Neurodivergence in The Avengers, Part 2: Professor Poole in “Winged Avenger”

This is the second installment in a three-part blog. Please refer to Part 1 for the premise of my argument and important background information.

Someone has been scaling the walls of very tall buildings, breaking windows, and then shredding to death the people they find in the rooms they invade. Steed and Mrs Peel follow a chain of clues that lead them to one Professor Poole (played by Jack MacGowran), an inventor whose work may have made those murders possible. They drive out to the professor’s country house in order to interview him, but noone answers the doorbell. This is because the professor is out on the grounds jumping around and flapping a large set of what look like bat wings. He bounds towards the house as Steed and Mrs Peel look on.


They’re not quite sure what to make of this odd little man and his flappy wings. But although they’re a bit puzzled, they seem to take a certain amount of delight in watching the professor’s approach. And it’s a true delight: there’s no condescension or mockery there.


The professor finally decides that his new invention isn’t working, so he gives up. He tromps up the stairs, mumbling to himself, and pushes past Emma and Steed as though they weren’t even there.


Steed and Emma follow the professor inside. We see that he lives in a well-appointed house that is decorated with many models of things that fly. These models are a little out of place in what is otherwise a very traditional interior, but they reaffirm an important facet of Professor Poole’s character: birds and flight are things that he is obsessively interested in.


Steed and Emma introduce themselves to the professor, and try to get the conversation onto a track that might yield information about the case they’re working. But the professor is stuck on the idea of birds. When the professor hears Mrs Peel’s name in conjunction with Steed having spoken his own, he asks her whether she has heard of the “Indonesian marsh rambler,” and proceeds to imitate its call: peel-pool.

Professor: Peeeel-poool!

Then Poole abruptly turns away, talking to himself about the marsh rambler (“delightful creature!”). Steed and Emma try to get his attention again. He whirls around and demands that Steed and Emma tell him what they want. They say they want to talk to him about his work. He very brusquely says that he has no time for questions, and stalks off in the direction of the staircase.

Professor: Questions? Me? No time. No time!

Steed and Emma follow the professor and try to get his attention again. He turns around and sees them at the foot of the staircase, greets them as though he hadn’t seen them yet today, then asks them why they’re still there. This is followed by an odd exchange where the professor starts talking about ostriches. Steed and Emma try to get him to talk about the boots he invented, the ones that allow a person to walk up vertical surfaces. Although they can’t get Poole to talk about the special boots, they do get him to admit (albeit obliquely) that such boots do exist. Poole realizes he may have committed an indiscretion, and abruptly ends the conversation, saying he has work to do.

Emma: Ah, now, Professor, if you remember you promised to show us your latest invention.
Professor: Nonsense. Consider the ostrich. What have we done with the  ostrich?
Steed: … True. But could you possibly—

Professor: To watch a man walking is to see a clumsy machine. To watch a bird flying is to witness a vision.
Emma (off camera): Ah, but even a bird has to come down to earth some time.
Professor: A mere detail. My work is to free man from his shackles.
Steed: And if not on the wing, then why not in boots?
Professor: Precisely. Boots.  … I have work to do.

At the top of the stairs, Professor Poole unlocks the door to his study. He finds that Steed and Emma have followed him yet again. He tells them to go away and leave him alone, citing the extinction of the dodo as an example of what happens to things that aren’t left alone. He goes into his study, but before slamming the door on Steed and Emma, he makes a very birdlike motion with his head.

Emma: Oh, come now, Professor. You wrote—
Professor: Why do you persist in bothering me? Why can’t you leave me alone? Was not the dodo warning enough?
Steed: … Dodo?
Professor: Wouldn’t leave that alone. And now it’s extinct. Gone.
(Poole goes into his study)
Professor: And so have I.

Curious to find out what Poole is up to, Steed gives Emma a leg up so she can peer through the transom. She finds that the professor has taken off his wing contraption and climbed onto a set of bars attached to the opposite wall, where he is now hanging upside down.

