So, I have this weird relationship with math.
That’s really the best way to describe it because I have told myself I’m bad at it, and maybe I am, and maybe I’m not.
Regardless, here’s my math story.
So, in elementary school, I was always reasonably good at math, but my major issue was my poor handwriting. Now we know that Autistic people often have trouble with fine motor control and we can take a lot longer to develop those skills. You can either yell at us like we’re trying to torment you with our bad handwriting or you could be a reasonable person and let us type things for a while. One, typing develops fine motor control and two, it means our work is legible in the meantime while our bodies catch up with those of our peers. It’s literally no big deal.
But back in the 1980’s, that was not an option. Instead, every report card and parent-teacher conference embarrassed you about your poor writing. Your teachers even might give you extra credit if you voluntarily submitted yourself to handwriting practice because you definitely needed it. So, if you know anything about math in the age of “no calculators allowed until Algebra,” you’d know that poor handwriting was a significant problem in math class because you would mess things up a lot. The thing of it was, though, my fifth-grade teacher saw that I was more than competent at math and somehow he made sure I was placed in the top math class when I got to Middle School. I think he noticed my attempts at working on my handwriting, and I was getting older, so it was getting better.
That was the peak of my mathematical career: getting placed in that class.
Middle School and the Language of Fear
The thing about middle school is that it’s terrifying to a lot of people, not just us Autistics. I get that. But let me tell you what happened to me before I got to middle school so you can understand why middle school was even more alarming than it is for many people in my case.
When I was four, I was reading already; in fact, I had been reading for two years by then, so my mom wanted me to start Kindergarten rather than waiting until I was 5. See, I have a late October birthday so waiting would have been fine from, perhaps, a social perspective, but again, I had been reading for two years already. My mom says she asked the district what they expected her to do with me if I had already been reading that long. They decided to allow kids who were close to five test to get into kindergarten early. I was the only one in the district who passed the screening. But because the district liked to meddle, they wanted to be sure I was going to be okay, so they wanted the psychologist to be able to observe me to make sure I was good. It would be inconvenient for him to go to the rural country school which I was supposed to go to by district borderline rules, so I (and later my sister) went to one of the town schools via a shuttle bus. So we went to the big school there and made friends there in the way that you do because you’re all in this together. Those girls didn’t much care if I played by myself all recess or not. After third grade, though, they deemed their experiment with me a success and sent me over to the country school, where everyone had been together (only one classroom per grade) since Kindergarten. Except me and another kid who they sent over with me. So fourth and fifth-grade I was harassed and bullied by most of the kids there who were very, very mean. I got by, though, as you do.
So when I got to middle school, I was thrilled because I’d see the kids from the school I used to attend except for one major thing. They’d all moved on and were no longer interested in this weird girl they knew from third grade. I had no friends at all, and I was having a rough time with getting my locker to work and was paranoid about being late all the time and did not want a detention because they terrified me, too. (Side note: I managed to never get a detention in my life, but I got my name on the board a few times. Lee Canter is a jackass because I’m telling you that name-on-the-board shit from “Assertive Discipline” meant nothing to neurotypical kids but it mortified me well beyond what he’d intended.)
So, I was scared all the time and friendless. I was placed in 6A (later renamed red or white or something since 6A and 6B suggested one group was academically superior) and my math teacher, the math teacher who had the top math class of them all, was from 6B. I have a fair number of stories from 6A, but I had one teacher who only lasted there a few years and was very, very kind to me and one who was a megabitch. The megabitch had dated my dad in high school; she was much nicer to my neurotypical younger sister. At any rate, the rest of 6A was great. I think my math teacher was actually not so bad since no one else seemed terrified of him, and a fair number of our classmates had him for other subjects since they were in 6B with him, but in math class he was terrifying.
He was young and cute (according to the other girls; I never see that stuff), but strict in math class. One thing he loved to do was have us do statistics on our quizzes and tests so we could see what the class did, as a whole. It involved listing all the scores on the board, and while no one knew who got what (in theory), you knew. I was failing tests all the time and there it was, on the board, for me to know about. I’m not sure why I struggled in math in the top class since it’s not like we did anything all that difficult per-se, but I think it could have been my handwriting and it could also have been that it was difficult to focus in a class where you are for no real reason terrified all of the time.
