Thanks to lockdown, I binge-watched all six seasons of Community. As I watched, I realized something: the character Abed Nadir is the best example of autistic representation that I’ve ever seen.
Why, though? What makes Abed’s characterization succeed when so many others stumbled into the pitfalls of stereotypes and inaccuracies? It’s not like Abed is a perfect representation. While it’s made clear that he has a developmental disorder, autism is never explicitly confirmed on the show (the closest it comes is when another character angrily tells him, “You have Asperger’s! Look it up!” So yeah, could be better).
Yet despite the imperfections, Abed still stands out.
Abed Nadir (played brilliantly by Danny Pudi) is a member of a seven-person study group at the fictional Greendale Community College. He’s an aspiring film student and pop culture connoisseur. He is “quirky” and “eccentric.” He constantly compares real life to media tropes, becoming the show’s meta guy.
He often speaks in a flat affect and has a verbal tic of saying, “Cool. Cool cool cool.” He once admitted that he can’t tell if his friends’ expressions mean they are angry or hungry. He sometimes misses social cues. In fact, Abed’s inability to pick up his classmate Jeff’s desire to hit on a girl is what leads to the formation of the study group and puts the plot into motion.
This isn’t what makes Abed good representation. After all, most media portrayals check off all the right boxes of autistic traits (or traits stereotypically associated with white cis males, but that’s a whole other issue). Abed stands out because of his heart.
Community is a character-driven comedy and never forgets to make Abed feel like a fully fleshed-out person rather than a list of symptoms. Over the course of six seasons, Abed grows and changes, learns about himself and others, and overcomes personal flaws– all while still remaining firmly autistic.
Creator Dan Harmon (who also co-created Rick and Morty) researched autism while writing Abed. After getting positive feedback from autistic fans, he wanted to do right by them by making Abed feel as true to life as possible. Harmon’s research led him to the realization that he himself is likely autistic. Harmon originally identified with the protagonist Jeff Winger but started seeing himself more in Abed.
(It also makes sense for an autistic person to relate to Jeff. Jeff appears cool and together, but it’s a way of masking his own insecurities and emotions. Many autistic can relate to masking).
Autistic advocates often say, “Nothing about us without us.” Community was created by a potentially autistic man. But even if Harmon isn’t autistic, he still did something that neurotypical creators can learn from: he put in the research and listened to autistic feedback. The willingness to listen can make all of the difference in the world.
Being a comedy, there are plenty of jokes about Abed. But the jokes are never mean-spirited. Autism itself is never mocked, but it also isn’t taboo. In fact, Harmon is the only creator whoever made me laugh at an autism-related joke. In S3E17, “Basic Lupine Urology,” best friends Troy and Abed are playing detectives in a Law and Order parody. When they see a photo of a clock taken from a “crime scene,” they have this exchange:
Abed: Eight plus two, times five…
Troy: Ten after eight.
Abed: I’m gifted in other ways.
I died laughing, partly because it was so relatable. I can’t count the times I have struggled with something (like a sense of direction) and said almost verbatim, “I’m gifted in other ways.”
Here’s another great exchange from S5E3, “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics:”
Dean: Abed, you’re special. Can’t you just stand at the scene of the crime and see what happened?
Abed (moving his arms as dramatic music swells): I see a man using a social disorder as a procedural device. Wait wait wait! I see another man…mildly autistic super detectives everywhere…basic cable…broadcast networks…pain, painful writing…it hurts. (Abed pointedly glares at the Dean, then leaves).
Abed’s autistic nature is depicted in a way that feels refreshingly real. He says he has, “thoughts too fast to comprehend,” which is a lesser-known trait. His special interest in media isn’t just played for laughs but is Abed’s way of understanding the world, relating to others, and expressing himself.
In a powerful scene early in the show, Abed shows his disapproving father a short film about their relationship. His father is moved to tears and says, “My son is hard to understand. If making movies helps him be understood than I’ll pay for the class.”
Abed is never expected to “get over” being autistic. He changes over time like any well-written character, but autism is treated as a core part of himself. In S1E17, “Physical Education,” the group wants to set Abed up with a girl.
While they’re reluctant to admit it, they want Abed to change his behavior because they’re worried he’ll end up alone. At the end of the episode, Abed has this to say:
Everybody wants me to be happy. Everybody wants to help me. But usually, when they find out they can’t, they get frustrated and stop talking to me. Or they trick me into buying them ice cream and then shove me into a clothes dryer, which I didn’t want to happen with you guys, so I wanted to make sure you felt like you could help me. The truth is, lots of girls like me because, let’s face it, I’m pretty adorable.
This is a powerful statement. Many autism treatments (*cough* ABA *cough*) try to change autistic kids for “their own good.” Abed makes it clear that he goes along with it not because he can change (he explicitly says he can’t) but because he wants them to feel better.
How many autistic children learn to mask for the sake of others? It should be noted that after this exchange, Abed’s friends never try to change him again, and Abed is shown to successfully flirt and have a serious girlfriend without changing himself.
In some ways, Abed refutes common autism myths. He feels deeply and has empathy. His friend Annie accuses him of lacking empathy after Abed explains how he runs scientific scenarios about the group. However, Annie learns that Abed is really terrified that his friends will change and leave him behind. In turn, Annie helps Abed realize that change to the group doesn’t mean he’ll be forgotten.
Abed is a student of human behavior. He often understands his friends better than they do. He makes a film series based on the study group that is so accurate it can predict the future. He is the first person in the group to figure out that two members are sleeping together.
From his intense bromance with Troy to his filming a Bible rap as a thank you to his religious friend, Abed is always portrayed as a loving and loyal member of the group.
Abed is a fan favorite who touches autistic and neurotypical fans alike. He is often in the spotlight whether it’s because he’s building an awesome school-wide blanket fort or delivering a heart-wrenching speech in the series finale.
In the beginning of Community, Abed feared that his friends would move on without, and was so afraid of change that he had meltdowns during daylight savings time.
Yet in the end, it is Abed who chooses to leave Greendale behind for an uncertain but hopeful future as an LA production assistant. It’s practically unheard of for an autistic character to have such a fulfilling character arc.
That’s why Abed is so special. He is a shining example of how to humanize autistic characters in a way that makes general audiences empathize with them. All while always being allowed to be, unapologetically, himself.