When Talking Is a Problem

For my recent trip involving air travel, Nigel accompanied me to the airport before I left. He flew for the first time three years ago, and he loved it. I had brought ear plugs for him, and he didn’t even use them. He was far too excited and motivated to have mechanical noises bother him that time. He loves to learn about other countries, reads National Geographic every month, and longs for the day when I “sell lots of books” so that I can take him to see Stonehenge and the Acropolis, among other places.

And so, he loves to be in airports, which he doesn’t get to do very often. Being an extrovert, he wants to interact with people. I could not have guessed however, that upon entering the airport he would have made a beeline for the guard at the entrance to the security check area. I had my bags and was giving instructions to my mother, who watched the boys that weekend, and I didn’t notice that Nigel had taken off until I scanned the area and saw him leaning in to the guard and saying something. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I froze. The guard had an odd look on her face.

Nigel walked back over to me. “I told her to keep up the good work because we don’t want another 9/11,” he said, satisfied with himself.

How could he have known? How could he have possibly known that what he’d said was unacceptable talk in an airport? How could I have thought ahead to tell him not to say things like that? I spend at least half my time anticipating inappropriate things that Nigel could say and then explaining to him that it’s not okay to say them. Saying inappropriate things can be a huge problem for the verbal autist, even a liability. It can hurt people’s feelings and actually get him in trouble, especially since he rarely makes eye contact and often speaks in monotone. I try to circumvent these potential problems by thinking ahead and coaching him, really trying to understand his way of thinking, anticipating what he might say, and helping him to avoid saying the wrong thing.  

I mentally wrung my hands, hoping that we wouldn’t have a security squad swooping down on us at any second. And my heart ached for my poor son who was just trying to make conversation, who absolutely did not mean any harm.

“Oh, honey,” I began, “I know you thought you were trying to encourage the guard, but it’s not okay to talk about 9/11 in airports. It alarms the security guards because they think of it as a threat or a joke, even though I know you didn’t mean it that way.”

A dejected look washed over his face. “I thought I was doing something good. I was telling her she was doing a good job.”

“I know, sweetheart. But they might not see it that way, and it could get you in trouble to talk about 9/11 in airports. So try not to do it anymore.” I looked around, wondering if the guards had their eyes on him. I had to keep him close to me, this boy who is taller than I am. Maybe somehow, if they saw a mother sticking close to her teenage son, they would know. They would see his “difference,” as he calls it.

“I didn’t know,” he said, looking down.

“I know. I wish I had thought to tell you, but I’m telling you now. I know it’s hard to understand, but you just can’t talk about 9/11 in airports, even for good reasons.”

“Okay,” he said quietly, seeming to understand, or maybe just accepting it without understanding.

Oh, my son. He tries so hard.

10 thoughts on “When Talking Is a Problem

  1. Tera

    Oh Tanya, that is heart-breaking. Our guys try so hard. But I know what you mean about always trying to anticipate what they could say and trying to analyze it all and end it before it begins. It’s a bit exhausting. We are definitely in-touch with our kids. That’s the positive side of it.

    And maybe, if talk about 9-11 was allowed in the sirport, it wouldn’t be such a taboo topic. Maybe Nigel isn’t the one to turn it all around, but that boy of yours has his heart in the right place…and that’s what is really important.

  2. Chapati

    That is heartbreaking, but to be fair he really really wasn’t to know – talking about the terrorist attack innocently at the airport shouldn’t be such a taboo!

  3. mama mara

    Yet another reason why high-functioning autism is called “the invisible disability”. Our kids can appear so typical, until they open their mouths and say the darnedest things.

    Your explanation to Nigel was excellent. Now you have only 999,999,999 social taboos to worry about.

  4. Jenn E

    I’ve been thinking about this since we talked about it in Jess’ kitchen.

    He’s trying and ya know what eventually he’ll get most of it. We all make social mistakes sometimes. He wants it and sometimes I think that makes all the difference.

    Now I’m off to teach Devin it’s not socially appropriate to stand naked in the front door no matter how cute his butt is.

  5. kia (good enough mama)

    Aw, I want to wrap him up and hug him. Poor Nigel. I hope that there was just a teensy tiny hint in his tone or something that let the woman know that he was trying to be supportive. And as Jenn said, we all make social mistakes, all the time.

  6. jess

    i LOVE that he wanted to take the time to praise someone he didn’t know for the job they are doing. we need so much more of that in the world. so much more gratitude, so much more encouragement.

    he’s just beautiful.

  7. Kate

    Wow, just wow.

    Such a clear example of the communication problems that can occur even in high functioning people with autism.

    Beautiful in the way you described it; sorry it had to happen, though.

  8. babs

    OMG!! I can imagine how you felt. Like you said, we try to think of all the possible outcomes. But often the one we don’t see is the one we get. Glad you still left with your freedom–and sanity!

Comments are closed.