Young Money blog guru Iona Bain can’t do simple mental math due to dyscalculia

Iona Bain has made a name for herself as the go-to financial guru for millennials. She writes books and appears regularly on TV and radio to talk about money management – and as the crisis of the cost of living is getting worse, his advice has never been more needed.

So it’s surprising to discover that the Oxford-trained brains behind the award-winning Young Money blog can’t do even the most basic mental math. Iona, 34, admits: “If I add, I have to use my fingers.

She demonstrates by holding up five fingers on one hand and one on the other. “I know it’s six, but even so, I’m a little doubtful that I have the right answer,” she said.

Iona Bain, 34, the Oxford-trained mastermind behind the hugely popular and award-winning blog Young Money is unable to do the most basic mental arithmetic because she suffers from dyscalculia – a condition similar to dyslexia but affecting numbers

She said: “The ten times table is the one I'm the best at.  Five I struggle with.  As for the equations, they fill me with panic and horror'

She said: “The ten times table is the one I’m the best at. Five I struggle with. As for the equations, they fill me with panic and horror’

“The ten times table is the one I’m best at. The five I struggle with. As for the equations, they fill me with panic and horror.

Anyone whose head spins when faced with a tax return can find their way around it on some level. Yet Iona isn’t just bad at math. She suffers from dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects understanding numbers.

Most people, with a little effort, can even calculate quite complex sums on paper.

Yet people with dyscalculia struggle with simple number concepts.

In its most severe form, the disease can cause sufferers to struggle, for example, to count the bananas in a diet – although Iona says she doesn’t have it that badly. Other sufferers find it impossible to count backwards. “The numbers are just a mystery – they don’t make sense to me like they do to other people,” she explains.

Anyone whose head spins when faced with a tax return can find their way around it on some level.  Yet Iona isn't just bad at math.  She suffers from dyscalculia - a learning disability that affects a person's understanding of numbers

Anyone whose head spins when faced with a tax return can find their way around it on some level. Yet Iona isn’t just bad at math. She suffers from dyscalculia – a learning disability that affects a person’s understanding of numbers

But the condition is not as rare as it seems: it is estimated that 6% of the population suffer from some form of dyscalculia, an astonishing number of four million people in the UK, although in least a third of them go undiagnosed, according to a 2018 study that involved randomly testing elementary school children.

Iona, who studied music before moving into financial journalism, admits her career choice may seem unusual, but she’s adamant that the challenges she faces are her strength, not a weakness.

“A lot of people think they’re bad with money because they feel intimidated by numbers, and I can relate to that,” she says. “I just thought if I can do it, anyone can do it.

“A lot of what I do is to help people understand what drives them to use money the way they do – why they overspend or avoid saving, for example.

“But when it comes to real numbers, I’m not shy to admit that I’ll use a calculator for sums that other people would probably find easy.” It doesn’t matter if you’re doing math in your head or using a calculator, as long as you get it right.

Often the cause of dyscalculia is genetic and the condition can be inherited, although Iona is the first to be diagnosed.

University College London neuroscientist Professor Brian Butterworth believes there is a ‘telling trait’ of the condition that sets it apart from simply being bad at maths.

It is estimated that six per cent of the population suffer from some form of dyscalculia, an astonishing number of four million people in the UK.

It is estimated that six per cent of the population suffer from some form of dyscalculia, an astonishing number of four million people in the UK.

He says, “Can you estimate the number of items in a display, like in a bowl of fruit, quickly and accurately? Dyscalculics have problems above one item, and up to four they are slower than typical individuals their age.

“Beyond that, they are less and less precise.

“People with dyscalculia may lack an intuitive understanding of simple number concepts such as the relationship between multiplication and repetitive addition – for example, that six times three equals six plus six plus six. And they may not grasp what is meant by place value – how, in a four-digit number, each digit denotes thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones.

Peter Jarrett, Chairman of the Dyscalculia Committee of the British Dyslexia Association, adds: “A person with dyscalculia may not understand that a train leaving at 09:00 and arriving at 09:52 has a journey time of 52 minutes, and even how long 52 minutes east. They often have trouble with speedometers, not understanding how fast or how fast they are driving.

Iona has developed a range of coping strategies so that her condition does not affect her ability to control her finances.

“In addition to using a calculator to add things up, there are specific online calculators that make it easier to calculate mortgage rates or tax rates and other complicated equations. To be honest, few people can do these kinds of calculations, because they are complex. The good thing is you don’t have to.

“Mobile banking apps are also useful because they often display your expenses in a simple visual form rather than bank statements, which were those huge lists of numbers that used to make my head spin.

“If you’re not sure you’ve done something right, ask someone else for help. There’s no shame in that – I ask my dad to check things out, and luckily he’s good with numbers.

Dyscalculia is often detected at school because children skim through the rest of the curriculum – as Iona did – but find math to be a blind spot. Her first memory of having a problem with maths was when she was nine years old, when she was at school in Edinburgh. The class was asked to complete the solutions to the multiplication questions. “I felt overwhelmed and panicked,” she says. “The other kids went off to recess and I told the teacher I couldn’t do it.”

Dyscalculia is often detected at school because children go through the rest of the curriculum but find math to be a blind spot

Dyscalculia is often detected at school because children go through the rest of the curriculum but find math to be a blind spot

In high school, she was in the last group in math. “I was in tears doing my math homework,” she says, “and my parents knew it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying.”

Iona told them she felt a “deep disconnect with numbers,” and at 14, after a school assessment, she was diagnosed with dyscalculia. She received after-school coaching to help her pass her math exams.

“There is a need for more training on dyscalculia for teachers,” says Jarrett. “When teaching students with dyscalculia, you use more tangible visual situations and tools, like cutting a pizza or showing them how a £20 note equals four fives. In the workplace, employers need to understand that being bad at math doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job.

There is no cure for dyscalculia, but Mr Jarrett is working with scientists in Singapore on a game-based app to help children with the condition develop number sense.

He despairs that other measures are not taken. “Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance sent a letter to Boris Johnson in 2020 to better support young people with dyscalculia, but little seems to have been done.”

Meanwhile, Iona simply begs for more understanding. She says: “The truth is, we celebrate people who are naturally brilliant at math, but not being good with numbers shouldn’t be a problem or a hindrance for anyone. I hope to be proof of that.


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