Neurodivergence in The Avengers, Part 1: Hickey in “Hour That Never Was”

The Avengers is a quirky show full of quirky characters. Many of these are common-or-garden eccentrics, people who unabashedly love what they love and don’t care what anyone else thinks about either them or their hobby. But a few of these characters exhibit additional traits strongly suggesting that their behavior might have its origins in something beyond being a little odd or having a passion for a particular activity. Two in particular, Hickey in “Hour That Never Was” and Professor Poole in “Winged Avenger” behave in ways that indicate (to me, at least) that these characters might be neurodivergent in some way. There are also hints dropped throughout the series that Steed might himself be neurodivergent.

With respect to Hickey and Professor Poole, it is important to note that the characters are not drawn as neurodivergent in order to ridicule them, although this is certainly somewhat less true of Poole than it is of Hickey. While the show as a whole does not have an unblemished track record in its representations of neurodivergence or disability generally (I’m thinking in particular of the cringeworthy “Legacy of Death” in Season 6), for the most part the show does draw such characters fairly respectfully, even if they are also drawn as being somewhat outside the scope of the usual.

It is also important to note the way these characters are treated by Steed and Mrs Peel. Both Hickey—who speaks with Steed—and Poole—who encounters both Steed and Mrs Peel—are accepted as fully human, fully adult, having their own agency, and they are treated with respect and courtesy. However, the way Steed and Mrs Peel interact with such characters is not written as a means to show how generous or tolerant they are towards neurological difference: they are neither expecting nor given any kind of reward for being decent, nor is their decency seen to be something out of the ordinary or a special favor they do that somehow elevates them. Treating others with respect and courtesy is simply what Steed and Emma do, full stop.


Some Important Background Ideas

Before jumping into an analysis of these characters, it’s important to understand what is meant by the terms “neurodiversity,” “neurodivergent,” and “neurotypical.” Here are some basic definitions, by Nick Walker:

  • Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.
  • Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.”
  • Neurotypical, often abbreviated as NT, means having a style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the dominant societal standards of “normal.”

Neurodivergence can take many forms. Autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), epilepsy, dyslexia, and the effects of traumatic brain injury are some of the many types of neurodivergence. Walker notes that Kassiane Sibley, a multiply neurodivergent activist, is the one who coined the terms “neurodivergent” and “neurodivergence.”

One of the purposes of this vocabulary is to remove the stigma attached to neurodivergence. It does not treat neurodivergence as either disease or disorder, and it sidesteps concepts of “normality” and “abnormality,” both of which are ultimately social and cultural constructs. This terminology therefore gives us a way to talk about neurodivergence that is neither ableist nor pathologizing. (You can read more of Nick Walker’s thought on the neurodiversity paradigm vs the pathology paradigm here.)

In the interests of full disclosure:
I myself am multiply neurodivergent. I am autistic, and I have ADD.

And also:
This blog turned out to be longer than I thought it was going to be, so I’m breaking it into three parts. Links connecting up the parts will be added as each one is published. are now available.


Hickey in “Hour That Never Was”

Steed and Mrs Peel pay a visit to an airbase where Steed was stationed during the war to attend a reunion with Steed’s buddies. They arrive to find the airbase apparently deserted. Then Mrs Peel disappears and a frantic Steed searches everywhere for her. In his search, he comes across a tramp named Hickey (played by Roy Kinnear). Thinking that Hickey might have some answers as to what has been happening on the base and what might have happened to Mrs Peel, Steed starts questioning him. But Hickey doesn’t answer questions straightforwardly: his statements are often elliptical, or veer wildly off topic, as when he gives a pronouncement about not liking stamp collecting because of the potential for contact with saliva on the back of the stamp as part of an answer to Steed’s question about what Hickey had been looking for.

Although Hickey’s produced speech may appear to be unfocused and off topic, his understanding of speech seems to be much less so. At one point in the first half of his conversation with Steed, he shows that at least some of the time he understands language quite literally.

neurodivergent-hourthatneverwas-01
Steed: Seen anything unusual?
Hickey: Unusual, sir?
Steed: A young lady, for instance.
Hickey: Well, if I had, that wouldn’t be unusual would it? I mean, there’s nothing unusual about a young lady.

