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Beautiful Landscape

Autistic coding in movies: Poor Things

Bella Baxter, woman with long black hair and yellow dress

To celebrate my autism diagnosis I spent Sunday morning rewatching my new favourite film of all time, Poor Things, created by filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and producer Emma Stone.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate being autistic than to rabbit hole into a topic and then write about it — I identify with Bella so much, being an extrovert autistic female and so this is a wonderful topic to rabbit hole into! I wanted to rewatch the film through a neurodivergent lens and then write up my thoughts. So here goes…

This incredible film pushes boundaries in all directions — it is a testament to all the people who made it that the viewer cannot take anything foregranted in the Poor Things world. Every element — music, scenery, costume, character are fresh and unpredictable. (In fact the only thing that is predictable are the responses of a majority of the men who are trapped in the confines of their pitiful caricatures). My autistic brain loves the eccentricity, the rule- breaking and the uninhibitedness of it all.

woman on chair on a boat

Autistic coding: Questioning the rules

The watching of this movie evokes the experience of what it is like to be Bella — that fresh new green experience of “oh wow, what is this, look at that!” For me it speaks to the wonderfulness of the autistic brain that takes nothing foregranted — the hyperconnected brain that has a forensic eye for detail in questioning everything and not following the rules of ‘how things should go’. In the words of Bella Baxter who questions everything, including the rules of the brothel:

“As God my father says, it is only the way it us until we discover the new way it is, and then that is the way it is until we discover the new way it is and so it goes until the world is no longer flat, electricity lights the night and shoes are no longer tied with ribbons.”

Neurodivergent brains question the norm and the rules of how things have always been done. It often takes the eyes of a neurodivergent person to point at the absurdity of the rules of the workplace or society.

Other neurodivergent coding I noted as I watched the movie

A reborn identity

For me there is something here that is reminiscent of what I see in my clients when they discover they are neurodivergent and are reborn into the identity they’ve always had but never knew. It can lead to a rediscovery of autistic joy through sensory seeking and a reframing of the essential need for neurodivergent pleasures, whatever they may be.

Joy in special interests

I think about how autistic people can find unadulterated autistic joy in their passions, whether they be plushies, train sets, Dr. Who, incredible film sets or Taylor Swift. I think Bella would definitely be part of the tribe of deep divers into the unique dimension of special interest. The movie in itself is a celebration of deep dives into special interests, from the detailed tattoos on Madam Swiney’s body to the swirling skies painted by British artist Chris Parks to the fantastical scenery by Shona Heath and James Price.

Bella smashing plates for the sake of it or sticking her knife into the corpse’s eyes because it’s squishy.

Vestibular imbalance

Bella’s awkward walking, the awkwardness of her limbs. (When an autistic person has dysregulation of the vestibular system, the body may not move confidently or smoothly.


Bella clapping when she’s happy. (Something you'll see me do it you have therapy with me!)

Taking things literally …throughout the whole film!

Autistic joy

Lying in the leaves, not caring about the rules of adults. The way she eats cakes in Lisbon with abandoned joy.

Not assuming anything

Having a new and fresh unassuming look on the world. Autistic brains work from ground up, focusing in on the detail. Bella trusts her observations, empirical facts, and comes to conclusions. (Neurotypical brains work the other way round. They tend to start with conclusions then work to fill up the details)

Autistic meltdown

In the carriage when Godwin, Bella and Max are returning from an outing, Bella wants to continue experiencing the world, and challenges Godwin as to why she can’t go out, to which God replies ‘ ‘just no’. Her complete meltdown at the injustice of there being no explanation. Her complete meltdown at the unexplained reasons for the ‘no’. I’m reminded of how autistic meltdown can come as a result of being a square peg forced into round holes of neurotypical structures which may make no sense but are ‘just the way we do things around here’.

Trusting one’s instinct

When Wedderburn speaks with Bella on the roof, she says “Bella not safe with you I think”. Then when she speaks to God, she says “I will marry Max as he seems right for that, but first I will adventure on Duncan Wedderburn who I think cares little of damage to me, but will be interesting as well.” I appreciate so much the beauty of the script in how it shows Bella naming her gut feelings about the unscrupulous Wedderburn, and at the same time going ahead to journey with him. Something here about how a common autistic marker might be ‘being able to see the trees but not the wood’, the detail but not the bigger picture. Also, I’m reminded of how I work with my clients to really build trust in their gut instinct which is more often than not bang on, but which has been gaslighted over many years by people saying they are ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘overly dramatic’.

