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Why Alek Minassian's Defense Is False and Hurts the Autism Community

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I never expected to see it, and maybe that is why it hurt so much.

Tuesday night I opened up Twitter and saw a Toronto Star tweet at the top of my timeline.

Did Alek Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder make him incapable of rationally understanding that driving a van straight into pedestrians, killing 10 people and maiming 16, was wrong? 

Instantly, my heart sank.

For those unfamiliar, Alek Minassian committed the deadliest vehicle-ramming attack in Canadian history. On April 23, 2018, he rented a white van and used it to drive down the sidewalk of Yonge Street, the main street of Toronto, hitting numerous pedestrians, injuring 16 and killing 10.

He is currently in Ontario Superior Court charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Minassian pled not guilty to every charge, as his legal team has claimed he is not criminally responsible due to his diagnosis of autism. Sadly, none of this is surprising to me. Rather than look deeper into the more complex mental health problems of criminals, society has been more than happy to slap a label of autism as the cause and move on. They did it with Adam Lanza after Sandy Hook in 2012, they did it with Nikolas Cruz after Parkland in 2018 and now Minassian’s defense team is trying to do it for him here.

This continuous narrative that somehow a diagnosis of autism is an automatic precursor to committing a terrorist attack is as hurtful as it is untrue. As someone who is diagnosed with autism and who has watched accusations like this fly around time and time again, it has left me incredibly frustrated.

Why this defense is wrong

As part of his defense, Minassian’s lawyers submitted a report from a psychologist who said Minassian’s “autistic way of thinking was severely distorted in a way similar to psychosis.” Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder, it is not a psychological disorder. There has not been any scientific research that links autism to psychosis at any higher rate than a neurotypical person.

What research has actually found is that those on the spectrum are much more likely to be the victim of criminal activity rather than the perpetrators. Children with autism are three times more likely to be bullied than not. The vast majority of people with autism are simply regular, normal people who just struggle with social situations. We have a moral compass; we understand the difference between right and wrong.

Why this defense hurts to see

Demonizing those who live on the spectrum as “school shooters” and “the ones who are going to snap” is commonplace in society. Type “shooter autism” into Google and you will see:

— Parkland shooter autism
— UNCC shooter autism
— El Paso shooter autism
— South Carolina shooter autism

Now I am not saying that none of these people could have been on the spectrum, but when it comes down to it, living with mental health challenges (whatever they may be) is hard and autism involves figuring out how to navigate life in ways that 99% of the population will never understand.

Seeing autism used as a joke about terror attacks and cited as an excuse for violence hurts because it’s a piece of me, everyone I’ve known, and everyone else who’s struggled while being told by society, “because of your disorder you are inherently dangerous, and we expect you are capable of doing something like that.”

If we are a society that truly cares about others, the real conversation around Alek Minassian should not be “Is he another autistic guy who committed a crime?” It should be “How do we make sure everyone, no matter what their circumstances, has access to help?” Let’s take a step forward and invest in resources to help people rather than throwing an innocent community to the wolves when they don’t deserve it.

Getty image by NiseriN.

Originally published: November 23, 2020
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