Since April is Autistic Awareness month, I wanted to find a way to showcase characters within popular culture and media that mean a lot to those who are autistic. So who better to ask than a friend? So here is my first ever guest post from Lani Hayes, great purple ancestor, costumer, fellow geek, and poet.
“I see a man using a social disorder as a procedural device. Wait, wait, wait! I see another man. Mildly autistic superdetectives everywhere. Basic cable. Broadcast networks. Pain. Painful writing. It burns.” – Abed Nadir, Community
Trying to write about autistic characters is difficult because first you have to find some. That was the problem I kept running into when I sat down to write this piece. I can count a handful of canonically autistic characters, maybe a dozen more that I wouldn’t get lambasted on
Internet forums for suggesting might be on the spectrum. And of those, it’s hard to figure out which ones actually mean something to me, or add something to the narrative.
I’ve always been drawn to the odd and the quirky when it comes to fictional characters. The characters who don’t quite fit in. Who dress strangely or act strangely or who exist just out of phase with everyone else. I guess I relate to them.
So maybe that’s where I begin.
A lot of times the best “autistic” characters are the ones who aren’t. Which is to say. When someone sits down to write an autistic character, I think they often start with a list of boxes that need to be checked off. Does the character flap their hands? Check. Does the character refuse to make eye contact? Check. Does the character like trains or math or astronomy or any flavor of brainy, science-y thing? Check. Is the character a young white boy? Check.
I don’t think most people realize this checklist exists. But it does. These are the structures people see as the basic shapes of autism. Maybe on some level people were recognizing these structures long before autism existed as a diagnosable disorder.
I want to talk about Sherlock Holmes.
Cold but brilliant, solitary in his pleasures and eccentric in his whims, Sherlock Holmes fit the trope of the ambiguously autistic detective before it even truly existed. He was brilliant and
multi-talented. His interests were narrow and highly focused. He didn’t make friends easily, and he seemed more than content with that. And he was as good as canonically asexual, an autistic stereotype with varying levels of truth behind it. It’s no surprise that people have speculated about Holmes’ peace on the spectrum for years. Just as it’s no surprise that two of his modern day counterparts, Dr. Gregory House from House MD, and the Sherlock Holmes of BBC’s Sherlock, are speculated in their own canons to be autistic.
I adored Sherlock Holmes. Well, I still do. But in my teens he was a revelation. Dr. John Watson described a man so brilliant that he could read your life story in seconds, but who had no idea that the earth revolved around the sun. After all, why should he? The earth was going to keep its course whether he knew it or not.
That was the sort of logic I could get behind.
I’ve always had the same tendency. I can rattle off endless facts about my singularly narrow interests, but the world that exists outside of them is often a mystery to me. I liked that Sherlock Holmes is the same way. He was highly intelligent, sure, but the gaps in his knowledge were glaringly obvious.
My complicated relationship with future iterations of Sherlock Holmes aside, I related to Holmes before I ever knew I was on the spectrum, just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the stories before the concept of the spectrum even existed. Maybe that’s poetic, or maybe it’s just my tendency to seek out the handful of characters I can truly relate to. Either way, Sherlock Holmes was one of the first that I found.
It seems only fitting to follow up with one of Sherlock Holmes’ descendants. Although his claim to the Holmes bloodline may be tenuous with centuries of separation between the two characters, it’s one that I love. I’m referring to Mr. Spock, who once stated, “an ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains–however improbable–must be the truth.”
I loved Spock even before I loved Star Trek. He was straightforward, brutally, honest, a little awkward…and his relationship with emotions mirrored my own. He felt things more strongly than humans, but simply did not have the capacity to express them. His emotions were big and scary and difficult for him to understand, and there was nothing he could do about it. To say that I related would be an understatement.
But what drew me to Spock most of all was his decision to claim his place as an outsider. Even among humans he insisted upon being, first and foremost, a Vulcan. He demanded that crew members confront his apparent lack of emotion. He constantly affirmed his Vulcan heritage and verbally set himself apart from the rest of the crew. When Dr. McCoy lamented his green, copper based blood and the location of his heart, Spock simply stated that he was “delighted” that his anatomy was different from that of humans.
In my life on earth, I attempt to maintain a constantly open dialogue about my place on the spectrum. I try to find pride and beauty in Autism. I do my best to fight my natural urge to shrink into the shadows and simply survive, but I don’t always succeed. Spock taught me to demand space (no pun intended) for the parts of me that do not always blend in with the rest of the world.
Spock has a long history with the autistic community. It only takes a quick Google search to see how many people relate to him, and have for years. He is the subject of think pieces, fanfictions, and lively discussions on autistic message boards. Something about the character resonates with many autistic people who search for themselves in media.
I think that’s where Abed comes in.
Abed Nadir was, in many ways, the heart of Community, a show that was (theoretically) about college. And for me, he was almost a miracle. From the moment the audience met Abed, there was very little doubt about who he was. Because he usually said it, in his signature deadpan way. About leading man Jeff Winger’s crush, Abed calmly announced “her name is Britta. She’s twenty-eight, birthday in October. She has two older brothers, and one of them works with children who have a disorder I might want to look up.” It was the first, and definitely not the last reference to Abed’s neurodivergence. Creator Dan Harmon researched autism when creating the character, and even started to suspect that he himself might be on the spectrum.
It took almost no time for Abed to become my favorite character on the show, and my favorite autistic character of all time. I’ve often told people that if they watch Community they will understand me better as a person, and I mean that wholeheartedly.
Abed was painfully self-aware, often neurotic and off-putting, just as often charming and adorable, and best of all, completely obsessed with pop culture. He studied tropes and character archetypes and catalogued them away for future reference. He based his real life social interactions off of scenes from movies. He narrated real life events and gave spoiler warnings for news stories. In short, he was just like me.
I’ve never related to the autistic characters who can solve complicated math equations or create scientific breakthroughs, because that is not my experience with autism. My experience is the kind of awkwardness that is not compensated for by genius, social interactions that are carefully mapped out, with blanks filled in by cultural references, and taking delight in learning about my special interests, which have ranged over the years from The Phantom of the Opera to the minutiae of copyright law. Too often, the autistic characters in books, TV, and film were only rough approximations of my experience. Abed was a mirror image. He subverted the tropes that I had grown to hate. He said the things that I had always thought, but been made to understand that you do not say out loud.
And if you asked him about Sherlock Holmes or Spock, he would no doubt have an opinion on them. That’s why he is so important to me. In a journey to find autistic characters I found one on the same quest as me. I could imagine him googling the same think pieces and discussions,
and filing them away.
All of these characters have been and will continue to be important to me. Sherlock Holmes and his idiosyncrasies have delighted me for years. Spock reminds me to take pride in all the ways
in which I do not always fit in. Abed is not, perhaps, the be-all and end-all of autistic characters, but he is a step in the right direction. And on the journey from Sherlock Holmes to Spock to Abed and beyond, I realize I am excited to see what will come next.