Steed and Emma are out of place on the airbase. Although Steed has many old and dear friends there, he no longer works at the base and hasn’t done since the war. Mrs Peel is Steed’s guest, but she is a complete stranger there, and her disappearance is an unusual event that leaves Steed feeling even more disconnected from his present environment than the mere passage of time might do to him by itself, and as far as Steed can tell, the only humans moving on the whole base are himself, Mrs Peel, the guy who keeps driving a milk float around, and now Hickey. So from Steed’s point of view, someone who regularly spends time on the airbase might consider seeing Mrs Peel to be unusual, especially under the current circumstances. But seeing a “young lady” doesn’t meet the definition of unusual for Hickey. Young ladies are all over the place, after all: one sees them all the time. He can’t get past the literal meaning of “unusual” in the sense of “strange, odd, unexpected” to what Steed is actually asking, which is whether Hickey has seen a young lady that he didn’t recognize as belonging to the airbase community.

Hickey’s ability to make and sustain eye contact during conversation with Steed is also something that waxes and wanes. When he is outside amongst the dustbins, eye contact is relatively easy for him: he is in a place he feels at home and the sights, sounds, and smells of his environment are familiar. But when Steed takes him inside the bar, Hickey makes very little eye contact with Steed. He’s out of place, and he knows it. He’s uncomfortable being in the bar: the new environment with its clutter of glassware and profusion of colorful decorations is visually overwhelming; there are a raft of smells different from the ones he’s used to, coming from ashtrays and dregs in glasses and likely from other sources, maybe from the residue of the stuff they use to clean the place, or the wood of the bar and the piano; and on top of all this Steed—a stranger he only just met, who likely smells of tobacco and wool and soap, and who probably is wearing some kind of aftershave or cologne (another potentially overwhelming scent)—is pressing him with questions. All of this makes the effort of eye contact more than Hickey can handle at the moment. And it taxes his language processing even further.

Steed: Now, Hickey, you were out there for some time.
Hickey: I’ve never been inside this building before, not inside. I know my place, outside among the dustbins.
Steed: Were you on the camp first thing this morning?
Hickey: It’s nice in here. Oh, mind you I’ve heard them enjoying themselves … singing away….
Steed: Did you hear them singing this morning?
Hickey: Nice and cozy.

Hickey’s response to Steed’s statement about him having been “out there for some time” is to recite that he “know[s his] place, outside among the dustbins.” When Steed tries to get Hickey to tell him what he heard and saw that morning, he gets a series of what appear to be evasive, disconnected answers: “it’s nice here”; “I’ve heard them enjoying themselves”; “nice and cozy.” And at no time during this part of their exchange inside the bar does Hickey make eye contact with Steed.

Hickey is having a hard time transitioning to this new environment. There are sights and smells to process, and there are Steed’s questions on top of all of that. Hickey can’t make eye contact and he can’t answer Steed’s questions directly at this point because his brain hasn’t finished adjusting to the sensory environment inside the bar. His repetitive descriptions of what it’s like to be inside are part of that process of adjustment.

Hickey’s disjointed answers and inability to make eye contact add to Steed’s growing anxiety over Mrs Peel, leading him to grab Hickey’s jacket in frustration in an attempt to force him to pay attention and give a straight answer to his questions. This frightens Hickey, and does get Steed some momentary eye contact. But it doesn’t improve the quality of Hickey’s answers. Steed had invited Hickey in for a drink hoping that this might build some trust between them, possibly because he initially assumed that distrust was the reason for the other man’s apparent evasiveness during the part of their conversation that took place outside. But it doesn’t work: Hickey is no more forthcoming after a beer than he was before one. Hickey’s answers might not make sense to Steed, but he isn’t lying, and he’s not being purposefully evasive. Hickey simply is incapable of communicating the way Steed wants him to. When Steed realizes this, he lets Hickey go, and treats him patiently and gently for the rest of their interaction.

