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.