This is the third installment in a three-part blog. Please refer to Part 1 for the premise of my argument and important background information. You can read Part 2 here.
So now we arrive at the pièce de résistance: Neurodivergent Steed. For some time now, I have had a headcanon that Steed is neurodivergent, albeit not autistic. Specifically, I think he has attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Although the word “disorder” is incorporated into these diagnoses, it’s important to keep in mind that these are forms of neurodivergence, and therefore some of the many kinds of variation in the human neurotype: they are not mental illnesses.
The following traits are things that lead me to suspect neurodivergence for Steed:
- sensory processing issues:
- sensory seeking behavior
- issues with executive function:
- academic difficulties despite obvious high intelligence
- task switching and time management
- emotional processing issues:
- taste for stressful environments and risk taking
It is important to note that it is not just one or two of these traits that lead me to believe that Steed might be ADD/ADHD: it is the whole constellation taken together. While it is true that neurotypical people also engage in these behaviors, they are observed more consistently or to a greater degree in people who are neurodivergent, and they occur in ways that cause problems with functioning in a world set up by and for neurotypicals. And herein lies the disability: it’s not the neurology that’s the problem, but rather lack of accommodation for the needs of the neurodivergent. Steed does exhibit a lot of neurodivergent behavior, and his neurodivergence colors how he deals with his environment, his relationships, and his job, but he also has found ways to make his neurodivergence work in his favor.
¤ Sensory Processing ¤
“moments of triumph on the rugger field”
There are two flavors of response to sensory input in neurodivergent people: sensory-avoidant and sensory-seeking. These are not mutually exclusive. The same person can be sensory-avoidant with some things and sensory-seeking with others—for example, be touch-avoidant but engage in vestibular stimming—or be sensory-avoidant one day and sensory-seeking the next.
Sensory-seeking behavior is one important clue that often leads to a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. Sensory-seeking behavior is employed when the brain and nervous system become hyposensitive to sensory input. There’s not enough stimulation going on, and it feels wrong. This leads the neurodivergent person to engage in physical behaviors that stimulate the brain and nervous system. Often these behaviors involve things like: making noise, either vocally or with objects; bumping one’s body into things or other people (this is one that often gets kids in trouble at school); piling heavy things on top of oneself; or doing activities that engage the vestibular system, like repeatedly jumping off a diving board or jungle gym, or doing cartwheels or somersaults. These things are also a lot of fun, and they feel good, especially to folks with a sensory-seeking need.
Steed frequently engages in such sensory-seeking behaviors. He is attracted to sports that require lots of movement and jarring contact of one kind or another. He likes fencing, which for Steed entails getting poked and whacked with a sabre, and poking and whacking someone else in return, plus the auditory and tactile experience of the beat and clash of the blades and the pressure of the mask and heavy vest. He also plays rugby, which involves running, throwing, kicking, jumping, blocking, tackling, scrums and, if you’re a wing three-quarter like Steed, flinging oneself onto the turf across the touchline for a try. His job often requires him to run, climb, jump over obstacles, and to engage in unarmed combat, involving punching, kicking, and other forms of abrupt, forceful bodily contact, for which he presumably continues to train on a more or less regular basis in order to keep up his skills. (It’s important to note that in contact sports or combat activities what he is seeking is not the infliction or reception of pain and injury, but rather the deep touch and impact of tackles or throws or thrusts.)
NB: I am not saying that Steed took the job as an agent specifically so that he could hit people. He could have had enough of that on the rugby field, in the boxing ring, or in the judo dojo. Nor am I saying that he specifically seeks out fights with the bad guys in order to regulate his sensory systems. However, his predilection for this kind of sensory experience is probably one of the reasons he is good at his job and enjoys it: he might not go looking for fights, and he might not always have fun with them, but he still finds that kind of physical challenge important and satisfying.
