Last Sunday was Ted’s 21st birthday and while in the kitchen, taking a break from the festivities, he came in to join me and about our absence commented, “I wonder if they’re asking, ‘Where are they?’”
Now very good at reading me, he recognized I had failed to pick up on his reference, and thus missed the humor in his remark. So he explained to me, “Where are they?” was the question posed by Enrico Fermi, and led to what became the Fermi Paradox, one of his favorite philosophical questions.
If you stumbled upon this blog by googling “Fermi Paradox” here is a link to its Wikipedia page, it’s okay, go there now, because I really don’t want to disappoint you when you find out this post isn’t about the Fermi Paradox. It’s about a mom and her son having a conversation about the Paradox and how this conversation was a reflection on the incredible progress that son has made in the almost 17 years since he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and how there was a day when this mom couldn’t imagine asking her child what kind of juice he wanted without him exploding let alone imagining him being able to calmly explain to her philosophical physics.
This post is a celebration of an event as spectacular, at least to me, as the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the “they” in the question Fermi posed. For, as we stood there in the kitchen, with every question I asked Ted, I could not help but notice how patiently he answered me.
Wait. I need to write that word again.
Oh that felt good.
Ted has not always been patient, and he has not always controlled his frustration.
Both have been hard-fought accomplishments and I absolutely could not let the moment go by, unheralded. So I said, “Ted, do you realize there was a time you could not have been so patient with me? You would have exploded the first time I asked a question, the first time I admitted I didn’t understand. You have just now, patiently explained to me, ME, the Fermi Paradox and I have really enjoyed our conversation.”
“I know,” he answered. “I am very aware of how I used to not be able to do that. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t know what I knew, and what I was thinking, and I got mad.”
“That’s Theory of Mind,” I explained. “It’s the ability to understand people have different knowledge, experience and perspectives.”
“I suppose that’s it. I haven’t done the reading on Autism and Aspergers you have,” he replied. And then added, “Not understanding people has been hard for me. In 1st grade I would ask a kid if they knew what 5×5 was, fully expecting them to say 25. But they’d say ‘10’ and I’d say ‘no, times, not plus’ but they didn’t understand. I knew it was 25, why didn’t they? Then when I told them it was 25, because I cared that the answer was 25, not 10, they didn’t care, and didn’t want to know, and that frustrated me all the more.”
“As a teenager, I finally came to understand and accept that people didn’t know what I knew, or what I cared about, or what I was thinking, and when I did finally understand, patience got easier.”
“But people have been equally impatient with me. Take math for example. I didn’t learn math in the traditional sense. Because I could always see math, because I could see 5×5 was 25, I didn’t have to work the problems to get the answer. But most everybody else did, and the teachers always wanted me to show my work, but I didn’t have any work to show. I didn’t arrive at the answers in that way, so I was constantly in trouble and graded down, even when my answer was right.
I could see the answers in math until I reached second semester calculus. That is when I came to realize I had never really learned math. I have no concept of the steps it takes to work problems and so I had no skills to apply to the problems.”
“You don’t know how to break down math questions?” I asked.
“No idea,” Ted confirmed. “I guess to go any farther in math I would have to learn all those steps and I don’t think I can do that.”
“Perhaps someday you will want to. You are so good at it.” I said optimistically, and hoped his discouragement would not always continue to keep him from something he does so naturally well. And then I wondered, what else has he quietly endured?
But I did not linger long on that thought, because I could hear company in the family room and knew it was time to rejoin the party. Ted sensing this, looked at me and asked, “So, did I do a good job of providing a pleasant topic to discuss?”
“Oh Ted,” I said, “you did a wonderful job of providing a topic. I have so enjoyed this talk. So, are you ready to join everyone?”
“Sure,” he said, with a more than slight air of indifference.
That’s my Teddy at 21.