Numbers Part 1: Math

Sometimes I can tell a migraine is coming on when the world seems a little brighter and more colorful, sometimes there’s a nausea that seems tied to my head, and other times, I have an intense urge to count and roll loose change.

I can find calm in dumping the change from my Darth Vader head cookie jar, separating it into denomination, then counting and stacking–and if I’m really lucky, rolling for storage until it makes its way to the bank. The exercise hits all my buttons: It brings order to chaos. It allows me to busy myself while letting my mind do something other than focus on whether I’m in pain. And it allows me to get really into counting. I can feel the numbers with my fingers as I pick up the coins from the pile and put in stacks of eight (quarters) or ten (pennies, nickels, and dimes), so it’s more satisfying that counting ceiling tiles or something else totally pointless…which I’m not above doing in a pinch.

I’ve enjoyed counting since I was wee. I can see myself sitting in the back of a car, counting by sevens and just being super happy about it. It was around kindergarten that I also started putting strings of numbers into stories or chains of relationship to each other. Like if I saw 34711, I would think 3 + 4 + 7, and to get the fourth number in the series I’ll add 4, so 11. There’s nothing special or real in that, no actual mathematical formula involved. It’s just my brain needing to place the numbers into some kind of system. Can’t just have numbers floating around randomly.

Here, I think, is where numbers for pleasure and numbers for business begin to split (so I think I’ll need a Part Two to look at symmetry and favorite numbers and patterns and such). Also, I’m going to drop this here so you don’t have any false hope: I’m not a savant. It does appear that above-average math ability and autism are linked by a repurposing or reorganizing parts of our brain, which sounds about right. But I don’t have any cool, mathy party tricks. Maybe I would if I hadn’t worked so hard when I was younger to be normal, and I’m sure I held myself back from exposure to advanced mathematics because, well…

Once I was in school, I had a real love-hate thing with math. Primary school arithmetic was very easy for me, and it was the subject that made me realize I was different from my classmates. Multiplication tables were a mater of fact. I just absorbed them. There was no work, no memorization for me, and it really confused me that other kids struggled with them. They were seeing the numbers in a different way. In fourth grade, I was allowed to test out of our weekly quizzes and spend that time in the library doing more interesting math puzzles. Since gifted programs didn’t exist yet in my public school, I do have to say I’m grateful that teachers were open to trying a few things with me that fell outside the usual curriculum. I also started tutoring that year–which could have gone horribly wrong, since we were 9 and that’s a tricky relationship between peers, but it didn’t and my tutee was Most Improved Student that year.

Those were the good times. But soon enough, we got to algebra and the concept of “show your work.” I hit a wall. I didn’t always get the answer the way we were supposed to. Sometimes I skipped steps and just knew the answer. How do you show that? I wasn’t learning what they were trying to teach me. For some reason, I couldn’t. I just solved the problems. On multiple choice tests, I scored really high, but for the first time I was looking at getting Bs or Cs. I was not a B or C student. And in freshman year of high school, I got a D on a math test. It triggered the breakdown that would redefine me as a person–which I’ll tell you about when we’re better friends. Jumping past this bit, I got off the Honors/AP track for math and chilled with the normal kids, being soooo bored and slugging it out with my teachers until I could finally drop out.

That’s right, during junior year I got the score I needed on the ACT to get into the Honors program at ISU, and I found that you only needed so many semesters of math to graduate. It took a lot of meetings with counselors and teachers, and finally a note from my parents, but I walked away from math like an action hero walking away from an explosion. It felt great. (Later, for my college math credit, I took some math theory class, where we talked about Pythagoras the man more than his theorem and did very little actual math.)

Now my math skills have evened out, I guess. I’ve found a sort of peace with it. Obviously, I don’t have to show my work or justify my answers to anyone; they’re either correct or they’re not–nobody cares why. I’m usually the default accountant in the projects I get involved in, and in my publishing and project management positions, I’ve done lots of cost analysis, projections, that sort of thing. None of that is particularly challenging work, but I’m comfortable with it, it’s useful, and nobody else wants to do it.

And I still sometimes solve an equation too fast, spitting out the answer without doing the work, so then I second-guess myself and take the long way there, sometimes screwing it up in the process and then realizing I was right the first time. That can be maddening, but at least I’m not being graded on it anymore.

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