Steed also is attracted to other, more gentle forms of sensory input. In “Town of No Return” he can’t resist having a whirl on the merry-go-round (vestibular stimulation). In “Cybernauts” he must trail his umbrella across the corrugated interior of the lift just to see what that sounds and feels like (tactile/auditory). While he’s waiting for Mrs Peel to dress in “From Venus With Love,” he picks up her foil and drags the tip across the her bird statue, partly for the sensation of bodily motion involved in the thrust and partly for the vibration and sound that results from the blade’s contact with the rough surface of the statue. Then he inserts the point of the foil into the top of the lamp, after which he takes a poke at the back of the sofa (vestibular/tactile/auditory). He can’t just give Cathy a gentlemanly hand down from the ladder in “Death on the Rocks”: he has to hoist her onto his shoulders and wave her about and then dump her onto the couch (deep pressure/tactile).
〈 ◊ ◊ ◊ 〉
when is an umbrella not an umbrella?
when it’s a fidget
Although Steed certainly has the ability to sit still, more often than not he’s in some kind of motion. We certainly see this in the gifs above. Take the one from “From Venus With Love,” for example. He could have sat on the couch and waited patiently for Emma to get dressed, but he doesn’t. He can’t. He sees the foil, and immediately he has to start messing around with it, waving it about, making sounds with it, testing it on different surfaces, practicing his footwork. Another spate of fidgeting happens when he switches the music to something more up-tempo in “Death of a Great Dane.” He doesn’t sit quietly and listen while he and Cathy talk: he swings his hands and his knees in time with the music.
Neurodivergent people frequently have a need to fidget or stim (short for “self-stimulating behavior”) as part of their regulation of their sensory systems. The brains of people with ADD/ADHD often lack the data filtering system that would normally streamline the flow of incoming information that helps the brain decide what information to pay attention to and what to ignore. I like to describe it as being a bit like the difference between drinking water out of a kitchen faucet (NT) or trying to drink out of a firehose (ADD/ADHD): the water from the faucet has been directed and its flow controlled so that it comes out in a nice, smooth, controlled stream, while the firehose is one big blast of water all at once. Fidgets and stimming are necessary for people with ADD/ADHD because this motion actually helps their brain to filter and process incoming sensory information. Foot tapping or twirling a pencil might look like inattention or impatience to a neurotypical person, but actually they’re quite the opposite: they’re a tool to aid attention and to help the fidgeting person stay calm, minimizing sensory overwhelm.
tl;dr: Steed fidgets. A lot.
When he starts moving to the music in “Death of a Great Dane,” he’s partly responding to having some fun jazz playing on the stereo, and he does like to dance, after all. But there are also a lot of other things going on just then. He’s trying to carry on an important conversation with Cathy about the case they’re working, which means processing both received and produced speech; the sound of the music is an additional thing he has to process; he has a beautiful woman he loves very much next to him, who probably is wearing a perfume he likes; and in the background his mind is whirring with the effort of fitting the pieces of the case together and probably thinking about five other things at the same time. Yes, the motion is expressing his pleasure with the music and getting to hang out with Cathy: stimming is fun as well as being functional. I think both pleasure and function are in play, here.
Steed does other small thinking fidgets, too: he nibbles a piece of clothesline in “School for Traitors”; he taps his chin with his brolly when he’s puzzling something out (“Winged Avenger”).
Which brings us to the most important fidget of all: his umbrella. That umbrella is more than just a part of his outfit. It’s more than a handy place to hide a sword, or a weapon in its own right, and it’s more than something with which to keep off the rain. It’s a fidget.
Steed doesn’t just carry the umbrella. He’s constantly swinging it, twirling it, waving it around, tossing it in the air, tapping it against his shoulder, prodding things with it.
Using the umbrella as a fidget gives him an outlet for his boundless energy, and it helps him to deal with the things he experiences in his environment. In the two gifs above, Steed is entering these places for the first time. They’re unfamiliar to him, and he’s on enemy territory. He needs to stay alert and focused. Fidgeting with the umbrella is a good way to do that, for him.
