Colby Cosh used the descriptor “mildly autistic” in a piece about Jared Fogle, the child rapist

Let me be clear. I didn’t mean to read a Colby Cosh piece. I didn’t even mean to read the National Post. It was all a big mistake and I blame Margaret Atwood. Atwood had a post about politicians’ hair published by the National Post, then pulled, then published again once it had been edited ‘in line with the Post’s values’, whatever that means. You can read about the whole sorry saga here.

Anyway, I ended up reading this post on Jared Fogle (the former Subway spokesperson, now admitted child abuser). I saw this:

Colby Cosh describes the groups of people Jared Fogle chimed with as mildly autistic


This made me angry. I ranted on twitter. You can read the ranting and Cosh’s comments here:

Was Colby Cosh suggesting that Jared Fogle is autistic?

I don’t believe so, no.

Was Colby Cosh suggesting that Jared Fogle and autistic people have common interests and traits?

In my view, he clearly was. In his tweets to Audra Williams he said he was listing groups of people (the chronically obese, mildly autistic, habit-bound and busy, people attending state universities and people who like sandwiches) that the “Subway diet” would appeal to.

Given that Jared Fogle was all these things (obese, habit-bound, state university student, sandwich liker) it seems odd to claim that the only comparison he clearly was not making was between Fogle and autism. Even if it is true though, what Cosh is admitting to is something like, “look, I’m not saying the child rapist is autistic, I’m saying he resonated with autistic people!” – which is still gross.

Even if you think the article isn’t problematic, the way Cosh responded to this on twitter was a problem.

In response to criticism, Cosh’s kneejerk response was that he’d done nothing wrong:

“I didn’t say anything objectionable about autistic people”

Well, I think autistic people would beg to differ but even if they didn’t, his subsequent trotting out of tired, worn-out tropes about autism were problematic. According to Cosh, “mildly autistic” is shorthand for:

“people who prize familiarity”

“people, usually geniuses, who like to eat the same thing every day”

“people who would eat one thing if it were up to them”

In response to one person’s comment he replied:

… which pretty much reeks of ableism and classism to me.

What’s the problem with stereotyping autistic people?

Negative stereotypes – autistic people are dangerous, have little personality, are “retarded”, are rigid, only eat one type of food – are problematic for a few reasons:

  • they have a long term, detrimental impact on how autistic people view themselves.
  • people associate violent or dangerous behaviour with autism. Witness the reactions to the Sandy Hook and Isla Vista shootings. Autistic people already face difficulties and dangers in interacting with police and this just makes the situation worse.
  • it stigmatizes autistic people meaning they have a harder time finding supports, work and housing.

But what about positive stereotypes?

The Rainman problem

Cosh invoked this in his tweet where he mentioned geniuses. A tiny minority of autistics are savants, but in general there is no correlation between autism and intelligence. Autistics are just like everyone else – some are great at academics, some have an intellectual disability.

The problem with the Rainman trope is:

  • it’s both pervasive and really annoying. Imagine every single person asking, upon finding out you’re Canadian, “do you live in an igloo?”
  • there’s an implied correlation between an autistic person’s “gift” and their worth as a person, whereas I believe every autistic person has value.
  • the idea that autistic people are rigid loners who are good at math and computing results in us overlooking the other things that autistic people are often good at like creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
  • it contributes to the assumption that autistics are nerdy, white men. Autism is woefully underdiagnosed in women and racialized communities. Autistic women often present as drastically different to their male peers resulting in misdiagnoses or a lack of any diagnosis. This in turn prevents them from accessing the supports and accommodations they need and are entitled to.
Plotting autistics on the functioning scale

Referring to people as ‘mildly autistic’ is essentially saying the same as ‘high functioning’ and functioning labels are something that autistic people uniformly reject as not just unhelpful but harmful. Musings of an Aspie has a great post about this issue which also links to writings from other autistics on the topic.


Whatever Colby Cosh’s intentions were, he has, by his own admission, used ‘autistic’ as shorthand to refer to traits shared between a child rapist and others. Can writers please refrain from using autism as an adjective? Whether you mean nerdy or rigid or quirky or a loner or whatever the heck you are getting at – just say that instead and leave autism out of it.

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10 Responses to Colby Cosh used the descriptor “mildly autistic” in a piece about Jared Fogle, the child rapist

  1. Diane C. August 23, 2015 at 1:35 am #

    I don’t know who Colby Cosh is, and it sounds like I should keep it that way. As always, Deanne, thanks for helping us all become mindful. Although whoever this is doesn’t get the point, the rest of us do and appreciate your advocacy.

    • OMum22 September 2, 2015 at 9:25 am #

      Thanks Diane, I hope you and yours are well.

