Hi, my name is Orli and I'm a dyscalculiac

Previously posted on Annotate
April 2006

I have spent most of my life losing keys, driver’s licenses, cigarette lighters—even the occasional car. I couldn’t tell you which direction is west to save my life. My math skills are abysmal. I’m clumsy, forgetful, and utterly useless when it comes to names.

I can, however, tell you that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was anorexic long before we had a word for it; calculus was invented by two men almost simultaneously (Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebnez); and that Yale literary critic Harold Bloom thinks that Shakespeare is responsible for inventing the modern concept of humanity.

At times, my brain seems like little more than a repository for esoterica. While this comes in handy during games of Trivial Pursuit, it can make everyday life difficult. On balance, I’d much prefer to hold on to my ATM card, than remember that French Philosopher Michel Foucault popularized the term Panopticon.

I’ve long been convinced that I’m the butt of some kind of evolutionary practical joke. I seem to have been equipped with few of the skills necessary for day-to-day survival. But, hey, if you need a working definition of synesthesia, I’m your girl.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to counterbalance most of these inborn deficiencies. I do a lot of, 'Hey—you,' on meeting people I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve developed an elaborate cubby system to keep track of the practical paraphernalia required for daily existence. I avoid all sports, apart from Ping Pong. And I no longer own a car.

The one thing that still sends me into fits of hysteria is math. The prospect of taking the math portion of the GRE was almost enough to dissuade me from applying to graduate school. Thankfully, a math savvy friend agreed to teach me all the formulas I should have mastered in 9th grade. After six months of tutoring, we were both pleased when I got a 430 in math. (That puts me right around the 15th percentile.)

On arriving at NYU, I was relieved to find that it was teaming with verbal idiot savants. (No offense, guys.) So, I thought I might not be the only one interested to learn that scientists have a name for the numerically-challenged: dyscalculiacs.

Yes, there’s an actual syndrome.

Just to be clear, being bad at math doesn’t necessary mean that you’re a dyscalculiac. I've included a handy checklist of some of symptoms associated with dyscalculia below:

Dyscalculia Symptoms(Adapted from Discalculia)

*Normal or accelerated language acquisition: verbal, reading, writing. Poetic ability. Good visual memory for the printed word.

*Good in the areas of science (until a level requiring higher math skills is reached), geometry (figures with logic not formulas), and creative arts.

*Difficulty with the concepts of time and direction.

*Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name/face retrieval.

*Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Poor with money and credit.

*Inability to grasp and remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence. May be able to perform math operations one day, but draw a blank the next.

*Gets lost or disoriented easily. May have a poor sense of direction, loose things often, and seem absent minded.

*May have poor athletic coordination.
I haven’t consulted a professional, but a quick review of the symptoms was enough for a self-diagnosis. This list could have been titled: “Things that Orli’s loved ones find alternately annoying and endearing about her.” (Okay, I only hope the last part’s true.)

If any of this sounds familiar to you, don’t worry. I’m not planning on starting a support group. I’m skilled with a calculator and my algebra days are behind me. As for the rest of it, those who know me have learned to think of them as eccentricities. Still, it’s oddly liberating to put a name to my “disorder.”


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