An occasional post on ways I’ve tried to convince myself I’m normal (and failed).

How old were you before you learned to tell the time?

I was thirteen. It was a source of enormous embarrassment to me, and had digital watches been invented earlier, I’d probably have switched to one of them and never bothered to learn the other way.

Even now I cannot explain what was so hard. My brain simply wouldn’t take it in; I couldn’t remember which hand was for which bit, and how could they both point at the same thing and mean something? A complete mystery.

Telling the time was important at school. The class of nine-year-olds was the one that had the responsibility of ringing the bell that ended each lesson. I loved that bell. It was huge, golden bronze and shiny, and I could tell that standing in the playground, setting free that commanding sound, made you feel like the most important person in the school.

Except you were only allowed to ring the bell if you passed the test that showed you could tell the time.

And so, week after week I watched one person after another ring that beautiful bell, until everyone in the class except me had done so.

Several years later, in a school where the bell was a nasty electronic thing, set off by a timer, I finally learned to tell the time. I don’t know how I managed it, or even exactly when it happened. I started wearing a watch (a digital one!), and I could read the clock on the classroom wall, too. But there was no sense of victory, just a creeping shame that it had taken so long, embarrassment at all the tricks I had used to hide my inability.

I only remembered it recently, when I was out bush with friends, and none of us were wearing a watch. A small competition ensued, to see who could most closely predict the correct time. Eventually an ipod was produced, to verify the winner.

It was me. The others were wrong by nearly an hour each way.

And I felt no sense of surprise, because I’ve had an accurate time-sense for years. It was only later, when I tried to figure out how it had started, that I remembered all of this. I had to know the time, because I couldn’t read it. I had to be able to estimate how long it was since the last moment associated with a known time, and calculate forward. I had to know each day when it got light, and when the sun set. How long it took to drive to school, and how long the bus journey home. Every one was a point in the day from which I could calculate forward or back.

So many things I had done to conceal my failure. And I wonder now, was it autism? I was certainly smart enough that I should have been able to manage it, and yet I couldn’t. So I throw the question out there – does anyone else recognise this?

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