  2. Sarah Kelly September 2, 2015 at 5:08 am #

    I hate to be coming late to this party, but you’ll be pleased to know that my reason is autism-related. My 35-year-old brother, who has co-morbid autism and epilepsy, recently had to undergo a hip replacement. I don’t believe there’s an app for teaching him to walk again, so I’ve been offline.

    It’s frankly hilarious that what seems to be a complaint against stereotyping autism amounts to nothing more than a series of ignorant, fragmented, ad hominem hysterics against Colby Cosh. Your post leaves me wondering if you actually read his piece, or simply saw the words ‘mildly autistic’ in an article about an accused statutory rapist and decided you’d seen enough.

    I’m trying to decide what offends me most: your opening protest that you hadn’t meant to read anything with Mr Cosh’s name on it, as though you’d been pushed down a flight of stairs onto a heap of sticky pornography; the fact that your entire attack is based on so fundamental a misreading of one sentence that you cannot possibly have read that entire sentence, let alone the entire piece; or that, by that attack, you assume a custody over the word ‘autistic’ of which neither I nor Mr Cosh nor any of his superiors at the National Post have been made aware.

    The sentence that you’re at pains to indict — the one with all the adjectives — is not, as you seem to believe, describing Jared Fogle. It is describing ‘groups of Americans’. Obese ones. Busy ones. Habit-bound ones. Studying ones. And, yes, mildly autistic ones. Jared Fogle is a bland and blank canvas onto which all of these groups may project themselves. This made him an ideal shill for sandwiches. Being a child molester did not: that’s why he didn’t get the job on the strength of diddling kids.

    Even if the offending sentences had been a description of Fogle, your syllogism would still be a dog’s breakfast. Mr Cosh is comparing autistic people to child rapists, oh my! Well, by this measure he’s also saying that all fat people are child rapists – my word: and all busy people, too! Who knew that everyone at a state school was a child molester! Well, the more you know.

    This doesn’t bear saying — but in a perfect world, where those of us who have loved ones with autism could concentrate on what matters instead of wading through this offal, none of this would bear saying — but Mr Cosh did not use ‘autistic’ as a pejorative, any more than ‘busy’ or ‘student’ is a pejorative. These are all neutral terms; the sentence doesn’t render them otherwise. Busy people and autistic people and fat people and students can be wonderful and smart and boring and assholes. The sentence did no lifting on that account.

    I remain on that sentence without going further because that’s where you hinge your argument. Every subsequent attack you make, if you’ll go back and look, falls apart upon even cursory subsequent reading.

    Your objection to his later tweet about ‘geniuses’ was, I can only imagine, you having a conversation with yourself. That had nothing whatever to do with autism, and it’s marvellous that you make the leap to his assuming that all autistic people are Rain-Man-style savants. He was talking about geniuses. Some of them would rather genius than eat diversely. I hope I needn’t point out to you that not all geniuses are autistic.

    As to Jonathan Bennett’s comment — I raise this because you added it to your argument — ‘autism’ may be a ‘big’, ’emotional’, ‘political’ word to him, but whatever Pavlovian reaction he may have upon seeing the word is his province, and not Mr Cosh’s.

    In this context — something this piece you’ve written doesn’t seem to be big on — Mr Cosh did not, as you accused, reinforce ‘ableist stereotypes’ about autism. Rather, the use of ‘autistic’ pointed to one of the three cardinal diagnostic criteria of the condition, viz. ‘restricted interests and repetitive behaviour’. Put another way, there are many people with autism who like the same things to happen every day. For some of these people, that thing might well be a sandwich, prepared in exactly the same way under exactly the same conditions.

    There remain galaxies of mystery surrounding autism. The characteristic to which Mr Cosh refers is one of the only concrete markers that is known and observable. Gesturing to it is a neutral act. The reference was contextual, entirely appropriate, and had absolutely nothing to do with paedophilia. The use of the term was as political as a pair of socks.

    Now that I feel I’ve made my point, I can say that I’m not only angry as the sister and guardian of an adult with autism, or as an active and concerned member of the community you claim to represent. Colby Cosh has been one of my closest friends for twenty years; he is a dear friend to my family; and he is a loving, active, and engaged friend and resource to my brother John. He makes no assumptions about autism, and peddles no stereotypes. His understanding of autism is empathetic, affectionate, and intellectual. I told him to say this in his defence and he refused. He is a gentleman.

    Sling your arrows in the right direction, and use your energy to fight the right battles. Your attack on Mr Cosh was misguided, misdirected, ill-informed, and bordered on malicious. He doesn’t care about such things, but I do. Beware your own assumptions, and leave the pillory to those who deserve it.

