace stuff (I often have to start again, or just abandon the process due to an ‘unforeseeable’ hitch).
So, for me, logical and strategic (and some political) situations, especially at work, are like trying to play a game minus the rulebook that others have read. They simultaneously map multiple routes and pick one they think is optimal; I have to test a single vector at a time, then rinse and repeat, making me much slower at coming to a point of action, and missing obvious consequences initially. In fact, I often have to sketch out a logical landscape to be able to start to comprehend it… (but I have noticed that when I do ‘get’ it, I can sometimes intuit a more creative and broadly successful solution than my colleagues who’ve invested in their single optimal route; I think this is a side-effect of creating a robust pattern).
Meanwhile, back at the office, I’d been accused of being ‘leading, dominant and aggressive’ in a strategic workshop, which – apart from being literally untrue according to a reliable witness – came about because I had no idea how to process what I was being asked to do, so was seen as obstructive by a manager who felt undermined. Unfortunately, appearing to be obstructive can be a side-effect of being stalled, no matter how well you explain yourself, and the above experience left me quite anxious about work and strategising; could this happen again?
However, the situation did catalyse further understanding of my blockers, mapping them back to my childhood – now wider than issues with maths, dates and times – in addition to those endless occasions I lost at Monopoly, I felt hugely anxious about engaging in arguments (I knew I could never win, regardless), and resisted situations where I’d have to process complex information and be pushed to participate before I was ready. It also explained why I’d felt a piece of me was missing as if a slot in my brain was missing the logic module that others had.
These days, working within a complicated business model, I often have to ask colleagues and friends for additional time and context to process logical scenarios (although some of them are great and offer this upfront now I’ve explained I might be neurodivergent). However, I do still occasionally experience bemused or even mildly frustrated reactions to my inability to instantly engage with what others see as simple questions.
Despite knowing I might be neurodivergent, I’m still challenged by some things, though, especially when people realise I can be ‘pushed over’ by their motivated reasoning (regardless of how much evidence I’m aware of to the contrary), throwing a string of assumptions, clever arguments and rationalisations at me until I stall in confusion. This is an outcome that disempowers me enormously as, to my mind, they’re using a magical goalpost-moving superpower I don’t have, and to the detriment of the business at times.
I’ve always wondered if I’m just not terribly bright… but I guess that’s old thinking. Understanding that I may be dyscalculic has helped me let myself off the hook for what I thought was a debilitating unknowable deficit, and I’m better able to explain my difference to others (and see more clearly where others may have hidden differences that need support).
In my experience, securing change can be difficult, as it seems dyscalculia is not well-understood in most quarters, and where it is known, it’s perceived simplistically as a maths/times/dates deficiency; personally, I think it’s much more than this, or at least the impact of growing up and coping with it may be greater.
For me, the current descriptions of dyscalculia – at least the ones I’ve seen so far – lack the breadth and depth of other learning disability studies (eg, dyslexia); and so are missing an articulation of the potential fallout from difficulties with logical extrapolation, causal mapping and parallel processing, if indeed these are related issues… and that’s what I’d be interested to understand. 🙂
Anyhow, thanks for reading. I hope this has been helpful for anyone who’s faced similar challenges.