I want to make a case for viewing Simone de Beauvoir as a gifted autistic thinker. For a brief introduction to de Beauvoir (hereafter “Simone”), according to Wikipedia, she was “..a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory.” The evidence I will make use of is gathered from her frank and thorough self-disclosure of her early life in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter”. As for autism, it is defined broadly as neurologically based difficulties with social understanding, social communication, and unusual interests. I will attempt to describe it in a way that is faithful to how self-aware autistic people have explained themselves, not in terms of psychiatric diagnostic criteria or stigmatizing language.
I have written this with an interest in introducing the broader world to “subtler” forms of autism. I want to invite readers and thinkers to enjoy insight into this section of humanity. I also want to introduce the growing autistic community to one of their own who they might not have previously known. I hope you gain something from reading this.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns
We will start where many autistic stories start, with meltdowns. After describing herself as a beloved and happy little girl, Simone says, “…there must have been something wrong somewhere: I had fits of rage during which my face turned purple and I would fall to the ground in convulsions.” An illustration she shared from when she was three and half was that she began to peel a plum, but her mother told her “no”: immediately, she threw herself to the ground and began to howl. “At such moments,” she wrote, “neither Mama’s black looks nor Louise’s stern voice, nor even Papa’s special interventions could make any impression upon me…” Her parents said, “If you raise as much as a finger to Simone, she turns purple in the face” and “Simone is as stubborn as a mule“. At times, she was even placed in a broom closet to expend her fury without causing harm to others. What were these “fits”?
Meltdowns are episodes of heightened physiological arousal in which rational thought is supplanted by “fight or flight” behaviors. These include screaming, running and hiding, biting, hitting, various forms of apparent self-harm, etc. Like autism itself, meltdowns are not monolithic and vary in intensity, duration, and specific behavior seen. They are not a separate phenomena from irritability or anger, but an advanced stage of the same emotions, when things start to explode. Besides the better known “fight or flight” responses, there is the “freeze” response. Autistic people call these shutdowns. They involve reduced or actual cessation of speech and movement and at the extreme they become dissociative states. An individual may have both shutdowns and meltdowns or they may predominantly manifest only one of these. An important point to remember is that both are natural responses of the human nervous system and can occur in anyone exposed to sufficient stress. It is simply the case that autistics reach this level of stress far more easily from ordinary life, whereas neurotypical (non-autistic) people may require exceptional circumstances to have the same experience (see below.) Also, they may happen more often to autistics, especially children, because of difficulties with emotional processing (more on this later).
Causes of Meltdowns
Among the current theories of autism is the Intense World Theory. Although it is by no means a finished line of inquiry, the brains of autistic people have been found to differ at the anatomical level from those of neurotypical people in ways that are thought to increase sensitivity to stress. The testimony of many autistic people certainly confirms that most are significantly affected by stress and anxiety. By this way of thinking, autistic behavior is simply a human response to stress by people who are more, sometimes far more, sensitive to it than most.
(For those who are aware of the effects of trauma or injury on brain structure and function, I would like to make the distinction between innate and acquired brain differences. Some of the effects and treatment may be the same, but the causes are not. Professionals recognize what they are trained to recognize, so trauma gets confused with autism and autism gets confused with trauma by those only trained in one or the other. It is vital that professions learn to distinguish and recognize both when present. Sometimes both are present.)
Autistic behavior is not as mysterious as some think, though it has confused many observers. Simone understood and explained her “fits” along similar lines as other autistics, imputing them to an “impetuous vitality and… a lack of all moderation” that she never completely outgrew: “…an unbridgeable chasm separated the things I loved and those I hated.”
Related to the plum peeling incident, she particularly reacted against commands which she felt to be arbitrary uses of authority. “Yesterday I peeled a peach,” she writes, “then why shouldn’t I peel a plum?” This is a kind of rigid or black and white thinking, which is anxiety driven, construing the world in sharply defined categories, attempting to render it predictable and safe. Blurring of these boundaries frustrate and bedevil anxious autistic souls, sometimes causing “fits”.
Another cause might be called inarticulation: in response to an old woman’s admiring her young legs, she writes “If I’d been able to say, ‘Silly old woman! She thinks I’m a boiling fowl,’ I’d have been all right. But at three years of age I had no means of redress against that fatuous voice, that gloating smile: all I could do was yell, and throw myself screaming to the pavement.”
Like many autistic children, Simone also struggled with sensory processing: as a very young child, “the insipidity of milk puddings, porridge, and mashes of bread and butter made me burst into tears; the oiliness of fat meats and the clammy mysteries of shellfish revolted me; tears, screams, vomitings: my repugnance was so deeply rooted that in the end they gave up trying to force me to eat those disgusting things,” and, later in life, “..whenever Aunt Helene served pumpkin pie, I would rush from the table in tears rather than touch it; neither threats nor thumpings could persuade me to eat cheese.“
Lastly, Simone had a serious, “small adult” mentality. Most children take adult condescension in stride or don’t notice it, but not Simone: “…whenever they treated me with condescension I at once took offense. I was as cantankerous as any bed-ridden old woman. If grandmama cheated at cards in order to let me win, or if Aunt Lili asked me riddles that were too easy, I threw a fit. I often suspected the grown-ups of acting a part; I thought too highly of their intelligence to imagine that they believed in the parts they played for my benefit; I thought they were in league with each other to make a fool out of me.”
If the reasoning in these examples (if not the reaction) seems relatable to the comfortably neurotypical reader, let it again be said that autistic behavior is human behavior and can be comprehended by humans regardless of neurotype.
This is part one of a four part series. The next section will extensively cover Simone’s later childhood, where many of her explicitly autistic traits are to be seen. Come back next week to read that.