It’s very easy to focus on the things we dislike in reviews. Doing so allows us a safe outlet for expressing our anger we usually sublimate in other issues. So it’s tempting for me in this moment to write about a trope I dislike, the unlikable autistic, and use that as an outlet for such feelings. It’s tempting and I’m certainly thinking a lot on the trope due to reading an atrocious book with an autistic coded character. But why not critique it from a different angle by looking at an autistic character I actually love?
Abed Nadir from Community is by far my favorite autistic coded character in mass media today. He’s the rare example of an accurate portrayal, one who has issues but highly recognizable ones. He’s not a cartoon of quirks and rudeness but a genuinely likable human being. What’s remarkable about this is Abed still goes through the same humanization journey as shown in the rest of the media. It’s just his is right.
First off, I have to concede the character is technically shown as undiagnosed. Yet this is the one time that doesn’t matter. In fact creator Dan Harmon did extensive research into the disorder and realized he himself falls on the spectrum. And the show does make frequent allusions to the idea he might be one of us. So I’m not even treating it as headcanon. Abed is on the spectrum.
And he’s a remarkably accurate portrait at that. Abed’s dominant trait is an obsession with media tropes he applies to every step of his life. This might seem strange to an outsider, even unbelievable, but it might be the single most accurate thing about him. Abed is a rare example of something I’ve seen in my own life. He’s baffled by the outside world so he uses the language of media to process something he’s confused by. It’s a remarkable thing to see.
Abed also serves as an accurate example of how we actually are about order. Unlike the utter rudeness of Sheldon Cooper, Abed is very matter of fact about his need for routine. He’s not a jerk. He’s just very matter of fact in the way we are. In one episode, he’s frustrated by his favorite show not coming back and he gets annoyed in a realistic way. He vents like I would.
He also handles moments of severe upheaval in a familiar way. He vanishes into his mind, seeking the safe structure of it. In a key episode, he realizes his social network is going through a massive change and he can’t handle it so he fights it, first criticizing it then utterly melting down. It’s an honest moment and at the end there’s a poignant bit of narration where he concedes he has real issues. This is how the show treats him throughout. He isn’t a joke. He’s someone it sympathizes with.
And that sympathy is key to his best trait. Abed is the rare social autistic in mass media. He’s shown as having friends that he genuinely cares about and wants to help. He’s not cold and asocial. He even eventually gets a girlfriend. It’s sad how rare this is but how nice it is to see.
Because ultimately that trait might be what sets him apart from all other portraits of us. We’re shown as actively hating socializing. Abed is baffled by it at times but he tries. He tries because he wants to have friends. It’s not a subtle hidden trait either. He clearly, distinctly cares and he works to hold onto what friends he has.
Is he a perfect portrait? No, he gets cartoonish. But that’s the show he’s on to a great degree. Everybody is a cartoon. I’ll take a good version that’s a bit of a joke any day.
So yeah, I could focus on the bad, but in this moment I raise a glass to one time the media got it right. Cheers.