¤ Issues With Executive Function ¤
“moments of failure in an examination”
An eminent economist has been murdered, and the trail of clues leads to St Bode’s College (“A Sense of History”). Steed and Emma go under cover as visiting academics. Per their usual method, they arrive separately and pretend not to know one another. When they meet up privately in one of the classrooms and begin discussing the case, Steed starts waxing rhapsodic about his memories of being at university.
Steed: The tea and crumpets … the proctor and his bullfrogs … larking about in a punt. Moments of triumph on the rugger field!
Emma: Moments of failure in an examination….
I think it is telling both that things like punting and rugby are what Steed seems to value most about his school days, and also that Emma reminds him that his academic performance was not exactly stellar. Steed is obviously an extremely intelligent man. He was at Eton College as a boy, and his speech in this scene confirms that he went to university (fan opinion is divided about whether he completed his degree or not). Steed speaks, understands, and/or reads several foreign languages, including French, German, Greek, and possibly Chinese; he’s a quick study, inhaling big chunks of information in preparation for or in the course of solving a case, and he has an excellent memory; he’s extremely attentive to nuance and detail; he’s quick-witted and a champion improviser, both verbally and in terms of physical movement and dramatic expression. But apparently the standard academic process, which includes examinations, was not something that worked for him.
I see no reason to believe that Emma is not speaking the truth, here. People with ADD/ADHD frequently struggle with the way academic subjects tend to be presented and with the way academic performance tends to be evaluated. Despite the moniker “attention deficit disorder,” ADD/ADHD isn’t strictly a global inability to pay attention or focus on things: it’s more of a difference in the way attention is allocated. People with ADD/ADHD have executive function issues that cause problems with initiating, sustaining, and completing tasks, especially those that do not interest them. This is a problem with the wiring of the brain, not a conscious decision to slack off. (We’ll discuss neurodivergence and interest/attention further in the section on hyperfocus and time management, below.)
Academic work is comprised of a whole passel of assignments, exercises, and exams, and while the subject matter itself might be of interest to the neurodivergent person, the process of completing assessments often is not. And even when it is a subject they like, even when they really want to do the work and do it well, problems with executive function can impair their ability to successfully complete their work on time, or sometimes even at all. If Steed is ADD/ADHD, it is completely credible that he might be extremely intelligent but unable to complete schoolwork or do well on exams. This would stand in stark contrast to his success as an athlete. It’s no wonder that the fond memories he has of school have to do with sports.
In the second quarter of the twentieth century (the time period during which Steed was at school) this kind of neurodivergence was not generally recognized. His status as a likely twice-exceptional student (both unusually intelligent and neurologically disabled) would have made it difficult for the adults around him to reconcile his advanced intellectual ability with his problems with executive function. His inability to perform satisfactorily in his academic subjects and in other tasks like tidying his room or keeping track of his belongings very likely would have been put down to laziness or defiance, not disability, creating a cycle of abuse that could have made the young Steed defiant for real over his schoolwork and other responsibilities. (Author’s note: Yay for gaslighting! )
〈 ◊ ◊ ◊ 〉
lone wolves and cunning foxes
And now on to Steed’s encounter with One-Six (played by Michael Gover) in “Man in the Mirror.” There’s a lot going on in this exchange between Steed and his boss. I catalogued some of these things in an earlier blog. Here I’m going to concentrate on the aspects that seem to relate directly to Steed’s neurodivergence.
One-Six: Steed! You look under the weather. Are you all right?
One-Six: Then why are you late?
Steed: I had trouble with the weather.
One-Six: You haven’t worked for me before, so for your information, I expect everybody on my team to attend my briefings on time. If you can’t do that, I don’t see how you can stay ahead of the opposition.
Steed: For your information, I’ve been in this business for quite some time, and so far I’ve managed to keep ahead of the opposition.
Steed has arrived late for a division briefing called by One-Six, his new supervisor. One-Six thinks that Steed is flouting his authority by not being on time. He insinuates that Steed is slacking at his job. At the end of the scene, One-Six dangles a case in front of Steed, but as soon as Steed shows an interest, One-Six tells him that he won’t be the field agent: he’ll be stuck in the office doing the paperwork. He tells Steed, “I’ll have no lone wolves on my team.”