The next year I went to the middle math class.
Now a funny thing happened after that. At the end of the year, we took a math placement test for Algebra I. She told me my score on the test and also the “cut score” to get in. I swore I heard that I did the best in the class, but I still wasn’t placed in Algebra.
In 8th grade I got all scores of A since Algebra was too hard for me (apparently) but regular math was too easy. I was bored. But this math teacher was not only good at teaching math (my 7th grade teacher was okay and I liked her, so it wasn’t like 6th grade at all), but he was patient and very kind.
High School Math: I Hate this Subject!
After middle school, I went onto Algebra I with the lone male teacher of our all-female math department. He was much like my 8th grade teacher and kind and patient and good at what he did. For the first time we could use calculators, which sped things up. While math wasn’t per-se easy for me, it was not remotely terrifying and I enjoyed being in class with him. The department had a rule that if you did your homework every day, it would be averaged in like a test grade so it could make it theoretically impossible for you to get below a C since you were trying. I usually got B’s in math because I did, in fact, always do my homework.
I really liked that math teacher a lot, but he left to sell insurance after that and then my affection for math was over.
See, the women in the department had gone to this conference about “cooperative learning.” As they understood it, we would learn more if we were in groups and then you had to ask each person in your group for help before you could ask the teacher for help. Imagine this, though. Everyone in the class thinks you’re smart and for some reason you’re just average in math (or so you think; it’s really hard to tell) so they assume you get it. When you don’t get it, your social standing does not allow you to speak with these other kids because they outrank you in popularity. Beyond that, they want to get the work done as soon as possible so they don’t have homework and then they want to talk about things that you have no interest in, so you have to figure things out yourself. If you try to ask the teacher, she’ll just say, “Ask three before you ask me,” and you just can’t ask three because of the social rules.
The more popular students use this time to copy each other, but you know that’s not okay pursuant to rules about cheating, so you don’t do that.
Therefore, I learned little-to-nothing in Geometry or Algebra II and didn’t bother trying to take College Algebra and Trigonometry, the next class at the time. I was obviously too stupid for it. I didn’t take chemistry or physics either because I had, except for one teacher, really poor science teachers, too. Instead, I doubled up on English and History, and stayed in Spanish, where I got A’s without trying.
See, there’s another question I have: did I not like math because I had to think for a few minutes? I mean, I have since learned that even people who are good at math stop to think. Was the ADHD the issue, that if I didn’t get the answer immediately, I really didn’t think I was smart enough?
College and Beyond
In college, I took teacher math, and I had a wonderful teacher who I adored. She died of cancer while we were still in college, but I remember how much she loved math and she loved teaching us about it. I had fun in “math lab” where we learned about the manipulatives teachers could use to show students to help them understand math. I learned that people can love teaching math.
And teach math I did. I regularly was assigned to teach it and I got better and better at it the more I taught it and the more I tried to explain it. I’ve taught through Algebra I and even some geometry and I actually get it now. I learn it pretty fast and can do things well.
But the thing about math and science is that young people make all the discoveries in them. For whatever reason, our brains have more trouble with these subjects as we age, or so I’ve read. In the humanities, the discoveries come later, and that’s normal. I have likely missed the opportunity to learn things super fast and super well because of the poor math teachers I encountered when combined with my anxiety from being unaware that I was Autistic. I am excited to try again, to get as far as I can given my age, but I am mindful I might not be able to do things as well as I can in a humanities subject. I will have to get used to taking tests again instead of writing papers. But this excites me now, the idea that I can go back and try again, when I’m 42, nearly 43.
Sometimes I think learning one is Autistic is like getting a do-over from our twenties. Like, since I realized I was Autistic at 40 that makes me only 22 or 23 now. I get to redo my adulthood and make different choices now. We Autistic women do certainly tend to look young enough!