I still remember the first time I saw Rain Man. My parents put it on one day after telling me all about Dustin Hoffman’s performance and how his portrayal of autism was a push forward for visibility. This was about a year after I was diagnosed myself, and I was excited to see my experiences on the screen. I remember when it finally hit us that it wasn’t me being portrayed at all. It was a shell of my humanity, and I was disappointed that this was how society viewed my disability. To them, I was nothing but a shivering man in the fetal position screaming about Jeopardy. I wasn’t that. I couldn’t be. I revisited the film many times and have learned to enjoy it for what it was: a caricature. I moved on.
Last year, ABC started running ads for The Good Doctor, a medical drama about an autistic surgeon, and all the bad memories came rushing back. The ads heavily featured the same tropes I saw with Dustin Hoffman years before, from the closed off quiet jittering to the genius-level intellect that comes from the magic savant juice. However, this time was different. This time they gave it a name. They said he had autism. It is exceedingly rare to hear my disability given a face or a name, but to see it linked to this bundle of clichés was another step entirely. I was annoyed to say the least. I had become desensitized to the stock character, and knew exactly how it would play out when I heard the word “autism.” The writers would say the character has it and call it a day. Just have the actor look off into the distance and randomly mutter random factoids while rocking back and forth for a bit. After all, what other character traits or nuance do they need when they have autism? It’s a story I had seen before.
This lazy writing is how we got boring drivel like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or The Accountant, films that just assumed having a character divert eye contact and curl up in a corner every few scenes was enough to get us to care about them. Well, it didn’t. Sure, a great movie can make up for a boring stock character (and The Accountant comes agonizingly close), but filmmakers and showrunners don’t realize that they’re shooting themselves in their own feet. To them, autism is the beginning and end of a character.
In The Accountant, the writers use autism to make Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff functionally a superhero; autism Ex Machina, if you will. He lacks social skills, but his other abilities are heightened, and that makes him the best in the business. To the public, he’s an awkward loner, but his disease makes him a genius. It always comes off as lazy and contrived when legitimate questions about the plot are answered with an implied “because autism.”
These films represent a trend that is very troubling to me: taking a disability with a wide range of manifestations and only really using one or two ticks over and over again. It’s lazy. However, that doesn’t mean portraying autism on screen is always bad. In fact, my favorite character in all of media is autistic, and provides a fantastically nuanced representation. Abed from Community is my autistic icon.
Abed is amazing. He’s hilarious, insightful, and is often framed as the one who keeps the study group together. The relationship between him and Troy is the best on the show, and the greatness of Abed comes from his autism-driven fixations.
A core trait among those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD for short) is a tendency to fixate on something small and become obsessed. Sometimes it’s science and math, sometimes it’s reading, sometimes it’s toy trains. Pop culture became Abed’s fixation. The way he sees the world is completely tinted by his obsession with movies and TV, and shared experiences of these pieces of consumer media act as his entry point to social situations. This fixation manifests in him being meta about the show itself, using the tropes he knows and loves to effectively become a prophet of culture.
Without even knowing it, the writers of Community created a pure representation of everything that is great and sometimes annoying about those on the autism spectrum. In the very first episode, Abed misses several social queues from Jeff Winger and attends the study group anyway, inviting a bunch of random people he met in class, a situation all too common for those with autism. The series only exists because Abed misunderstood the social information he was given. This would be seen as a flaw for Abed in most other contexts, but now he is with a group of people that don’t see it that way. I can’t tell you how great it feels to have this very odd circumstance portrayed in an incredibly accurate way, and the show is so much stronger because Abed is there.
Folks with ASD often think in very black and white terms, struggling to cope with anything gray or subtle. Social situations are especially difficult for us because of how much of human interaction is left to be inferred, and rarely does any of it come naturally. Some of us disconnect, opting for antisocial behavior. Many of us, however, use our fixations to navigate the social sphere. Abed comes out and says it, “I can tell life from TV, Jeff. TV makes sense, it has structure, logic, rules, and likable leading men. In life, we have this. We have you.”
That idea of dealing with a world that is gray with a mind that tries to see in black and white, of trying to push the square shaped peg into the round hole, is so integral to understanding our struggles not just as people on the spectrum, but as humans. When your life is filtered through media, it’s difficult to accept a reality where you don’t always ride off into the sunset. This is what it means to be on the spectrum.
Am I saying that we should never have characters that are modeled after Rain Man and only make Abeds from now on? Of course not. I went off on Dustin Hoffman earlier, but that portrayal works really well for the story they’re trying to tell. Having Tom Cruise learn to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of his brother is the entire emotional core of that movie, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I also suspect that if every autistic character from now on were like Abed, we’d all get sick of it. I’m just asking for some variety. Autism shouldn’t be an excuse to not write a character; it should be an opportunity to make one more vibrant. People with autism are as diverse as humanity itself, so why not dive in and create the next Abed. I can say unequivocally that the world is a better place because Abed exists, and I can’t wait to see the next fully realized autistic icon.