Steed knows that he is supposed to go to the briefing, but he doesn’t really want to go. Briefings are boring. He wants to be out in the field doing stuff, or reading case files or doing research preparing to be out in the field doing stuff. That’s what he loves; that’s what he’s good at; that’s what makes him tick. When he gets to the place where the meeting is being held, he not only arrives late, he doesn’t go in right away. He stands outside and talks to Iris, a woman who works at the club that’s being used as a blind for the Ministry’s meeting, before going inside. Steed arrives at the meeting just as One-Six is wrapping things up, pissing him off.
Initiating tasks is part of executive function, as is time management. Steed hangs out with Iris instead of going in to the meeting because talking to her is fun and interesting, but he knows the meeting is going to be boring as hell and he simply can’t convince himself to go in there. He knows he’s late, he knows he’s not where he’s supposed to be, but he can’t bring himself to go downstairs where he’s going to have to sit still and not fidget and listen to his boss drone on about random stuff, most of which probably won’t affect him anyway. This is partly a conscious decision on Steed’s part, but I’m willing to bet that executive function does play into it in some degree.
Part of Steed’s reason for being late very likely is a desire to thumb his nose at authority. Steed has a hard time dealing with people who try to tell him how to do his job and how to manage his time. These traits are also part of ADD/ADHD: people with this form of neurodivergence often have difficulty accepting instruction when they’ve already decided how something should be done. This is an executive function issue related to task switching. Fortunately for the national security, Steed is usually right about doing things his way, but it doesn’t help him in his relationship with his superiors.
That One-Six upbraids Steed in public and accuses him of slacking on the job isn’t helpful. Steed probably got a lot of that kind of thing when he was in school: accusations that he wasn’t paying attention when in fact he was trying very hard to do so; getting in trouble for poor grades because he couldn’t cope with academic structure, even though he’s ridiculously smart and probably knew the material inside and out; insistence that he use time and move his body in neurotypical ways when those things are simply impossible for him to do. It’s no wonder that Steed has problems with authority, and it is very much to Steed’s credit that he manages to keep his temper and reply to One-Six in a manner that is more or less civil.
But once that bait of a new case is waved in front of him, Steed takes the bit between his teeth and starts doing fieldwork on it anyway, in defiance of orders. Hyperfocus has taken over. (Please see Part 2 for an explanation of hyperfocus.) He’s not going to sit in some dank office pushing paper, no sir. That’s not interesting. Questioning witnesses and following up on clues is interesting. That’s where Steed is going to put his attention, and that’s where his attention is going to stay until the villainous plot is foiled and the perpetrators brought to book.
¤ Emotional Processing Issues ¤
the danger maker
Steed has a dangerous job. He has to face villains who have no compunctions about committing murder, who would just as soon kill him as look at him, and who try to do just that. He gets shot at least once (in “Little Wonders”) and shot at dozens of times. And at the end of every case there’s some kind of donnybrook with the baddies, involving fists or swords or other things that Steed turns into weapons as needed.
Steed is a courageous man with a deep thirst for justice. He works as an agent for the Ministry because he wants to protect innocent people and he wants to keep his country safe. He despises the evil that the villains do, and he wants to be the one to put them out of business. He risks his body and his life in order to do this.
Just as people with ADD/ADHD need sensory stimulation, they also are drawn to types of behavior that provide emotional stimulation. Working in a dangerous, stressful job is one way for a person with ADD/ADHD to turn their disability to their advantage. Yes, Steed does find many of his cases nerve-wracking, and he has PTSD that occasionally pulls the rug out from under him. But going into the lion’s den is what makes life worth living for him. He needs that challenge.
