So many parents tell me that their autistic child has an odd attachment to a certain object. Many parents worry about age appropriateness of the attachment, and some just cannot see a valid, or obvious reason as to why the child has an attachment to the object. It just seems odd. Sometimes, it embarrasses the parent.
With so many people on the autism spectrum that are unable to express their feelings or motivations in words that make sense to the ears of an NT, especially when it comes to feelings of attachment, I thought it might be helpful to tell my personal story of an odd attachment.
Recently, my Swiss Army Watch stopped running, and was unrepairable. I placed the watch in a little wood box, mourning the loss. My family and friends seemed lightly amused, seeing my attachment to the watch as slightly bizarre, and perhaps unusual. Beyond the compulsions that come with the autism package, I’m sure those around me just didn’t understand why I was so upset. After all, it was just a watch.
It is important to note that if you had asked me why I was attached to this watch when I was younger, I would have not been able to tell this story. Stories with emotional context are just difficult to tell. It requires a complex fluidity between intellect, experience, and emotion, that seems to take those of us with ASD a little longer to make useful. This is a story that was understood within me long before I could express it with words.
Those of you who have known me for many years, or went to school with me, will probably know who I am speaking of in my little story. However, since I do not have his permission I will not use his name.
The Story of the Swiss Army Watch
In school, I sat with a guy in orchestra. We used to bicker passionately about the smallest of things, but seemed to enjoy one another this way. I was never good at telling guys when I developed an attraction to them, and this guy was no different. I assumed I drove him crazy and that he would never find me attractive, so the topic was never brought up.
I remember he had an intense interest in Mont Blanc fountain pens and Swiss Army watches. His first fountain pen was in a black barrel with a white “x” on the top of the cap. I know he was irritated when I didn’t immediately recognize the brand and understand its value. In an effort to be a good friend, I did listen, learning the names of the parts like barrel, cap, nib, and feed. As time went on, I learned the value of the pens, and the superiority of the Swiss Army watch he wore every day. On occasion, we talked about violins too.
As this friendship grew, dating seemed further from possibility, so my dating quests continued with others. My first kiss was disturbing, unwanted, and disappointing, to say the least. That was followed by a few relationships, including one that lasted well over a year. Your first “love” is usually meant to refer to the first guy you had a dating relationship with. In a sense, I think that is mostly true. I did love my first long term boyfriend, and I think it was genuine. It just wasn’t the same kind of love as the guy in orchestra.
Towards the end of my freshman year of high school, the guy I sat with in orchestra approached me privately and told me he was moving 1,300 miles away. He handed me a small package and told me he hoped we would stay in touch. In the package was a Mont Blanc mechanical pencil. I was stunned. After 4 years of impromptu classes on Mont Blanc products, I knew this gift was not only expensive (like a kid giving a friend an iPod today), but that this pencil was probably from his personal collection, which I knew he was passionate about. I also was slapped with the realization that he was most likely attracted to me too.
Four years of interacting, and it took a pencil to prove his attraction.
Once he moved, we talked more then ever before. We enjoyed frequent and long conversations on the telephone, which was phenomenon in itself given my avid dislike of telephones. Before long, he invited me to come visit him for a week during the summer, and our parents agreed to allow it.
Our interaction this visit was quite different than before. We knew we shared a mutual attraction and this time, we both wanted to do something about it. A summer romance was born. Not only were we on the same page, but our passion in our debates over pens and watches, was also in our attraction to one another. It was, as I said before, a different kind of love.
So What About the Watch?
One evening, he took me to this spot near an interstate bridge with a small river flowing beneath it. There was a persistent, cool breeze which, as it crossed my ears, was just enough noise to drown out the sound of the interstate traffic. The moon was full, or at least near full, and with its vivid blue light, traced everything around us. I remember the light in particular because I had never before seen blue moonlight quite like this. It was almost as if we were subjects in a Picasso blue period painting.
He saw I was chilly, and slightly frightened by his desire to repel off the side of the bridge. In a short moment, that I remember today as vividly as when it happened, he pulled me close to him with his hands in the small of my back, and wrapped his arms around me. He was over 6 feet tall, and as his arms engulfed me, I was warmed and settled into a calmness. Then, he kissed me. It was gentle, and sweet; as if he was just reaching in to remind me I was safe and I was loved.
Somehow, in that moment, the world ceased to exist. I wasn’t worried about the repelling he wanted to do, or the cold wind, or the traffic buzzing behind us. I was just in the moment. Content and loved. After he kissed me, he cradled my check with his hand. When I reached up to hold onto his wrist, I felt his Swiss Army watch. The realization buzzed through me that I was here with the guy from orchestra, who had a passion for Mont Blanc pens, Swiss Army watches, and spent the better part of 5 years arguing with me.
I didn’t want to let this new feeling go. I wanted to bottle that moment up and carry it with me forever; I never wanted to forget it, or him. We tried to carry on our connection, and boy did I try to find a way to move closer to him. Life got in the way, and time was unkind, ever growing the distance between us. Our paths bumped into one another a few times, but it was clear our moment on the bridge was the last one we would share. It was the last time I would see him in person.
The Christmas following my visit with the guy from orchestra, my mother asked me what I wanted more than anything. Though I’d hoped I could be closer to him, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. So that year, for Christmas, I asked my mother for a Swiss Army watch.
For 25 years, the watch was a symbol of the deepest human connection I ever felt. I could run my fingers around the face of the watch, an remember that night on the bridge. Though it may have looked odd to others around me that I cradled and adored this watch, it wasn’t really the watch that I loved. The watch was a way to have a piece of that moment on the bridge with me everywhere I went. When I cradled it, and adored it, I was really adoring him.
Whether it be a stuffed animal, an odd little toy, or even a spoon; an object so distant from the acceptable spread of things we as a society value, be careful not to judge. Though autism may have kept this story buried deep inside me, the watch was a piece that connected my physical world to my emotional one. It told the story of a connection with a person, and helped me to build a new ability to connect more deeply with others in my life.
The next time you see an autistic person with an attachment to an object that is beyond your immediate understanding, remember this story of my Swiss Army watch. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning and the story has yet to be told.