It's Not Rain Man, Hallelujah!
A critical look at the portrayal of autism in media.
Hello, my name is Alwin and I would like to welcome you to the first ever It's Not Rain Man, Hallelujah! In this column, I will take a closer look at different portrayals of autistic characters in media. I must note that some characters will not have been identified as autistic in whatever media they're from. However, they show so many different traits of autism that many fans have a "head canon" of them as being on the spectrum. Abed, the character I will be discussing this week, is an example of this.
Abed is a character from the comedy series Community. As stated before, the show doesn't actually mention his autism. There is one instance of someone saying to him "You has Aspergers", but this was intended more as a slur than anything else. Community is a show about a study group at a community college called Greendale, and Abed is a part of that group. Early on in the series it is made clear that he has trouble relating to people directly. Rather, he relates to them through tv series and movies.
What's great about Abed is that while his social awkwardness creates funny situations, the show never makes fun of his disability. He is a funny character who happens to have autism, instead of a character who gets made fun of due to his autism. Another positive is that he is shown as someone who wants to be around people. He just has trouble relating to them at times. This is important, because autistic people are often thought of as anti-social shut ins. Abed shows us people with autism often do desire social interaction. They just feel frustrated when things go wrong due to missed social cues or other miscommunication.
A great example of this happens during the legendary 8th episode of season 2, titled "Cooperative Calligraphy", also know as the Bottle Episode (though no bottles are involved). During the episode, it is revealed that Abed noticed the women of the study group being more irritable during certain days. Since he had trouble reading their non verbal signs, he started charting the days and figured out it happened on a monthly basis. So, he started handing them chocolate and napkins on those days.
What happened here was, of course, Abed had mapped their menstruation cycles. Without their consent. Which is kind of creepy? But, Abed wanted to help and to him, it improved the general mood of the group. This is an example of behavior I recognize in myself as well as other autistics. We notice a problem, we want to help, we figure out a way we think helps without considering the larger implications of what we're saying or doing.
One of my favorite examples of this is the season 3 Christmas episode. For Abed, the previous two Christmases at Greendale ended in either a fist fight or a nervous breakdown represented in claymation. So in order to lift everyone's spirits, Abed decides to convince them to join the glee club. This develops into a lovely parody of the show Glee, complete with a song about baby boomers. Abed really wants the performance to be a success, since he would like to have a nice Christmas with his friends.
Things fall apart however, when he finds out that the Glee club teacher, Mr Rad, wants to keep the study group doing Glee perfomances forever, while Abed saw it more as a one time deal. It concludes with Abed sabotaging the show by letting Britta sing, who is awful at it. Mr Rad gets angry and the performance falls apart. Abed comes to the conclusion that he was so focused on finally having a fun Christmas together with his friends, he actually made it worse for everyone. It struck a cord with me, because it's not uncommon for people with autism to want to do the right thing, but lose track of other factors and end up hurting the very people we try to help. He retreats to his home to spend Christmas alone, but the study group joins him there and they watch TV together.
The biggest conclusion to draw from all of this is that Abed's "deal" in the show, isn't that he's the one who's 'off', it's that he cares. He cares so much about his friends that often he loses focus on other things. He cares so much that he gets frustrated whenever he has trouble relating to others. He isn't the odd duck out in a group of "normal" people, he's simply a loving, caring and confident character who happens to be on the autistic spectrum.
And that my friends, is cool cool cool.