However, he also acknowledges that taking risks for their own sake is not a good way to be a productive citizen. Yes, he gets to fight and hunt the bad guys, and walk the razor’s edge and rejoice that he’s still alive at the end of it, but that’s not the primary reason he does what he does. His taste for risk and his delight in the physical and mental challenges of his job are tools that he uses to make the world a better place. In fact, in “The Danger Makers” we see his contempt for people who not only take stupid risks for no good reason but who also endanger innocent people and commit crimes just for the adrenaline rush.
〈 ◊ ◊ ◊ 〉
“i gave them you”
An unknown third party has been killing enemy agents. Steed goes to visit Keller (played by Warren Mitchell), the head of the opposition’s organization. The two men agree that they should work together, and propose a hostage swap: an opposition agent will work with Steed, and Steed will provide someone from his side to work with the opposition. Of course the first person that comes to mind is Catherine Gale. Without consulting her, he decides that she is the one he will give.
Once he gets to the point where he has to break the news to her, though, he realizes that putting her in that position without asking her might not have been the best idea. When he gets home, he invites Cathy over for a drink. She keeps asking him how his meeting went. He’s hopping around like water droplets on a red-hot skillet, so Cathy knows something is up. She finally gets him to admit what’s bothering him and, quite understandably, she is first horrified, then livid.
Steed: Marvellous experience, you’ll enjoy it.
Cathy: I’ll enjoy it? What did you give them?
Steed: I, er, gave them you.
Impulsivity is an important marker for ADD/ADHD. The neural wiring that comes with ADD/ADHD makes it more difficult for the neurodivergent person to control their impulses. This can lead to problems with things like emotional outbursts and risk-taking behavior.
Steed’s decision to offer Cathy as the hostage from his side is an impulsive one. The idea presents itself, and he acts on it without really considering the ramifications. Cathy accuses him of being sly and calculating, but that’s not really what happened here. There was no calculation involved. Steed needed to make a decision, so he made one, and once he made that decision he kept going down that track. He doesn’t promise Cathy to Keller directly at their meeting: he says that he’ll find someone and they arrange to meet later at Steed’s place for the swap. He had the time to go in to the office and find a Ministry employee who could do the job. But his first idea is to involve Cathy, and he can’t switch tracks once he’s decided on his destination. Executive dysfunction in the form of impulsivity and problems with task switching are at play here, just as much as Steed’s desire to have Cathy participate in his life and work with him is.
Impulsivity can be problematic, but it also has an important flip side: that kind of quick thinking and quick decision-making is something that Steed uses to his advantage all the time. He’s incredibly creative, and a fantastic improviser, creating new personas and riffing dialogue for them at a moment’s notice, or turning what he thought would be a sword but turns out to be a fly-flicker into something that will defeat his enemy anyhow. Yes, sometimes his impulsivity gets him into trouble, but more often than not it helps him find solutions to problems about which he must make decisions in seconds or less, with lives on the line.
We see this in “The Danger Makers.” Steed and Emma have been captured by the bad guys. Steed is shackled to a pillar in the dungeon, and the Major is sent down to execute him. Playing on the Major’s sense of honor and his code of risk-taking, Steed suggests they put the gun in the middle of the table and count to three. Whoever gets the gun first wins and can shoot the other man. Of course Steed has no intention of letting the whole game play out. After the Major says “two,” Steed jumps for the gun. When the Major protests, Steed says, “Sorry, Major. I never did believe in rules.”
¤ Neurodivergent Steed ¤
John Steed is a complicated man. He has a difficult and dangerous job that he enjoys and meets his need for constant challenges. He also has issues with executive function and sensory regulation that impact his ability to do his work and conduct his relationships with other people. But these issues are also strengths for him. His impulsivity manifests in creativity and the kind of quick thinking that saves his life and the lives of others, over and over again. His sensory-seeking behaviors allow him to excel in a job that requires a lot of physical activity and to not shrink from the clash of bodies or weapons that happen in a fight. He knows he can’t rely on neurotypical ways of doing things, so he has forged his own path and sticks to it, regardless of what other people say he should do. And he takes endless delight in the array of sensory experiences that he encounters every day.
So yeah. Steed is neurodivergent. That is his weakness, but it’s also very much his strength.