Autistic/ADHD paradox of novelty versus routine

Bella’s adventure into “sugar and violence” really brings to mind for me the autistic ADHD paradox of wanting to immerse oneself in novelty and indulgence at the same time as experiencing burnout (or throwing up which is what Bella does) from doing so.

Austistic/ADHD stimulation

Bella becomes bored easily and often desires stimulation, she incessantly hyper focuses on special interests and all things new.

Not knowing the rules

Bella: “I must go punch that baby!”

Using rehearsed words

Duncan and his polite society friends at the table, where he tells Bella to only say the phrases ‘delightful’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘how do they make the pastries so crisp?’, where Bella then uses the phrases completely in appropriately when the polite-society-lady is talking about her father’s death.

Bella’s wild dancing

Oh I love the way that Bella dances with such chaotic abandon. Duncan seems to try and blend her moves into something more socially acceptable like scottish dancing and waltzing, but Bella’s moves continuously break the mould of what he tries to constrict her in. I’m not at all saying that autistic people dance wildly, but I certainly do, and I don’t care who’s on the dance floor watching. I just love to dance and have fun!!

Not knowing quite how to console a crying person

The way Bella consoles Duncan when he’s crying in the bar after he discovers that she has been with another man. She calls him a ‘confusing man’ and awkwardly taps him on the back.

Autistic paradox: How autistic people can find complex work easy but find the every day more out of reach.

Duncan to Bella: What the fuck are you talking about? Who are you? You don’t know what bananas are, you’ve never heard of chess, and yet you know what ‘empirically’ means.

Autistic tactile sensory seeking

Bella: “Hello interesting older lady. I must touch your hair.”

Autistic hyper-empathy

When Harry shows Bella the cruelty of the world — dead babies in the searing sun and she is the violin intensity of her sobbing. I am reminded of autistic clients I work with who have no choice but to have hyper-empathic hearts that are open to the cruelty of the world and are continuously bruised by it. I often work with people whose souls have also been “buckled, crumpled flattened” by their attunement to the pain of feeling the pain of others.

Autistic naivety

The way Bella takes all Duncan’s money for the poor and gives it to unscrupulous sailors who Bella calls “some nice men” (Some) Autistic people can fall into trusting what others say because they don’t look for hidden agendas. Why would they when they themselves don’t have them. ‘I mean what I say and say what I mean’ is a phrase I often hear in the counselling room when talking with autistic clients.

Bella’s unerring hope, even in the face of cynicism

To believe that the world can be improved through learning and effort. I believe this too. I do not know if this is naive. And I do not care. I’m not sure if this is an autistic thing. I do think though that neurodivergent brains love to learn.

Sophisticated vocabulary

I love Bella’s vocabulary. With Madame Swiney at the brothel, Bella says:

“I have never been cocked by another man, and yet have wondered on that. And am in need of funds. It is, I believe, a confluence of circumstances I regard as almost fate like. Let us do this.”

It is often said that (some) autistic people have a sophisticated vocabulary, something I really relate strongly to. And, I love that word “confluence”. I discovered that word recently and words are like treasure for me! It is something about wanting to be precisely accurate in how I word things, and so more precise words are incredibly important.

Inventing new systems, doing things differently

I love how Bella finds a way to beat the brothel system of not being able to choose who she sleeps with, and so instead she invents a a system so that she can enjoy the sex. Which involves creating a connection with the person through the telling of a joke and hearing a childhood memory.

Sexual diversity

Being introduced to Bella enjoying sexual intimacy with her female friend. There is a significant overlap between neurodivergence and sexual diversity.

I acknowledge that the film involves the narrative of a woman selling her body in order to progress in the world. I am not going to go into this topic area because it is vast in itself. I will instead direct you to different opinion pieces that you may like to read: Farout Magazine, Rape Relief Centre, Medium opinion piece.

Final reflections

Since watching the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I’ve enjoyed bringing her into mind and when I do, she encourages me to notice my masking more. She helps me to find my playfulness and she agrees with me when I protest and speak directly. This is how I prefer to be really, but often others can at times not greatly appreciate my honesty and directness! Bella allows me to connect into a rebellious wish for unadulterated unmasking that is usually hidden buried underneath the daily grind of adulthood.

For me, she is the forthrightness of Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, Wednesday Gibbons and Pippy Longstocking all rolled into one.

And I am so glad she has joined the world of forthright heroines.

All photo credits: Searchlight Pictures


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