There is no evidence linking autism to planned violence, but in recent years, mass shootings by young men have led commentators in the mainstream media and on the Internet to suggest such a connection. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for instance, news reports said that the shooter was on the spectrum. The speculation made little sense to anyone who understood autism. Whereas autistic people have language delays and deficits, the killer had learned English as a second language — and learned it well enough to major in the subject in college. Later on, it turned out that he had an entirely different problem, a social anxiety disorder. Adam Lanza, who committed the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, but his father emphasized that his behavior stemmed from the psychiatric illnesses that he also had. Nevertheless, the media speculated about Lanza’s place on the spectrum, which worried autism parents. One mother of an autistic child wrote: “This is the first time I'm truly afraid for him. Afraid of what may happen to my son with autism at the hands of a stranger; a stranger who has chosen to buy into the media-fueled misinformation that individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are dangerous and capable of horrendous acts of terror and violence.”
The man who used his rental van as a weapon on a busy Toronto sidewalk in 2018, killing 10 people and badly injuring 16 in the city’s worst mass killing, was found guilty of murder and attempted murder by an Ontario judge on Wednesday.
Rejecting the novel argument that his autism spectrum disorder rendered him not criminally responsible, Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the defendant, Alek Minassian, understood clearly what he was doing, despite the conclusion of some experts that he was incapable of feeling empathy because of his neurodevelopmental disorder.
The Ontario Autism Coalition is relieved that Alek Minassian has been found guilty for his crimes, and hopes that families impacted by the 2018 van attack will find at least a small sense of comfort from the verdict. We hope that this decision can now lift the dark cloud that has hung over this trial, with a firm rejection of the use of autism as a defence in this case.
Violent traits have no connection to autism; in fact, people on the autism spectrum are far more likely to be victims as opposed to perpetrators of violence. The court’s decision makes it clear this was never a case of autism causing mass murder, but rather a case where someone who committed mass murder happened to have autism. An autism diagnosis does not predispose one to commit acts of violence.
Individuals with autism are our neighbours, coworkers, and friends. Today’s verdict offers hope that our community can move forward despite the arguments of one defense attorney that autism is a valid defense for one of the most violent, abhorrent acts carried out against so many innocent people.
Angela Brandt, President of the Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) mentions “there is nothing inherently violent about autism. Mentally healthy people, autistic or not, do not commit acts of violence. I hope Alek Minassian gets the help he requires”.
Nothing about the actions of Minassian are representative of those with autism and the verdict today emphasizes the distance between Minassian’s heinous acts and the autism community as a whole. Alek Minassian was an individual with autism who committed a crime. Other individuals with autism should not be measured by Minassian’s actions.