Jodi Clements always struggled with numbers. It wasn’t until she was in her final year at university that she was diagnosed with dyscalculia. This diagnosis set her on a journey to find out more about neurobiological differences, and ultimately led her to found the Australian Dyslexia Association and the Institute for Multisensory Structured Language Education. She spoke to NeuroWork about leveraging strengths and avoiding numbers.
NeuroWork: When were you diagnosed with dyscalculia?
During my first degree at university, which was a Bachelor of Education. I was on my way to becoming a teacher. But well before making it to university, my experience of school was quite terrifying when it came to exposure to numbers, understanding notation and what those numbers meant. I couldn't go into any special education classes because my literacy, history, geography and other subjects were at the top [of the class].
It was certainly there very early, but it wasn't identified until I was doing my university degree. I was beginning to understand how to teach math like I had never understood before, but the undergoing issues of having dyscalculia was still present because when it came to the national math test outside of the curriculum of the Bachelor of Education, I kept failing the math test. This was causing a huge amount of stress, not only for me, but my lecturers. So I got to the fourth year, because I had failed to pass this test in my first year, second year, and third year. I finally passed in the fourth year with a lot of work.
That's when I decided that I needed to see someone further about this and make sense of it. I was identified as having dyscalculia and that helped me a lot. It was my University Maths lecturer that identified my localised maths troubles to the term dyscalculia. In the mid nineties not a lot was none about how to assist people with dyscalculia.
NeuroWork: Did your diagnosis change your career trajectory?
Yes, that's when I set on a journey to learn more about neurobiological differences in people that had great strengths in other areas yet had this localised difficulty in one. That led me to dyslexia. Some people say to me today “why not just dyscalculia?”. Because I've never struggled with literacy, I began further study into what dyslexia is. I have this empathy for people with dyslexia because they have similar challenges with letters and words that I have with numbers. I went on a path to further study in linguistics, looking at studying my masters.
I did learn to cultivate my strengths, but I still felt like I needed to minimise my exposure to numbers, so I've spent most of my life not putting myself in a position where I actually have to compute numbers, work with numbers.
NeuroWork: What work do you do now?
My work has gone on to a level that I would have never dreamt of or expected. I’ve served on the Global Caucus Committee of the International Dyslexia Association.
I developed the Australian Dyslexia Association back in 2006. That was to help people with dyslexia. I make sure our association provides information on what dyscalculia is as well. I do have a passion to bring on board people that have more expertise in that particular area to also develop our organisation in helping people with dyscalculia.
I went on then to form the Institute for Multisensory Structured Language. That's been running now also since 2006. It has just grown and grown. We now have 12 staff on board that was needed to fill the demand.
I was taught by one of the best trainers of what we call Multisensory Structured Language. In the early 2,000’s, I went on to receive a scholarship to the Kildonan School in upstate New York. I was really excited about it because the lady that was training me was well renowned in the MSL approach.
I was able to go on to her mentoring programme and be trained in this approach and then eventually bring it back to Australia. My interest in this area eventually led to my doctoral candidate at the University of Tasmania (2012).
[The Institute for Multisensory Structured Language] is our training institute that offers teachers who really feel that they didn't get the structured literacy training at pre service that they needed to help students with dyslexia and also help all students. We call it ‘structured literacy’, we teach the structure of the English language. We teach it in a way that not only assists the students with dyslexia, but it assists all. I have made sure that I take an inclusive approach in the way that I teach.
I think a lot of that has come from also struggling myself and and having empathy. We need these concepts cut down, because I cannot learn math unless it is cut down. I cannot learn it unless we start with a solid foundation and we build upon it. I've come across a lot of research that says that one of the best ways to teach math is directly and explicitly. It's really surprising that I went down the path to teach literacy directly and explicitly. I have this strong inkling that soon we will be doing more work in dyscalculia now that I can see that that's really how the math should be being taught as well. I'm not saying that it's going to work for every single, severe child like I was, but it can certainly assist them.
NeuroWork: How has dyscalculia affected your career?
When you do have that access to divergent thinking, you take advantage of that divergent thinking and you weave and navigate your way through the system to hide any weaknesses and you use your strengths to get to where you want to go. Where I wanted to go, because it was literacy based, it felt really, really comfortable. With most of my teacher training groups, I mention my trouble with math, because I want them to see that this woman out the front is neurodivergent.
Most of the things that involve numbers I find get in the way of what I've got to do. So I do have to compensate and delegate. I have found other ways to manage, such as always having a calculator and allocating any maths jobs to others who are good at maths.
NeuroWork: What would be your top career tips for someone with dyscalculia or dyslexia?
I've had to use what I feel was some innate strengths, which was thinking outside the square. I've always had this feeling of being an entrepreneur. I really felt when I looked at cultivating my strengths that if I was going to do something that I really needed to design and create it myself. Because that way, my weaknesses wouldn't be flaring up all the time and I wouldn't have this stress of having a boss notice these weaknesses.
I have to say for people that have dyscalculia and dyslexia in the workforce, I take my hat off to them. I know that they would be doing anything they can to cultivate their strengths and show their employer or their supervisor their strength, but they would also be doing everything they can to hide those challenges that they have with either reading, writing and spelling or literacy. That can take its toll on mental health. You can become quite anxious and quite stressed.
It's about getting in there and showing your employee why they gave you the position the first place and cultivating those talents and those strengths. If your employee or employer starts to put more and more tasks in front of you which are starting to show up your dyslexia or dyscalculia, you're going to have to sit down and have that conversation with them.
It's really important, prior to thinking about your career and where you want to go, that you don't head straight into a career that is going to always be flaring up what you have great challenges with. It really pays off to think about you. To understand what neurodiverse means and to really try to minimise any area that intrinsically is going to be problematic for you.
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