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:
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:
Well, go to it, then, always assuming you can read. https://t.co/AQiYVPjP5S
— Colby Cosh (@colbycosh) August 22, 2015
… 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.