Special needs

Why we should not blame autism in the Toronto van attack

Alek Minassian possibly had ASD—but that would not explain the violent crimes he was charged with. Such speculation leaves autism families vulnerable.

Why we should not blame autism in the Toronto van attack

Photo: CP Images

Alek Minassian was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder, after last Friday’s van attack. Since it emerged in two Toronto Star reports that Minassian may have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social media has lit up with speculation around the possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship between this developmental disorder and acts of extreme violence.

Such conversations fuel fear and misunderstanding, leaving the families of kids who have autism spectrum disorder feeling vulnerable and stigmatized.  Alexandra Samuel, the mother of a child on the spectrum, says:

"The van attack was already heartbreaking for me as a Toronto native, but seeing the attacker identified as autistic made it triply so. First, it broke my heart because I live in fear of other people’s fear: I hate to see autism identified as a relevant factor in an episode of violence, because it implies that people should be afraid of boys like my son, or the men they grow into. That’s a completely erroneous picture of autism, which is far more likely to turn these boys into victims of other people’s cruelty than perpetrators of their own. 

But it also breaks my heart because the picture of this young man’s life is the very picture I fear for my own kid: a picture of isolation and misunderstanding. I’m very aware that I know nothing real about this attacker, and yet the way he is described —“weird,” “isolated,” “awkward”—reflects all the ways neurodiverse people can be cruelly judged. That is neither a reason to excuse nor expect a violent outcome, but it is a reminder of how hard life can be for people who don’t fit the narrow social mold."

The research confirms that having ASD does not make a kid statistically more likely to become a mass murderer—the opposite is true.

Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, a senior clinician scientist at Holland Bloorview Kid Rehabilitation Hospital’s autism research centre (ARC), sets the facts straight:

Premeditated violence is extremely rare in individuals with autism. “People with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders are in fact much more likely to be victims of violence—the youth I see are much more likely to be bullied.”

Violence is not a diagnostic criteria for ASD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) references challenges with communication and social skills as primary criteria, but nowhere does it cite violent behaviour as an indicator of autism.


Generalizing to a whole population creates a stigma. “Associating a single crime with neurodevelopmental differences both stigmatizes the whole community and takes away from what neurodevelopmental differences are really about.”

Whole communities suffer when people with differences are excluded. “Individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental differences bring a lot to our communities. They bring different perspectives and skill sets that are very important. When we perpetuate stigmas after single acts of violence, we take away from the richness these people bring.”

The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by neurotypical people. “When a violent act is committed by someone who is neurotypical, we don’t generalize it to the entire neurotypical population, so why should we generalize when such an act is committed by someone who may be neurodevelopmentally different?”

The best thing we can do right now is stay strong and united. “This is a critical time, and we can choose to be introspective and think about how to strengthen our communities or we could go the wrong way and stigmatize a whole section of our community for the actions of one. Shunning people with neurodevelopmental differences and their families is known to be linked to poorer outcomes. If we see families being stigmatized after this event, we should support them and celebrate the gifts that come from their unique differences. We need to pull together.”


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