What is Dyscalculia? Netflix's 'Amateur' Introduces Audiences to the Learning Difference

The Netflix original film, Amateur, is on its surface a story about a young kid hustling to make it to the NBA. But it goes beyond that. It explores the ways recruiters and universities take advantage of aspiring players, and the narrative even creates a space for discussion of a learning disability called dyscalculia. The disorder affects a person's ability to learn, understand and process mathematics, as we see throughout Amateur.

"I discovered a version of dyslexia that was restricted to numbers—thus the other term for dyscalculia, "numbers blindness"—and I actually did some tests on myself to see if I had it," Amateur creator Ryan Koo tells Newsweek. "It turns out I don't—math just isn't one of my strong suits—but once I discovered the learning difference, I became very interested in all of the facets of it. People were more aware of it in the United Kingdom than in the United States, and I saw a way to shine some light on it here."

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Terron uses cuisenaire rods to help illustrate numbers. Netflix

The first signs our protagonist, Terron, has trouble interpreting numbers comes in the first few minutes of the film. He looks up at the scoreboard, unable to decipher how much time is left in the game. Trouble with keeping score is one common symptom of dyscalculia. Another is difficulty recognizing numerals, for example, knowing that '7' means seven. To cope with dyscalculia in Amateur, Terron uses variously sized blocks to represent numbers.

"Visualizing numbers is a common coping method, whether it be through Cuisenaire rods, or the workaround that Terron comes up with in the film to help with his associated left-right confusion," Koo says. "What stuck out to me was the difficulty in portraying it cinematically, because dyscalculia is as much a conceptual issue as it is a visual one. For someone to not understand the concept of how one number relates to another—which number is larger than another, for example—is difficult to portray in a visual medium like film. There's no real way to know what having dyscalculia is like if you don't have it yourself, which became clear to me from talking to experts, researchers, and educators. So we came up with a numbers-jumbling visual effect that hopefully communicates the spirit of what it's like to have dyscalculia."

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Terron uses cuisenaire rods to study the playbook. Netflix

In the film, the basketball team uses numbers to run and name their plays. However, a small twist proves a little confusing for Terron. The first number signifies the play, while the second signifies the direction: odds to the left, evens to the right. For example, with 39, three corresponds to a play in the playbook and nine corresponds to the right or left lane on the court. Terron understands the logic, but has trouble recognizing how to apply it

"I wanted to stay away from the 'dumb jock' stereotype, so by having him be a smart kid who has one specific issue—an Achilles heel—we were able to give him an off-the-court need for attention, which conflicts with the pressure on him to focus exclusively on his on-the-court future," Koo says. "The playbook was a way for the two to intersect, and for him to learn that he couldn't just focus on one. To have a bright future, he would need to find a way to address both sides, and for his family and his coach to find a way to come together and support him in his journey to becoming an adult."

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Terron's teammates make fun of him, but he proves them wrong on court. Netflix

Terron's learning difference compels him to be more creative than his peers, which helped Koo illustrate the importance of giving athletes the full opportunity to be students too. In the film, Terron's basketball program has tutors take all the players' tests. The athletes rarely attend class, even though Terron has the capacity to succeed both on and off the court and shouldn't be forced to choose one or the other.

"Terron having dyscalculia was a way to raise the stakes when it came to his off-the-court needs being ignored" Koo says. "It helped give us a more tangible and visible manifestation of the academics-versus-athletics debate that the film explores."

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Since the coach paid his father, Terron's amateur status is revoked. Here, he's trying to come up with a plan to play basketball again. Netflix

Learning disorders aren't often explored in the context of sports, but Amaetur seamlessly weaves dyscalculia through the storyline from start to finish. With the support of his mother, Terron remains confident, despite bullying from the team when he whips out his bag of Cuisenaire rods. In the end, he comes up with an elaborate, mathematical plan to rise above the unhealthy societal norms placed on young athletic stars and provide for his family.

"I wanted to use it as a way to view learning differences as just that—a difference, not a disability. I wanted to take it further by viewing his weakness in one area as contributing to a strength in another. Terron becomes more creative at finding workarounds because he has to constantly solve problems that most people don't encounter," Koo says. "He has to find a way around. Ultimately, the film is not about his specific learning difference, it's about him being a more creative problem-solver because of it."

Amateur is now streaming on Netflix.

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The poster for the Netflix original film, 'Amateur.' Netflix