How to Write a Character with Dyscalculia

Posted September 5, 2015 by dove-author in Personal, Writing / 0 Comments


I’ve talked about how some of my characters (notably Eiryn, the protagonist of A Promise Broken) have dyscalculia and I’ve touched a little on the experience of writing a character like that. Since then I’ve noticed that some of the search terms that show up in my statistics deal with how to write a character with dyscalculia, so I figured I’d try to write a brief sort-of guide on the things you could do to make your writing of a character with dyscalculia better.

This is not a complete or definitive guide. By a long shot. There is no way I (or anyone) could write one of those. These are just a combination of ten suggestions and/or experiences that you can use to draw on to write a character with dycalculia. ^_^ I hope it’s helpful! Don’t hesitate to ask if you’ve got any questions. I’d be happy to try and help. Just remember that I don’t speak for everyone with dyscalculia.

1) Characters with dyscalculia are people.

Dyscalculia is one aspect of their personality, just like any other trait one of your characters can have. If your character’s defining trait is “has dyscalculia” you’re probably doing something wrong and you might want to take a step back and re-evaluate. Dyscalculia isn’t the be-all and end-all of your character’s life. In fact, unless it’s very severe, they may not even realise it’s there.

2) Look up first-hand accounts of people with dyscalculia.

Or, if you want it put shorter: do research. First-hand accounts are great for an idea of the kinds of challenges faced by people with dyscalculia, though!

3) People with dyscalculia can, in fact, do maths!

It’s just that doing so is often hard and difficult and it’s a lot slower than for the average person. And, like reading, the (Western) education systems put a lot of emphasis on people acquiring these skills, so it makes up a big chunk of the curriculum.

I can do sums if you give me time and either a calculator or a piece of paper. I’ll mix up numbers on occasion, but I can do them. As long as I get to keep hold of an example sum, I can also do more advanced things like use formulae. Give me those things and I can do the basic stuff that I need to be able to do if I’m to function in daily life.

Mostly, anyway. I write out the months of the year in full because if I use numbers I’ll inevitably mix them up with the days.

My point is: unless people have a severe form of dyscalculia, they’ll be slower and are liable to have developed coping mechanisms to fake a better understanding than they actually have.

4) People with dyscalculia may not read clocks well.

Analog clocks are a nightmare, especially those fancy tiny wristwatchy ones that just about indicate the 12 with little dots. In my own experience the analog clock that’s easiest to read is a big one that has all the numbers on it spelled out: 1 through 12. The smaller the clock gets, the harder it is to tell the hands apart. The fewer numbers get spelled out, the more difficult it is to tell whether a hand is nearer, say, the 4 or the 5.

You can pretty safely assume that many people with dyscalculia vastly prefer digital clocks over analog ones in terms of usability. Personally, I prefer a 24-hour digital one because it gives each hour of the day its own number and spot in a list. I don’t have to worry about a number having two meanings dependent on the time of day.

5) People with dyscalculia may dislike paying in cash.

Personally, I prefer to pay by debit card or to pay exactly what I need to pay. A lot of peole can tell at a glance whether they got the right amount of change back from a salesperson or a clerk. Someone with dyscalculia is highly unlikely to be able to do this. It’s too many numbers in too quick a timespan.

In a similar vein: people with dyscalculia may prefer to overbudget because this gives them a bufferzone to make errors in. They also may well fail at estimating their grocery costs. (I will never get over wikipedia calling that a basic skill. IT IS A FRIGGING SUPERPOWER, OKAY. A SUPERPOWER!)

6) Just because people with dyscalculia struggle with sheet music and rhythm doesn’t mean they can’t be musical or enjoy dancing.

I can’t hold a rhythm for toffee and I couldn’t reproduce sheet music to save my life. But let me hear a melodic line and I’ll be decent-to-all right with it. I’ve learned musical notation, so I can tell you what the sheet music says, but I can’t reproduce it without having heard the melody first.