Steed: Hickey! Did you hear anything in here?
Hickey: They’ve all gone away, haven’t they, sir. The camp’s closing down.
Steed: That’s tomorrow. The camp closes tomorrow.
Hickey: Huh. It’s a shame, summer coming and all….

neurodivergence-hourthatneverwas-sightlineFor a good part of the rest of their exchange, Steed stands behind the other man, or to the side and out of his sightline. Only once does Steed stand in front of Hickey: when he describes an episode of feeling “funny,” like he was drunk or dizzy, that happened to him earlier. Steed experienced something like this too, and it could be an important clue to what happened to his friends and to Mrs Peel. Steed’s anxiety leads him to jump in front of Hickey here, but doesn’t touch him or try to force eye contact (although Hickey does make it sometimes), and he works very hard not to let that anxiety compromise his patience with the other man.

neurodivergence-hourthatneverwas-steedbehindThen Hickey goes around the bar to the dart board and starts playing darts while Steed stands behind him. This is more than just staying out of the way while Hickey plays darts: Steed could have stayed within eyeshot and been clear of the path of the darts at the same time, or he could have stood between Hickey and the dart board in an attempt to force Hickey’s attention to himself. Even after Hickey leaves the dartboard behind, Steed still keeps a respectful distance and for the most part stays out of Hickey’s sightline. Steed has recognized Hickey’s discomfort with direct eye contact, and is trying to accommodate him.

During the dart game, Steed tries one more time to get Hickey to say what time it was when weird things started happening:

Steed: Was it early this morning, or later in the day?
Hickey: Lovely sunrise you get over runway number four. Lovely. I heard the clock start striking. Then it stopped. Just like that, the clock stopped striking. It was eleven o’clock.

When Steed asks about morning, it triggers the phrase, “Lovely sunrise you get over runway number four.” This statement—like “the camp is closing,” “nice and cozy,” and “I know my place, outside among the dustbins”—has the feel of a repeated refrain to it.   By using these refrains or scripts, Hickey actually is answering Steed’s questions, in his own fashion. Steed has asked about morning, so Hickey provides Steed with information about what morning is like at the camp. Steed asks about Hickey being outside, so Hickey tells him that he knows that outside is where he belongs. And Steed keeps asking what’s happening at the camp, so Hickey tells him that it’s going to be closing. None of these answers are intended to be evasive or misleading: this is simply how Hickey processes language, and in the end he finally does give Steed the information he wants—all the weird stuff happened at eleven that morning.

There are four important things happening in the course of Hickey’s interaction with Steed that suggest that Hickey might be neurodivergent:

  • very literal understanding of at least some speech, and an apparent inability to decode subtext, at least in some situations
  • use of phrases that have the feel of refrains or scripts
  • avoidance of eye contact
  • what appears to be a certain amount of sensory overwhelm leading to increased  difficulty with eye contact and language processing in a situation involving sudden immersion in a new environment

All of these behaviors are typical of autism. Now, I don’t know for a fact that Hickey is autistic, and this blog is not intended to make a diagnosis. However, the evidence of Hickey’s behavior is certainly suggestive that his particular form of neurodivergence could be autism.

Whatever the nature of Hickey’s disability, it is important to note that at no time does Steed use that disability as an excuse to ridicule or infantilize him, or to treat him disrespectfully. Yes, he gets a little rough at one point (as Steed sometimes does in ticking-clock situations with informants who are trying to mislead him), but this is because he hasn’t yet figured out that the problem is his own expectations about how his questions ought to be answered, not Hickey’s communication style. Initially Steed thinks that the elliptical statements and lack of eye contact mean that he’s dealing with someone who might be trying to avoid giving him information on purpose. However, as soon as he susses that he can’t expect Hickey to give the kind of answers he wants to hear, that Hickey is in fact incapable of communicating in what Steed would consider a more direct fashion, he backs off and tries to work with Hickey to get the information he needs, switching up how he asks the questions, and listening attentively to the other man’s answers, regardless of how tangential or irrelevant they might seem. Steed’s patience and courtesy pay off: Hickey eventually tells him what he wants to know, not because Steed forced him to change how he uses language or to make eye contact, but because he waited and let the other man communicate in his own fashion until the relevant piece of information was supplied.

Steed’s treatment of Hickey is not written in order to glorify him for being a decent human being. Steed doesn’t get a cookie for treating a disabled man as fully human and fully adult. Steed himself doesn’t experience his treatment of Hickey as something extraordinary or as a special act of condescension towards someone he sees as lesser. This is simply how Steed interacts with other people. Steed makes no judgements about Hickey. He assumes Hickey’s goodwill and presumes his competence to communicate, even if that communication style is difficult to follow and understand.

♦  ♦  ♦

Part 2: “Professor Poole and ‘Winged Avenger'” »
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