The Beautiful Regularity of the Periodic Table of Elements: or, Really no one thought maybe I was autistic? (Or is that even a label I should have known back then?)

Just look how regular! How synoptic! All of the (known) building blocks of everything in the universe, right here in one chart.

And we are made of these things, we are breathing these things and exhaling them in a different composition. It’s incredible, really. And what’s truly astounding is that here they are laid out in one synoptic chart.

That time I memorized the Periodic Table

In eighth grade I was introduced to the Periodic Table of Elements for the first time, so far at least as I can remember. I loved it right away: It’s the perfect infographic, like a whole deck of trading cards laid out at once, a complete collection. It has its own entirely distinctive shape. Every space on the table is a completely different thing, from the gaseous to liquid to solid and every variation in between. There are metals like copper (Cu, 29), silver (Ag, 47) and gold (Au, 79), which happen to sit one atop the other; things like potassium (K, 19) and sodium (Na, 11); and crazy things like Uranium (U, 92). Two hydrogen atoms (H, 1) and one oxygen (O, 8) make water (H2O)! Think about that though, both of these are gasses, but together they make water. And there they are so neat and orderly on the Periodic Table on opposite ends at the top.

And I cannot tell you what a draw it is for me to put numbers below or above letters. There is something so aesthetically gorgeous about it. I love superscripted numbers and I especially love the look of subscripted numbers: so I love footnotes and chemical notations.

Eventually in high school Chemistry I made it to balancing equations, and that was one of the most intellectually stimulating things I’ve ever encountered. It was an applied algebra, and I was very good with algebraic equations. No doubt balancing chemical equations subtly laid the groundwork for my later approach to language as an algebra of necessary components in a sensible balance.

But back in eighth grade, with this magical table laid out before me, the result of centuries of alchemy, I wanted to come to know each entry, so I memorized it, the whole thing.

I memorized where each element went on the table along with its abbreviation and its atomic number, so that I could provide either a name to a number, or a number to a name, and I could fill in the whole chart in a matter of a few minutes. My science teacher noticed during the exam review when she was quizzing us on the elements and I answered every single one. She kept asking me specifically for a while after everyone else had given up. I didn’t miss a single one.

I was so proud of myself. Usually I was a pretty bad student: inattentive, didn’t ‘apply myself,’ all that. My teachers all claimed that they could see that I was very bright ‘if only he’d apply himself’, but I don’t think they usually realized quite how bright. But my eighth-grade science teacher saw it that day: at the time I noticed that she was amazed, even something liked awed, but I didn’t understand what she was marveling at. Only now, nearly finished with my PhD dissertation, I can see what she saw: my mind is a force beyond reckoning, beyond even its own reckoning.

Elementary Essays

That was one of the few times in those early days that any hint of my capacities shown forth, aside from a lengthy essay on the Battle of Bunker Hill that I wrote in third grade (which was the first time I’d experienced genuine focus in the zone, or a flow state). There was also a speech I wrote in fifth grade, literally on the fly in class in a matter of minutes for that goofy D.A.R.E. ‘graduation’ I had to attend. I’d been sick so I didn’t get the memo about writing a speech as homework and I found out about it when the teacher called for them to be handed in, so I only had an hour at most. I wasn’t even that interested in the program. Mostly I thought their ham-fisted attempts to ‘scare us straight’ were a little too ridiculous and way too obvious, and weren’t we just a little too young to be hearing about crack and heroin and all that kind of ugliness? I mean I was really just trying to fulfill an assignment without a penalty for turning it in late. But then the teacher and the D.A.R.E. officer picked my speech, along with another student’s, to be read aloud during the ‘graduation.’ It’s mortifying now that I’m an adult and able to understand that experience, but at the time I was intrigued that someone thought something I’d written was worth being read aloud at a ceremony. I was too young then, caught up in the trauma of my already heavily fractured existence, to know how to feel anything about myself.

Only in eighth grade did I finally feel a sense of genuine achievement when I aced an impromptu oral quiz on the Periodic Table of Elements. I realized I had accomplished a goal, and so I realized that accomplishing goals was something I could do.

That time I memorized the US Amendments

Around the same time as I memorized the Periodic Table, I also memorized all 27 Amendments to the US Constitution with a summary of what they were about. My Social Studies teacher had offered to give us extra credit on an exam for any of the Amendments we could list. So I went to town, and when she walked by and noticed that I had filled up the whole blank page at the back of the exam with nearly all of the Amendments (I was on the 24th or the 25th at the time, if I remember correctly), she accused me of cheating and proceeded to search around me and even my own person for a cheatsheet. Egg was on her face, big time. But I was pretty proud of myself for that feat of memorizing, too. The lift from that may have even propelled me to memorize the Periodic Table.

I’m still proud of eighth-grade me, even though I realize now that there was a lot going on there, none of which seems to me to be a cause for pride: I’m a master of hyper-fixations who’s managed to turn hyper-fixating into a defense mechanism, a sort of fixation-based escapism, and pouring over the Periodic Table for hours at a time was a way of escaping a very bleak situation. I’m a sucker for a well-organized infographic because I love ordered regularity. I’ve always been obsessive about words, mysterious and otherwise lengthy words especially—turns out I’m hyperlexic.

But these days, on the other side of realizing I’m autistic… I’m stunned that literally no one even wondered whether maybe I was autistic….??? Not even after I’d memorized the entirety of the Periodic Table of Elements? It is astonishing to me.

The Debate: Am I where I am because I wasn’t diagnosed as a child?

But this line of thinking, and my astonishment especially, leads me directly into a debate that has been raging in my mind for almost a year now: Would I have really benefitted from a childhood diagnosis? Or would it have been a significant impediment that would have prevented me from reaching the point where I am now? It’s an unfair and, frankly, impossible question, but it is important all the same, and not only because it serves for an antidote to whatever bitterness I might find myself harboring in the remote corners of my mind for having gone thirty-some years without the basic realization that my brain works differently.

Could I have even understood what being autistic means? At the time I never heard anyone talking about it as a form of identity, but always as an impairment that separated a person from everyone else. It was something for kids in special education programs, not me. At the time, the ignorant stigmata were exceptionally strong, so much that many years I didn’t understand that being autistic didn’t involve looking any particular way. Given the environment I was in, and the fact that I have few actual support needs, I was able to slide past the medicalizing gaze. I also had other things to blame on my sense of being Other: I’m gay and I knew it already way back long ago, and other kids knew it as soon as they saw/heard me.

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