    Sarah Kelly

    • OMum22 September 2, 2015 at 6:14 am #

      I hope your brother’s recovery is going well. Thankfully my sons don’t have epilepsy as a co-occuring condition with their autism, I know my autistic friends who do have epilepsy find it tough to say the least.

      First, kudos on your loyalty to your friend. Second, in the years I’ve been blogging I’ve noted that commenters will often project their own issues onto me. In your case you don’t seem to have read anything beyond the title of my post. If you had you would have seen: a) I stated that Mr Cosh wasn’t calling Jared Fogle autistic and b) that he was, as he confirmed on twitter, describing groups of Americans he thought Jared’s message would resonate with (i.e., people who had things in common with Jared).

      Mr Cosh used “autistic” as shorthand, a descriptor, not of someone’s neurology but of their personality and habits. It was lazy and inconsiderate writing on his part, made worse by his subsequent tweeting which was both defensive and rude.

      Geniuses were mentioned by Mr Cosh in his explanation of what he meant by “mildly autistic” so it’s clearly germane to my point. Which you presumably do in fact understand, because you then go on to claim that Mr Cosh was just referring to diagnostic criteria.

      I assume from your comment that you are not autistic. Neither am I. I therefore don’t claim to speak for autistic people, not even my children, who, unlike your brother, are minors. I speak here for myself only.

      Mr Cosh sounds like a terrific friend. This is not however particularly relevant to me in determining whether his writing has merit. I’m tired of people using neurodivergent conditions as adjectives. I get that it’s not a big deal to some but it is to me. I find it infuriating when writers, who presumably understand the importance of language, use ‘autistic’, ‘depressed’, ‘manic’, ‘schizophrenic’ as coded shorthand for something other than a developmental or mental disability. Why? Because it’s stigmatizing and that stigma is part of the reason why disabled people live in poverty, in inappropriate housing and are too often neglected and abused.

      I don’t like it when neurodivergent labels are used in the context of mass murderers any more than I liked it when Mr Cosh used one to describe people who have things in common with a child abuser. Columnists get paid to write. It’s their job to do better than this.

      As for your advice, here’s some for you. Don’t go to another person’s space and dictate to them what they should or shouldn’t do with their time and energy – it’s rude. Always read things before commenting on them, especially if you’re accusing a person of not reading something. And check your own assumptions before telling people to beware of theirs.

  3. Sarah Kelly September 2, 2015 at 9:01 am #

    You’ve provided a considered response, and I appreciate that.

    I feel as you do about ableist language: I’m an opponent to the policing of expression, with a concomitant desire that people understand exactly what words mean before deploying them.

    A layperson cannot identify ‘high-functioning’, or know what that means, or if it does or should mean anything. The lexicon governing autism is problematic. It’s growing unpredictably with diagnosis and understanding, and its evolution is lurching and ungainly. When I worked in Edmonton, ‘words with dignity’ dictated that ‘autistic’ was itself ableist, because it put the condition before the person; when I moved to England a year later, charities urged the public to ‘support your local spastic’. The movement in England now is towards ‘autistic’ as opposed to ‘with autism’ specifically because ‘autistic’ isn’t a pejorative, but a descriptor: ‘I’m an autistic person; I’m a wonderful person; I’m a left-handed person.’

    I don’t mean to take a tone: I don’t know your situation, you don’t know mine, and we’re not here to trade war stories. On this issue, please assume my respect and goodwill.

    You assert that the trope of high-mid-low functioning is ‘uniformly [rejected]’ by autistic people. Maybe it will be rejected for a more useful prognostic toolkit, but it’s not yet been rejected by any autistic person I’ve known, nor their physicians or caregivers. This isn’t to push back on your problematising the language, which is a crucial and ongoing exercise. But I suggest that ‘uniformly’ is a heavy word for someone who claims emphatically not to speak for autistic people.

    So I don’t accept your premise that there’s a consensus wisdom here. Views vary. The concerns of children are different from those of adults; autistic people themselves obviously have a different perspective from those of loved ones and caregivers. Autism has very, very little monolith or consensus wisdom. Understanding it is a work in progress.

    The term ‘mildly’ suggests someone who could independently enter a place of business and complete a transaction. That is all. It is imprecise and diagnostically problematic (observing that someone is capable of shopping independently does not, de facto, minimise struggles encountered elsewhere), but this was an editorial, not a diagnostic tool, and I reject entirely that ‘mildly’ — coupled with ‘autistic’ and this context — reduced neurology to personality or habits.

    As to Fogle’s ‘message’, the driving point of the piece is that he didn’t have one. He just *was*: his one thing was that he had the same sub every day. There are a lot of different kinds of people who might do that same thing. Hence the blank canvas. Saying that isn’t a value judgement. As Mr Cosh said in one of his tweets, the common denominator is people who ‘prize familiarity’.

