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Backlash grows over van attack perpetrator’s autism-related defence

Last Updated Nov 17, 2020 at 10:00 pm EDT

The backlash is growing today against the defence Alek Minassian’s lawyers are using to have their client declared not criminally responsible for the 2018 Toronto van attack, where he killed 10 people and injured 16 others.

The defence is arguing Minassian can’t understand and empathize about the consequences of his actions, because he is on the autism spectrum. Community advocates and people living with autism say that just isn’t true.

“It’s not acceptable to say, ‘this person doesn’t know right and wrong because they have autism,’ ” says Marie Hayton, whose son Jesse is living with autism.

“We do,” adds Jesse Hayton.

Marie and Jesse are following the arguments in the Minassian trial, worried it will make the Jesse’s life, and those of his friends, more difficult.

“There’s going to be lots of bullying, lots of discrimination,” says Jesse.

Whether or not the argument is accepted at trial by Judge Anne Molloy, Marie says she’s concerned it will impact public perception of those with autism.

“What could come forth from all of this is that people will think that people who have autism are violent, people (who) have autism have no control. People (who) have autism, could all of a sudden become psychotic and run people over on the street,” she says, adding the perception could have a real impact on the hundreds of thousands of Canadians living with autism.

“A big concern I have is, even for things like renting an apartment or getting a job, or all of those things, they could interfere with their ability to live a normal life,” she says. “Because people will hear this and […] then they don’t want to rent to this person or they don’t want to hire this person, just in case maybe some of it’s true.”

Jesse, who is 22 years old, is at Humber College, studying to be a voice actor and hoping to one day also be an author.

“We don’t want to lose it all,” says Marie. “Because this man is using his autism as an excuse, and that’s what we really feel it is.”

“It’s unconscionable,” says Dermot Cleary, Board Chair of Autism Canada. “It seems that the ambition to form a defense on behalf of a defendant is being done so at the expense of collateral damage to half a million Canadians.”

He adds that research shows people with autism are actually statistically less violent than the general population — a finding echoed by Dr. Peter Szatmari, Chief, Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at CAMH.

“There is no psychosis in ASD and no tendency to anti-social behaviour any more than in the general population,” he said in a statement. “I think you would not get any serious objection from the academic community on that account.”

Marie and Jesse say it’s not the first time they’ve heard autism tied to criminality. The shooter in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, who killed 27 people and himself, had Asperger’s syndrome. In the aftermath, his diagnosis was blamed by some as a contributing factor, something rejected by autism researchers and the perpetrator’s own father.

“I’m very tired of hearing autism getting blamed for people’s bad behavior,” says Marie.

Along with the stigma the autism community fears will be provoked by Minassian’s defence, Cleary also worries about the direct impact on those living with autism.

“What will a parent tell a child who is high functioning and aware?” asks Cleary. “That they’re not broken, that they’re not going to be dealing with this as a consequence of having autism.”

He adds that he’s not suggesting that people living with autism aren’t capable of committing crimes, because they can, just like everybody else.