Later in the episode, Emma visits the professor again, and finds that the boots not only exist, but they work. The professor has nailed a desk and chair to the ceiling so that he can work there, strapped into his chair upside down, while wearing his boots. When Emma asks him to come down and talk to her, he walks across the ceiling and then down the wall.

Several aspects of Professor Poole’s behavior suggest that he might be neurodivergent:

  • obsessive interest in a single topic
  • tendency to hyperfocus
  • tendency to infodump on subjects that interest him
  • difficulty with task switching
  • difficulty with social interaction
  • atypical ways of moving
  • need for vestibular stimulation

Although this is a slightly different array of behaviors from those Hickey exhibits in “Hour That Never Was” (with the exception of difficulties with social interaction and task switching), these are also traits that manifest commonly in autistics. As I mentioned in the post about Hickey, I am not in the business of making diagnoses. But the evidence of the professor’s behavior does point in the general direction of autism.

The first four behaviors (special interests, hyperfocus, infodumping, and task switching) are all linked. Autistics tend to have a small set of activities or hobbies, usually called “special interests,” that they love intensely and would spend almost all their time doing if they could. (Mine is The Avengers. But you probably guessed that already.) Autistics are drawn to detail, and minute examination of the detail of the things they love—in Professor Poole’s case, birds and flight—is an important part of the pursuit of the special interest.

One of the traits that allows such attention to a special interest is hyperfocus, which is connected to problems with task switching. Hyperfocus is an ability to engage in a particular task sometimes to the exclusion of almost all other stimuli, and executive function problems with switching from one task to the next can make it very difficult for a person who experiences hyperfocus to break away from a task that they are immersed in, even to do things like eat (assuming they even notice that they’re hungry in the first place, which can be impeded by hyperfocus). Hyperfocus and difficulty with task switching appear in autism but are also traits of ADD/ADHD.  We see this with Professor Poole when he brushes past Steed and Emma on the stoop. He’s not being purposefully rude: he’s busy thinking about his wings project and probably hasn’t even noticed that they’re there. In fact, he doesn’t notice them until they’re in his house and Steed starts talking to him. And even then Poole can’t make the switch from thinking about birds and flight to being able to talk to these strangers in a manner that would make sense to a neurotypical person, such as introductions and an exchange of information about why the strangers are there and what they want. Instead, the sound of Emma’s name back to back with his own lead Poole to start talking about a bird whose call sounds like peel-poole. When he’s done with that he turns away, still nattering about marsh ramblers, forgetting that he has guests, until Steed calls him back.

Which brings us to infodumping. Talking about the special interest is almost as much fun as engaging in it. While Poole’s dialogue in this episode does not constitute a true infodump—it’s much too brief—he does display that tendency. With the sound of Mrs Peel’s name, he starts going on about Indonesian marsh ramblers. On the stairs, he starts talking about ostriches and the beauty of flight. And when Mrs Peel and Steed try to steer him back to the topic they’re interested in—the boots—an attempt to bamboozle him fails: Mrs Peel says that he promised to show them his work, to which the professor replies, “Nonsense.” He knows he did no such thing. But when Steed catches the coattails of Poole’s discursus on flight and mentions “boots,” Poole is very nearly swept up into an infodump on the boots, the creation of which is one of his special interests. He catches himself before starting the dump, but not before he realizes that he has accidentally confirmed the existence of the boots, which he was trying to keep a secret.

Throughout this exchange with Steed and Emma, we see that Poole is unconcerned with the niceties of polite social interaction. He doesn’t see that he has guests on his stoop and breezes right past them. When he finally notices them and asks what they want, he does it in a way that is very abrupt. When they tell him they want to talk to him about his work, he dashes off like the White Rabbit, exclaiming that he has no time for that. When he discovers that Steed and Emma are standing at the foot of the staircase, he asks them why they’re still there.

