The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching a child with autism how to deal with authority figures

TJ on vacation. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Swick Jordan)

Our family just returned from vacation.

We had traveled with the boys a couple of years ago, accompanying my husband Sean on two business trips, but this was our first official no-work family vacation.

It was absolutely wonderful.

On the day we were traveling home, we were all sad to leave, but at the same time looking forward to coming home. We all missed our dog, and as TJ says, “Pup needs us, and we need him too.”

TJ is almost 16. He has autism.

We have figured out the best way to travel with him — it’s no big deal at all, really. The airlines let us board the plane first, because sometimes TJ gets agitated waiting in crowded areas.

Our trip out was seamless — everything went beautifully. So we were confident that our trip home would be just as smooth.

Close, but not quite.

When we arrived at the ticket desk, we had to run each of our passports through a kiosk to be scanned. Then, receipts were printed for us to present at customs. It took us a minute to figure out how these kiosks worked, but we got all four passports scanned in no time.

As TJ’s receipt printed out, there was a big “X” crossing out the entire thing. The man helping at the kiosk told us it was a random flag and we had to see a customs agent.

So off we went. We weren’t worried at all.

Well, I thought we weren’t worried at all. Turns out, TJ was quite worried.

As we approached the customs agent, TJ had a scowl on his face. I didn’t even notice it until he said, angrily, to the agent, “What the HELL is going on?”

Okay — I thought to myself — now may be a good time to panic.

Instead of panicking, though, I picked my jaw up off the ground and said “TJ!  That is not okay to say at all!”  Then I turned to the very angry looking I’m-sure-he’s-about-to-handcuff-my-boy-any-second-now customs agent, explaining, “I am so so sorry — my son has autism and must be feeling tense at his receipt being flagged. He means no harm at all…please accept my apology for his behavior.”

He was very gracious — he smiled and said “no problem.”


It occurred to me later that TJ has no idea how to behave toward people in unfamiliar authority positions. Sure, he knows how to speak properly to teachers and adults at school, but that’s about it.  What would happen to him if he were in a situation that involved a police officer, or firefighter, or someone with whom he could get into real trouble if he didn’t behave properly?

I have a friend whose son has autism. Together they travel to different police stations and train the officers on how to work with kids and adults with autism — what it could look like and sound like, and what kind of behaviors they could expect from someone on the autism spectrum in a stressful situation.

I thought about my friend and her son, and quickly thought to myself, “I have to do the opposite and train TJ in how to properly behave toward different people in different positions of authority.”

For his own safety. For his own well being.

There are some on the autism spectrum who believe that the world has to be understanding and accepting of all sorts of autistic people, no matter what the situation. While I believe in this theory, I also believe that there is a time and a place where the person on the spectrum has to do the work, and make the proper accommodations, while interacting in society, if they are capable.

I also believe that this looks different for everyone, and greatly depends on every individual’s strengths and weaknesses. There is no “one size fits all” here.

TJ has some work to do regarding how to behave toward people while out in society. That includes persons of authority. His safety and well-being could depend on it. And our greatest goal, our dream for TJ, is independence.

Someday. I know it’s coming.

I’m grateful for all of these lessons that I learn with TJ in our everyday lives. We don’t know what we don’t know, until we suddenly know it. And then we have some work to do.

Work that I am so happy to do, with and for my son. He’s so worth it, after all.

Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing…like it’s my job. She’s on Twitter @mrslojo802

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more updates, essays and news. Want to get it all delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for our newsletter.

You may also be interested in:

Writing for The Mighty, for my son and with my son

Survival tips from an autism parent

TJ wants us to talk about autism and mental health