Understanding the strange world dyscalculics inhabit

By Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.

Many people, who to all intents and purposes are perfectly ordinary regular folk with average or indeed above average intelligence, find they are unable to do something which most people take for granted.

Take, for example, Stephen Fry, the famous broadcaster who suffers from prosopagnosia, the condition popularly known as “face blindness.”

While most people can see a face and remember it, there are some – maybe around 4% of the population –  who don’t have this facility at all.  And so when they see a person they simply don’t remember who that person is.

Then there are the people who simply can’t tell left from right.  And no matter how many times they are told about the issue (mostly by people who think it is utterly obvious) they simply can’t do it.

Indeed every day a number of people take their driving test with the letter L writ large on their left hand and the letter R written on their right hand in a desperate attempt to be able to follow the examiner's instructions during the test.

There are in fact many such areas of life in which a small minority of the population simply cannot do automatically what the vast majority of people can do.  And of course one of these specific issues is the topic that concerns us at the Dyscalculia Centre: the inability to learn and understand maths rapidly in the way most people can.

Now the key thing to remember, in considering this point, is that not only does the disability make life very difficult for the individual concerned, but the situation is made far, far worse by the fact that most people who come in contact with the individual simply can’t understand why the individual doesn’t understand maths, can’t remember a face, can’t tell left from right – or whatever the disability is. 

Indeed as children these individuals who suffer from dyscalculia, face blindless, lef/right confusion or dyslexia (to give just four examples) may well be told to “pay attention” or worse “not to be so silly” in the mistaken belief that everyone can recognise a face, or grasp basic maths, etc, etc.

The impact on the well-being of the child can be profound, not least because the child doesn’t know that she or he suffers from a particular disability.

And this is what we all need to remember.  The individual who is dyscalculic has no experience of being able to grasp the meaning of maths.  The dyscalculic individual lives in a world where numbers are in essence meaningless – and quite often where (at least before a diagnosis of dyscalculia is offered) some people will think the individual who can’t grasp basic maths is either stupid or being deliberately obtuse.

To my mind, when we meet a dyscalculic child or teenager, the first thing we need to do is to understand the turmoil that person must be living through.  There is something out there which everyone else seems to get, that is quite meaningless to that individual.

And worse, most people in the wider world, just don’t understand how it feels.

Thinking about people who can’t tell left from right, or can’t ever remember faces, can help us all remember that we are far from all being the same, and the people who do suffer from dyscalculia or another unusual disability can be living in a world which to a certain degree simply doesn’t make sense.

Tony Attwood is head of the Dyscalculia Centre


Contact details

The Dyscalculia Information Centre
1 Oathill Close

Phone: 01604 880 927

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Head of Centre

Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M


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