Simone de Beauvoir, gifted autistic thinker: Later Childhood & Adolescence

Note: Due to the leaps in cognitive and social development found in later childhood, there were such a quantity of autistic traits in Simone’s later childhood that I chose to split my account of them in half and combined the latter half with those from her adolescence. (Read Part #1: Early Childhood and Part #2: Later Childhood Part 1)

Late Childhood

Physically Clumsy

Simone was terribly clumsy and uncoordinated: “My handwriting was so shapeless that I had to have private lessons, which did not make any great improvement”; she had no skill at music or art; she never learned to swim or ride a bicycle. As she said, “This characteristic was to remain with me all my life. I bungled all practical jobs and I was never any good at work requiring finicky precision. It was not without some vexation that I became aware of my deficiencies; I should have liked to excel in everything. But they were too deeply rooted in my nature to be amenable to ephemeral spurts of will-power. As soon as I was able to think for myself, I found myself possessed of infinite power, and yet circumscribed by absurd limitations. ..I was, I felt, charged with a mission which I carried out with pride; but I did not assume that my imperfect body could have any part in it: on the contrary, as soon as my physical activities intervened, things tended to go wrong.

Clumsiness is based in inefficient processing of sensory information and can (as it did for Simone) distinguish an individual, preventing them from participating in group athletics and so contributing to their isolation.

Intellectual in Bent

Simone had always been unusually thoughtful. When very young, “I would look at Mama’s armchair and think ‘I won’t be able to sit on her knee anymore if I go on growing up.’ Suddenly the future existed; it would turn me into another being, someone who would still be, and yet no longer seem, myself. I had forebodings of all the separations, the refusals, the desertions to come, and of the long succession of my various deaths… I kept on growing and I realized that my fate was sealed: I was condemned to be an outcast from childhood.” Later, at the same time as she bemoaned her lack of Zaza’s “personality”, she acknowledged that “my curiosity embraced everything.” She was attracted to philosophy because it “ went straight to essentials. ..I always wanted to know everything; philosophy would allow me to appease this desire, for it aimed at total reality; philosophy went right to the heart of truth and revealed to me, instead of an illusory whirlwind of facts or empirical laws, an order, a reason, a necessity in everything.

Autistic brains focus with remarkable intensity on subjects or items of special interest to them. This is called hyperfocus. Certain things master them and so they go in deep, often making it hard for them to find people with the same or equal interests, which is part of autistic isolation. It is true if inadequate to say that possessing less interest in social status frees up resources needed to master subtle and difficult subjects. Autistic people are drawn to clear and explicit principles, so some think that systematic and philosophical thinking is simply an extension of the way they learn most things.

Need of Solitude

Perhaps because of slow emotional processing, Simone needed time to herself. She even felt dismay at the idea of marriage because of it: “‘At night when you go to bed, you won’t be able to have a good cry in peace!’ I would tell myself in horror. I don’t know if my happiness was broken by fits of sadness, or whether I used to weep in the night for the sheer pleasure of it; I rather think that my tears were a borderline case: if I had forced myself to restrain them, I should have been denying myself that minimum of personal liberty which I needed so badly. All day long, I felt that people’s eyes were upon me; I liked and even loved the people around me, but when I went to bed at night I felt a sharp sense of relief at the idea of being able to live at least for a little while without being watched by others; then I could talk to myself, remember things, allow my emotions a free rein and hearken to those tender inner promptings which are stifled by the presence of grown-ups. I should have felt it quite unbearable to be deprived of this respite. I needed to escape at least for a few moments from all parental solicitude and talk quietly to myself without interruptions from anyone.

Fearful of Change

When Simone was age 10, she went on a beach vacation with a family friend: “It was the first time I’d been away from my sister and I felt mutilated. I found the sea boring; the baths filled with me with horror; the water took my breath away; I was terrified. Madame Rollin, in some embarrassment, took me on her knees and asked me why I was crying; it seemed to me that we were both acting in a play, and I didn’t know my lines: no, no one has been bullying me, everyone was very nice. The truth was that, separated from my family, deprived of those affections which assured me of my personal worth, cut off from the familiar routine which defined my place in the world, I no longer knew where I was, or what my purpose was here on earth. I needed to be confined within a framework whose rigidity would justify my existence. I realized this, because I was afraid of changes. But I suffered neither bereavement nor removal from familiar surroundings, and that is one of the reasons why I persisted so long in my childish pretensions.


Security Unraveling

As does for many, puberty played havoc with Simone’s world. As is not uncommon for autistic girls and women, she paid scant attention to pretty clothes. It was characteristic of her that, while attending a dancing academy, she “..used to arrive…in a dowdy old frock, with badly brushed hair, well scrubbed cheeks, and a shiny nose.” As a consequence, her relationship with her father changed: “…when I entered the ‘difficult’ age, he was disappointed in me: he appreciated elegance and beauty in women. Not only did he fail to conceal his disillusionment from me, but he began showing more interest than before in my sister, who was still a pretty girl.

Beyond problems with her personal appearance, Simone found another reason to dislike dancing: “I begin to detest those dancing lessons, but for another reason. When my partner held me in his arms and held me to his chest, I felt a funny sensation that was rather like having butterflies in the stomach, which I didn’t find quite so easy to forget. When I got home, I would throw myself in the leather armchair, overpowered by a curious languor that I couldn’t put a name to and that made me want to burst into tears. On the pretext that I had too much work, I gave up going to the dancing class.” The stirrings of sexual attraction in puberty are exciting and natural, but they were very disturbing to Simone because they imposed upon her against her will.


Simone had long been one to take things at face value: at a certain point of adulthood, she writes, “I realized that I took people as they were; I didn’t suspect them of having any other self than the official one…” This is a classic autistic perspective: autistic people are often unswervingly sincere, straightforward, and unable to fudge the truth, so they fail to grasp that others might not feel so constrained This often leads to them being taken advantage of, especially if they are female.

Despite being widely read and theoretically well-versed in the ways of the world, Simone admitted herself to be a “terrible greenhorn.” When she was 16, she attended a film in a packed theater and had to stand in the back: “I was surprised when I began to feel hands fumbling around my thin woolen coat, feeling me through the material; I thought somebody must be trying to pick my pockets or steal my handbag; I held on tightly to it; the hands continued to rub against me: it was absurd. I didn’t know what to do or say: I just let them go on. When the film was over and the lights went up, a man wearing a brown trilby sniggered and pointed me out to a friend of his, who also started to snigger. They were laughing at me: why? I couldn’t make it out at all.

Next week, we will conclude this historical journey with a look at how these traits continued and strengthened at Simone’s entry into adulthood.

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