In the very first episode of Community — during the very first meeting of the study group — Abed Nadir makes a quip to Jeff Winger, who has just been shot down by Britta Perry after asking her to dinner. Jeff’s response? “Yeah, well you have Aspergers.” Jeff was speaking out of anger, but the possibility that Abed may be on the autism spectrum has been mentioned throughout the show. But does it actually make sense? Let’s look at it a little bit closer.
This would be a good time to issue a disclaimer that I have Asperger’s myself. I’m well aware of the problems that can occur when making blanket statements about people with Asperger’s, and I hope nothing in this article comes across that way. I’m simply looking at one of my favorite characters, and wondering if he could have the same thing as me, as many people have speculated over the years.
One of the most commonly known things about people with Asperger’s is an inability to pick up on social cues. This can manifest itself in many ways, but there’s a general idea that the little hints and indications people give that everyone else picks up on easily can be lost on us. This is certainly true with Abed. On one episode, a man hits on him in a bar, and he’s none the wiser. And even when he starts to pick up on it, he ignores it, because he just wants to talk about Farscape:
That entire scene is excellent, but the part that cracks me up is when Paul F. Tompkins’ character flat-out asks “would you like to have gay sex with me?” to which Abed calmly replies “no, thank you.” Even if Abed did eventually figure out that the man was hitting on him, it took him longer than usual, and his reaction to it was certainly atypical. Although, I might ask, is it wrong to react the way Abed did? Rather than have some latently homophobic freak out about a guy being into him, Abed turns him down as politely as possible. And for his troubles, he gets a drink thrown in his face.
In a later episode, Abed seems a bit more aware of his tendency to react to things in an atypical fashion. When the Dean shows up at his door with chips and soda, and enthusiastically says “boys night!” Abed looks and Troy and Annie and says “I need help reacting to something.” From this we can tell that Abed seems to understand that he doesn’t react the appropriate way, and openly asks his friends for help. Also, the scene is just really funny.
One recurring theme throughout the show is Abed’s tendency to understand social interaction based on what he observes in television and film. This was exemplified during the classic My Dinner With Andre episode where Abed wants to re-enact the film with Jeff. We also see it in the surreal “Abed’s Uncomfortable Christmas” episode, where Abed’s only means of dealing with his loneliness on Christmas is to visualize everyone in stop-motion. This phenomenon could be explained by multiple factors, though. Not only is Abed socially awkward, he’s also the son of an immigrant. TV and film were his ways of communicating with and understanding Western culture. That he learned a fair amount of his social skills (or lack thereof) from these areas isn’t exactly a surprise.
But what’s always been striking about Abed is how often he acts as though he’s literally in a TV show. In “Cooperative Calligraphy” (the one about the pen), he offers meta-commentary on the show, reminding us that the events are taking place constitute a “bottle episode” (an episode that takes place in one area for its entirety). There are two possibilities here: the first is that Abed looks at his life as a TV show in order to understand it. The second is that Abed actually knows he’s a character in a TV show. Frankly, I wouldn’t put either one of these options past Dan Harmon.
The aforementioned “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode is the ultimate example of Abed’s usage of fantasy not just to escape reality, but also to place it in a context that he can understand. Near the episode’s end, he has an intense confrontation with Professor Duncan, in which Duncan exclaims “it’s just you against reality, and reality always wins.”
That episode would have a rather sad ending, as Abed finds a note from his mother right before she left. We find out that she had trouble dealing with Abed’s strange behavior, and Abed has often blamed himself for her leaving. This would seem to have pushed Abed farther away from the real world. On Christmas — the anniversary of her departure — he’s unable to confront a depressing reality, so he gets around it by creating a stop-motion universe that only he and his friends live in.
Of course, the stop-motion universe of that episode wasn’t Abed’s only means of escapism. There’s also his countless adventures in the Dreamatorium. In one episode, he attempts to simulate how everyone’s life will play out. This naturally causes some hurt feelings, so Annie makes a little modification to the Dreamatorium engine:
She adds empathy to the machine, and Abed immediately collapses, to which he responds “oh no, I broke Abed.” The question is why does Abed react this way? Is it because he is literally incapable of empathy? Is it because he is in fact very capable of it and the realization that he’s hurt his friend’s feelings causes him to breakdown? Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. Abed has always been capable of empathy, but due to his insularity, he just never thought of it. With the possible exception of Troy, he’s never really let any of his friends into his world, always keeping them at a safe distance. Annie wanting Abed to have empathy is an example of how much she genuinely cares about him. That realization — that he is important to the outside world — seems to be what causes him to collapse. His entire world view has just been turned on its head.
So, with all of this evidence to look at, does Abed have Asperger’s? Is he on the Autism spectrum? Well, if you’re looking for a hard answer, you won’t find it here, although I will say that many of his characteristics point that way. In one of his famous raps with Troy, he says “On the spectrum?/none of your business,” so this seems like something that will remain a mystery forever. In a way, it’s a good thing that Abed’s condition is never fully explained. He’s not confined by the traits of any given condition, which has allowed for more opportunities to flesh his character out in unconventional fashions. On a personal note, I’ve been able to relate to Abed dozens of times, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. Asperger’s or not, one thing’s for sure: Abed is a character for the ages.