    Here I round back to diagnostic criteria: sameness and repetitive behaviour. That it might manifest in a sandwich could be a function of personality, but the bottom line — that it happens predictably and without variation — is a manifestation of the sameness criterion, a neurological marker of autism, and makes the passing reference a valid one. The groups mentioned built this one anchor into their day for a variety of different reasons. The common denominator is the lack of variation, the structural rigidity, imposed either from within or without.

    Ritualising and selectivity around eating manifests in a majority of people diagnosed with autism. I don’t use this to defend Colby because you couldn’t have known that he knows (he does), but I mention it to further push away any notion that autism is being used as pejorative shorthand for some kind of sandwich-based personality type.

    There were three replies to Ms Williams’s tweet, reverse-funnelling from the specific question she asked to the overall tone of the paragraph. My personal opinion is that the tweet about geniuses was a joke, but he could as easily have been referring to Michelangelo or Alan Turing or any number of people who ate the same thing at the same time in the same place every day to minimise distraction and get on with their work. You’re right that we have to be careful about assumptions. He wasn’t talking about autistic people when he talked about geniuses. That’s a thread you can draw if you wish to.

    What this piece did cannot by any reasonable measure be compared – as I believe you’re comparing it, if only tangentially – with the neurodivergent speculation attached to instigators of mass shootings. ‘Autistic’ was mentioned once in the context of the types of people who seek structural rigidity in their meals. It was in a paragraph specifically allotted to parsing the original appeal of Fogle as a marketing tool, what made him relatable and likeable fifteen years ago. There was no conceivable connection drawn between the context of autism and the spectre of criminality.

    Finally, it’s a dichotomy to invite people to share their thoughts because comments are loved and then accuse them of ‘[going] into their space’. I wasn’t try to get up into your business: I was speaking as one loving caregiver to another. I do mean this with all respect, because autism needs outreach and loving, informed, clear voices. I believe yours is one. When I admonished you to aim your arrows in the right direction I was trying to tell you that you weren’t fighting an enemy. But you do what you feel you have to.

    • OMum22 September 2, 2015 at 9:46 am #

      I think at this point I will leave what I’ve said to speak for itself but I did want to respond to a couple of specific points.

      You’re right, I should have qualified my comment about functioning levels with ‘in my experience’ or similar. I have not come across one autistic person who thinks functioning labels are anything other than harmful. I find them useless.

      Secondly, I do love people coming here and appreciate the effort to comment. However, as I stated, I’m not a fan of people coming here and telling me that I wasted my time and energy writing something. I write here to provide information, share ideas and because I get a lot of therapeutic value from doing it.

  4. Sarah Kelly September 2, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    The divide we’re speaking across seems to be at least partially a temporal one. My brother was diagnosed in 1982. Autism was a different universe then. His preliminary diagnoses included blindness and deafness. The workers who sweated to give him a functionality prognosis rescued his childhood.

    A lot of things are useless in the hands of some yahoo attempting an eyeball diagnosis from across the street. The label used in 1982 was ‘refrigerator mother’, and it wasn’t hurled from across the street: it was assessed to my shellshocked mother in consulting rooms by clinicians. Tell me which classist labelling you find more damaging.

    I do hope you’ll consider taking a less totalitarian tone in writing about autism. Write about your experience: that’s important. Just remember that it’s not the only one, and if you don’t want to have a conversation about a plurality of experiences, just say so. I’m not the only commenter to have been so uniquely rewarded for visiting your site.

    I do, however, thank you for publishing my first two comments.

    • OMum22 September 2, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

      Totalitarian? Please. Using that kind of language is an insult, not just to me but also to the people who have lived and died under those kinds of regimes.

      It’s odd that you describe me as denying the lived experiences of others because I don’t recall ever having done that. What I am completely comfortable doing however, especially on my own site, is clearly expressing my views and opinions and challenging the words, actions and views of those I disagree with. Despite your outrageous claim that I’m totalitarian, I’m completely comfortable with dissent; in fact I think it’s healthy.

      I don’t always publish comments but if I don’t there’s a reason:
      1) If the content is vile
      2) if the comment contains harmfully inaccurate information (e.g. anti-vax propaganda
      3) if it’s spam
      4) if there is lengthy, hostile content that I don’t have time to respond to

      One of the biggest problems I face in dealing with comments is lack of time.

  5. Sarah Kelly September 3, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    I appreciate the time and effort you put in here, but God bless: you read dictionary definitions exactly like you read Colby’s column. I do wish you all the best.

    • OMum22 September 3, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      I am a fan of accuracy 🙂 Best wishes.

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