Hot, sweaty fingers run fruitlessly along the blurring lines. Under the spreading arms of a gnarled neem tree, she sits hunched over her Math homework, desperately holding back tears of humiliation. Yet another tutor glares at her reproachfully. “Why can’t you understand something so simple? You are such a Moddhu!” She hears herself called this by many frustrated voices – well wishers, teachers and tutors who are utterly baffled and clueless about her inability. Moddhu in Telugu parlance, is an umbrella term for every noun and adjective used to describe a person of low to no intelligence. She grows up believing that she is a Moddhu. Specifically, that she is a Moddhu in Mathematics.

For reasons he cannot comprehend, he simply does not have number sense, a skill set that helps him comprehend numbers . The complicated steps required to solve math problems leave him feeling confused and lost. No matter how hard he tries, and regardless of how much his teachers “explain,” he cannot understand. And nobody understands why he does not. His parents assume that either the teacher is not doing their job well, or that their child is not paying attention and not following instructions. They arrange for private tutoring, hoping the personal touch will help. The child continues to struggle. Teachers and tutors alike report that while he nods and acts as if he understands, the boy is unable to solve problems. Now everyone is frustrated. “You are too slow, too lazy, you need to work harder,” they urge, cajole and yell.  Unable to understand his own learning difficulty, the child starts to think that everyone is probably right. There must indeed be something wrong with his brain. He must be dumb, lazy and stupid. Why else is he unable to “understand something so simple” even when it is explained to him a hundred times? He begins to dread tests and exams, because he hates to perform poorly thereby disappointing his parents. He develops strategies that protect him from the pain and the humiliation. Some of those coping strategies involve hiding, lying, and making excuses for himself. He develops mysterious ailments that prevent him from going to school on testing days. He “forgets” homework at home and cooks up stories to explain his failures away . But deep inside, he knows – he knows that he is a failure. He knows he cannot achieve anything. He has given up on himself. 

I am her, I am him.

I now know that I have a Learning Disability (LD) called Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is the Math equivalent of Dyslexia. Let me try to explain what Mathematics has entailed for me since I was young. I could never memorize Math facts. Addition and subtraction have to be worked out on paper, the long way. Mental calculations are out of question, since I cannot hold numbers in my head. Multiplication is always extremely hard because I cannot memorize the tables. Therefore division, percentages, and algebra are all nearly impossible. This extends to logical thinking of any kind. In real life, the implications are crippling. I cannot for instance, calculate percentage off on any item on sale or figure out the tip for a restaurant bill. Neither can I estimate whether a piece of furniture will fit into the space I have for it, because I am not good at measuring or visualizing volumetric measurements. It means I cannot help my children with their homework, can’t remember important dates, birthdays, amounts owed and so on. I always struggle with directions, time, layouts, procedures, budgeting, sequences, and figuring out logistics. Beyond all this, having an academic disability entails being at the receiving end of innumerable thoughtless remarks and put downs – mostly unintentional – but hurtful nonetheless.

Dyscalculia is real, as real as Dyslexia, albeit not as well diagnosed or treated. Akin to any other learning disability, Dyscalculia can cause anxiety, depression, stress and low self esteem. Inability to perform simple calculations undermines academic performance; closes off career choices  and creates severe emotional distress. The good news is that once diagnosed, there are ways to teach Math to students with Dyscalculia. Some techniques that have met with success include the use of manipulatives, visual aids and multisensory instruction.

Here are some quick facts about Dyscalculia:

  • Dyscalculia is a Learning Disorder, NOT an intellectual disability
  • It manifests in early school years and can be diagnosed by professionals at school
  • Very often Dyscalculia occurs alongside Dyslexia
  • People with ADHD often also have Dyscalculia
  • This disorder tends to run in families which means it is genetic
  • Injuries to certain parts of the brain can result in “Acquired Dyscalculia”
  • There are no medications for treating Dyscalculia
  • There are no specialized teaching programs for Dyscalculia such as the ones used for Dyslexia
  • There are resources and techniques to help students who have this learning disorder
  • Early intervention in cases of Learning Disorders helps prevent low self esteem by providing alternate methods of learning and building necessary skills.

So, if your child is struggling with Math, here is my earnest request to you: Talk to their Math teacher. Ask questions about what specific areas your child is falling behind in. If you suspect a Learning Disability, please read and educate yourself about this condition and how it can be addressed. Most public schools in the United States  have resources for testing and evaluations to diagnose all types of learning disabilities. You can even have your student evaluated privately. Most importantly, please equip yourself with tools to recognize and acknowledge a Learning Disorder (if any) before thinking, or much worse, calling your child a “Moddhu.”

Note:

  1. Dyscalculia is only one of many known Learning Disabilities
  2. All information in this article is culled from my own experiences and from these highly informative and useful websites:

http://www.dyscalculia.org/

https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dyscalculia/understanding-dyscalculia

http://www.aboutdyscalculia.org/index.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3514770/

Vaishnavi Sridhar has a Masters in English and a penchant for the written word. She is also a theater/film enthusiast and on a given day, you might catch her on stage performing in a Telugu/Tamil/English play, or waxing eloquent on socially relevant topics on her Facebook page. Vaishnavi lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and you can reach her at catchup.vaishnavi@gmail.com

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