The puzzle of dyscalculia

I have to thank fellow blogger Neurodivergent Rebel for cluing me in to a term for something I’ve experienced several times but had no word to describe.

That term is “dyscalculia.” I can now add this to my son Harrison’s spectrum of neurodiversities that also include autism, ADHD, OCD and probably Tourette Syndrome.

While I don’t find labels particularly helpful, I do find it useful to have a term for something I’ve witnessed over and over. Somehow, knowing this term helps me to better understand this neurological difference.

Dyscalculia is largely thought of as difficulty with mathematics, typically the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But it can also have implications in calculating time, sequence, spatial awareness, distances and speed.

 

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I believe I first noticed this with Harrison having problems changing clothes. He would sometimes get things out of sequence. For example, in the course of getting dressed for school, he might take off the fresh shirt he’d just put on when the next step was to put on his socks. Or he might take off his shoes when I’ve asked him to put on his jacket. I’ve seen dozens of versions of this over the years but never had a word to describe it.

Another example of Harrison’s dyscalculia is in relation to time. Despite his obsession with clocks and certain points of time, like lunch time, his concept of time as a continuum and ongoing sequence, particularly as it pertains to tasks that must be accomplished within a certain timeframe can be . . . well, warped.

It also may explain his uncanny ability to learn music through sound rather than notes on sheets. It could also explain why he can run forever without tiring.

While getting things out of order while getting dressed can be comic, and learning music by sound is genius, dyscalculia can also manifest in situations that are dangerous. It’s a concern with higher-speed activities that may involve other moving objects or vehicles, such as with cycling or even running. Before I had a word to describe dyscalculia, I wrote about this experience in my book “Endurance.” Here’s the excerpt about an incident following cross-country practice last year when Harrison insisted on crossing the highway on his own.

 

“ . . . When we got back to the car Harrison now wanted to cross the highway “unsupervised” but I insisted I had to be there. He objected mightily to this but I refused to give in. So we walked over to the highway, about 50 yards from where we’d parked the cars. He looked carefully both ways, waited for a car to pass, then ran across. Then he turned around and crossed back over. He crossed it again and looked both ways. 

There was a UPS truck and two cars coming from the west. I watched him and he watched the UPS truck go by. Then he waited for the second car. Then, just as the third vehicle was approaching, he started to take off. 

I couldn’t believe what was about to happen. I was right on the edge of the white line. There was no way I could jump out there in time so I yelled sternly: “NO- NO-NO!!!!” He looked up at me and I could see the gears turning. I briefly had the thought he might just keep running out of defiance. 

But he pulled up. 

The car passed between us at about 65 mph. Never even slowed down. 

There was no time for an adrenaline rush before Harrison completely flipped out and came barreling across the highway at me. He slapped, scratched and hit at me and spit on the ground, shrieking and yelling the entire time. His teammates who had finished their workouts stood watching all this. At last he calmed enough that I was able to get him back to the car and drive away. 

After he had settled down. I asked him about what had happened there. Did he not see the third car? He answered in a painful voice that, yes, he did see it. So then I asked why, if he saw it, had he started to run anyway? He answered that he did not know why. The only thing that I could guess is that some confusion in sensory-processing system — sound, sight and movement — had overwhelmed his motor skills and sense of executive function. Thankfully, the life force had over- ridden all of this.”

 

I can now chalk this experience up to dyscalculia, and add it to the complex spectrum that governs the way Harrison processes and reacts to information from the world around him.

 

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