Minassian’s Use of Autism as a Legal Defense Is an Attack on Autistic People

There’s no defense for being evil

Kerry McAvoy, PhD
Nov 21 · 5 min read

This week I have been mesmerized by the trial of Alek Minassian in Toronto, Canada. The 28-year-old man has been charged with ten counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.

On April 23, 2018, Minassian rented a van and intentionally drove into a crowd of people as they walked down one of Toronto’s busiest sidewalks. Shortly after his arrest, he told the booking officer, “I’m a murdering piece of sh-t.” His biggest regret was that he didn’t kill more people, especially women. When asked how he felt about what he’d done, Minassian said he had “completed his mission.”

Leading up to the attack, Minassian fantasized about going on a killing spree after believing himself to have been repeatedly spurned by women. He’d spent time online with the incel community, a radical support group for people struggling to interact with the opposite sex. Since its inception, it has turned a radical extremist group that spews hatred.

Minassian was also fascinated with killer Elliot Rodger’s manifesto in which Rodger rationalizes committing horrific misogynistic acts. Minassian became obsessed with seeking retaliation against women who, in his imagination, had slighted him. He told police he was involuntarily celibate and was on a mission to get retribution for perceived rejections.

Minassian’s lawyer has entered a plea of “not criminally responsible.” His legal team argues that he could not distinguish right from wrong due to an underlying neurobiological condition: autism.

Dr. Rebecca Chauhan, an assistant clinical professor at McMaster University and a child and forensic psychiatrist, has argued that Minassian could not fully understand the consequences of his actions due to his diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. She claimed he suffers from “mind blindness.”

“Mind blindness” is a theory that asserts that some people (with mind blindness) have difficulty being empathetic — accepting the thoughts, beliefs, emotional reactions, feelings, and desires of those around them. They struggle to understand the inner lives of other people.

This condition is commonly associated but not necessarily an integral trait of people with schizophrenia, dementia, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, autism, and, sometimes, with aged people.

The defense attorney Boris Bytensky claims Minassian is not a sociopath nor a narcissist and that he doesn’t have a personality disorder. In other words, Minassian does not suffer from any of the mental illnesses usually prevalent among those who commit this type of crime.

Minassian’s only defense is autism. His attorney is alleging Minassian’s mind blindness made it impossible for Minassian to see his actions as morally reprehensible.

As a clinical psychologist, I have been fascinated and incensed, by the details of this case. Three diverse disciplines — legal, psychological, and spiritual — are converging. Insanity, for example, is not a psychological term, it’s a legal one used to describe someone who is not of sound mind and cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. And, of course, it is beyond the scope of a criminal trial to address spiritual or existential implications.

The defense’s argument that autism made Minassian mow down more than 26 people with a van strikes me as a lazy attempt to explain this young man’s disturbing actions. The defense claims, “Mr. Minassian only understood wrongfulness at the intellectual level.”

At the time of his psychiatric assessment, Minassian was described as devoid of emotions and oddly out of touch with the severity of his actions. He readily admitted to planning and carrying out the attack. He failed to see he had done anything wrong because, in his mind, his victims deserved it.

The proof of Minassian’s lack of emotionality does not signal autism. It is also typical of other pathologies, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder and Schzoid Personality Disorder, yet these conditions were dismissed.

In my opinion, pointing to autism as the sole cause of Minassian’s criminal behavior is a giant leap. It is an elaborate effort to exonerate someone who’s confessed. This overly simplistic explanation, however, risks stigmatizing all those on the autism spectrum.

Autism is a complicated condition. The core symptoms are communication problems, impairment in sociability and imagination, and the presentation of odd or stereotypical behaviors. It is estimated that one in 54 children, or approximately 1.85 percent of the population are on the autistic spectrum (ASD).

Are autistic people inherently more dangerous?

So far, there has been no conclusive evidence that those on the autism spectrum are more likely to commit a crime than the neurotypical population. A 2014 meta-analysis looked at this question and concluded that it was hard to determine how “prevalent crime commission is by those who have this disorder.” Researchers Cohen, Dickerson, and Forbes, in their 2014 paper, reasoned that it is “difficult to differentiate between conduct that is consistent with and characteristic ASD and conduct that is typical of an offender.”

So, how can we explain Minassian’s behavior, especially his disturbing lack of conscience for taking ten human lives or his lack of remorse for what he has done?

Using autism as a defense is a convenient excuse and helps us avoid the uncomfortable reality that there are those among us who do terrible things. It scares us when we’re not able to understand what drives criminal behavior. We cannot treat and subsequently control aberrant conduct if the behavior in question cannot be quantified. Diagnosing problematic behavior as a disease gives us the illusion of control.

By attributing Minassian’s actions to autism, society can take corrective measures. We can focus on finding a cure, a fix for his criminality. This explanation gives us a neat solution that allows us to sleep at night, feeling safer.

Minassian told us why he drove a van into a crowd of people. He wanted to kill as many pedestrians as possible. To hurt them for his perceived social isolation. He didn’t care that he was taking human lives — that was the point. As he said, he’d completed his mission.

There is much we do not understand about the human psyche. It is perhaps one of the last unexplored frontiers. The intricacies of motive, intentionality, and self-direction are still understood poorly.

Of course, Minassian’s legal team is doing its job — trying to win this case. His lawyers are merely offering an alternative explanation for Minassian’s unthinkable behavior. They can’t argue Minassian wasn’t aware of his actions; he’d already confessed, and there’s no defense for being evil.

However, I hope the judge listening to this case sees the risks of blaming Minassian’s cold-blooded behavior on autism. It’s overly reductionistic to say mind blindness was the cause of his action.

His rage was the cause. His rage, his misogyny, and his choices. Not his autism.

Let’s prevent Minassian from victimizing another group of people, the autistic community, by finding him “not criminally responsible.” Autism did not make him kill people — he did that all on his own.

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Dr. Kerry McAvoy is psychologist, writer, author, and survivor. Her novel, which explores the devastating impacts of deceit and betrayal, is due out next year.

A special “Thank you!” to those of you who helped in the writing of this article!:)

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