Where dancing is concerned, it may take someone with dyscalculia longer to learn the steps of a dance and, in my experience, trying to count the beats is worthless because I can’t do rhythm. I rely on other musical cues to tell me what to do. (For example: “I need to make this turn when the cello joins in”.)

7) Someone with dyscalculia may have trouble making estimates.

It doesn’t really matter what kind of estimates as long as it involves numbers somehow. I can’t do mental measurements at all. Doesn’t matter if it’s size or distance or time. I need something to aid me or I can’t do it. My size estimates are wildly off the mark.

8) Someone with dyscalculia may not like to talk about their issues.

I mentioned this when I wrote about dyscalculia the first time, but it’s important enough to repeat it. People with dyscalculia may feel ashamed of their difficulties. This is especially true of adults who are struggling with something “even a child could do” and this will manifest itself in a variety of ways, depending on the person. Dyscalculia is more widely known today than it used to be, but some people will still look at you with disbelief and tell you that you’re making it up.

9) You can use numbers in your narrative/pov if your narrator has dyscalculia.

People with dyscalculia can do numbers! See the third point.

This is something that I deliberately didn’t do with Eiryn’s pov in A Promise Broken, so I wanted to bring it up as a specific point. I’m afraid people will think that carefully removing all mention of numbers from Eiryn’s pov is the only way to write someone with dyscalculia and it’s not.

I did that because Eiryn is four years old, has severe dyscalculia, and is only just starting to learn numbers and maths. Someone who is older and/or whose dyscalculia is less severe will have fewer problems than Eiryn has, so numbers would be more likely to show up in their povs. This is especially true if they live in a time-based society like we do. A certain skill with numbers would be necessary to function within that society, so they’ll either manage (albeit more slowly) or find ways to compensate for the lack.

But it’s totally fine to include numbers in your pov. People with dyscalculia may (or may not) have trouble keeping track of the actual time, but they’ll grap concepts such as “a fortnight” or “48 hours ago” or “There are seven peanuts on the table”. It’s using those numbers for anything that’s the trickiest part.

For example: if you want to write a Cinderella with dyscalculia and want to stick to the German version of “Pick the lentils out of the ashes”, you probably don’t want to be too specific about the number of lentils and you might want to up the anxiety you’d imagine Cinderella feeling at picking out an entire dish of lentils to account for the fact that she knows she’ll lose count several dozen times before she’s found them all. You could be even more cruel and have her sort them out into, say, three bowls each containing the exact same number of lentils. That would be liable to make your sweet, numerically-challenged Cinderella burst into tears at the impossible task of a) counting up all the lentils, b) figuring out what that number is when divided by three, c) making sure that the number arrived at in b actually makes it into the bowl. (Also cue frantic panicking at that one lone lentil that remains because of course the stepmother set Cinderella up to fail and the poor girl’s utterly convinced she’s just miscounting.)

But you probably still want to stick to vague quantity words unless you have a good reason to be specific.

10) People with dyscalculia may not mix up numbers as much as you’d expect.

This one really, really depends on the person, but it’s true. Not everyone with dyscalculia has a lot of problems telling numbers apart, but when they do it’s generally because they look alike.

It may also not happen consistently. I read over any numbers I enter three or four times and I chop big numbers up into smaller pieces. For example: if I’m adding an ISBN to LibraryThing or GoodReads, I’ll generally break the number up into clumps of two or three, depending on how easy I find remembering the three-digit number sequence. I also tend to repeat the numbers a few times before moving to jot them down wherever they need to be written. Repeating the numbers helps me retain them.

And… there you are. That’s it for my ten suggestions on what you can pay attention to or do when writing a character with dyscalculia. I hope it was useful to you!

This post is sponsored by generous patrons. Thank you so much for your support! It means the world to me! <3 I love you all! If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to support me in creating more free content, please consider subscribing or spreading the word to others.

Become a Patron