Difficulty with social interaction is one of the hallmark traits of autism. It involves a whole complex of issues, including, but not limited to: autistic difficulty with unspoken social norms or rules that NTs seem to know and employ instinctively; difficulty with speech processing, both received and produced; and dislike for or inability to engage in “small talk.” These seem to be manifesting in Professor Poole’s behavior. He’s not being purposefully rude: he doesn’t understand how NT social interaction works or, if he does, can’t fathom why things need to be done that way and therefore can’t be bothered because it doesn’t make sense to him. Steed and Emma also have pounced on him unawares, so to speak. They just show up on his doorstep and expect him to have a conversation with them with no chance to prepare for that social interaction. This means that Poole hasn’t had time to make sure he has the right social scripts engaged for at least part of the conversation (assuming he uses social scripts at all), and he finds it almost impossible to disengage enough from his special interest to have anything close to the kind of conversation Steed and Emma might usually expect if their interlocutor were neurotypical.

Professor Poole has his own idiosyncratic way of moving. Many of his gestures and motions are birdlike, which probably was chosen by the actor or director or both as an outward manifestation of Poole’s obsession with birds, and as a further tie-in with the bird-themed episode. However, many autistics do move in ways that are different from neurotypical types of motion. One reason for this has to do with difficulties in motor planning, where the person’s brain might know perfectly well what the body needs to do, but the message somehow gets lost in translation and the action can’t be carried out well or maybe can’t be carried out at all. This dyspraxia sometimes can manifest itself in ways of moving that are different from those of a neurotypical person. Other autistics are echopraxic, meaning that they have the tendency to exactly mimic motion that they see. That Professor Poole mimics birdlike motions could be a conscious adoption of that movement, or it could be completely unconscious. Either way, it’s something that results from his intensive studies of birds and their behaviors.

And last but not least: Professor Poole’s sensory-seeking behavior, especially with regard to vestibular stimulation. The vestibular system is part of our auditory system, and is the one that helps us with things like balance and orienting ourselves in space. Some autistics, and others with neurodivergences such as ADD/ADHD have a need for active stimulation of the vestibular system. This is achieved by doing things like rocking, jumping, spinning, or hanging upside down. In some cases, things like rocking or jumping are a form of stimming (“stim” is short for “self-stimulating behavior”), which helps a neurodivergent person regulate the flow of incoming sensory data and calm a hyperactive, hypersensitive sensory system. Sometimes, though, it’s a kind of prod to a sensory system that is being sluggish in processing that data. The nervous system isn’t getting enough stimulation, so the body needs to provide it. When we meet the Professor, he is running and jumping across the grounds of his home. Then later, we learn that he likes to be upside down when he relaxes or even when he is working. Both these behaviors involve stimulation of the vestibular system.

Throughout the exchange with Professor Poole, Steed and Emma maintain a polite and professional demeanor. They are not offended when he charges past them into his house, nor are they put off by his abrupt and seemingly rude style of conversation. They give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not purposely trying to offend them. In fact, they both seem to find him sweet and delightful: they understand that birds and flight are things that are really, really important to him, and they think it’s really cool that he feels free to pursue that passion. There’s no mockery or contempt intended by either Emma or Steed, even as they find the Professor’s behavior somewhat amusing.

Although Steed and Emma keep trying to swing the conversation around to the subject of the boots, they don’t try to force it. They listen carefully to what the Professor has to say, and when it becomes clear that this will not be a standard exchange of information, they meet him where he is at and enter the conversation from his end. Emma attempts to grease the wheels by noting that it’s good weather for flying. When the Professor asks about the state of the ostrich, Steed makes noises of agreement, even though he’s not quite sure why the subject of ostriches has been introduced. Emma does make one misstep in trying to pull the wool over the Professor’s eyes: she underestimates how with it he actually is. Steed, however, latches on to Poole’s special interest, and this gets him to admit to the existence of the boots. And in their later exchange, Emma at first is surprised to find Professor Poole upside down on the ceiling, but then she smiles at him, and again her attitude is one of delight, not ridicule or mockery, and she doesn’t try any funny business with him this time. She might think him sweet and a little odd, but she knows that he is intelligent and creative, and her conversation with him is respectful, if a little sardonic. But Emma talks to everyone that way, so it’s not an attempt to treat Poole any differently than she does anyone else.

♦  ♦  ♦

Continue to Part 3: “Neurodivergent Steed?”
« Go back to Part 1


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