When a van drove down Yonge Street April 23, 2018, our first real spring day in this city, deliberately attacking pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring at least 14, it was with added dismay that I learned that the alleged driver, Alek Minassian, age 25, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s.
It wasn’t a surprise though. Young men with autistic, socially impaired personalities seem to show up disproportionately in events like this – school shootings like Sandy Hook and other such catastrophes.
When I learned that Minassian (assuming he was the driver) appears to have targeted women (8 of the 10 dead are women), I temporarily lost any desire to say something sympathetic about him here.
But then I read a newspaper account (Toronto Star, April 27/18) of an interview with Kyle Echakowitz, an ex-classmate of Minassian when they were in a program for autistic students at Thornlea Secondary School. He also sees the connection with Sandy Hook.
When Sandy Hook happened in 2012, Echakowitz, only fifteen at the time, says he spoke up to reporters here in Toronto because he was concerned about autistic people being identified as inherently violent.
Now in a social work program at Seneca College, he is again concerned. He says people don’t appreciate how difficult and different it is being autistic in a social world.
“When you grow up autistic, you don’t really get a chance to be a kid,” he says. “You have to be more mature by default. Because otherwise, the entire community is misrepresented. And you get blamed for it.”
Yes, I thought, that’s true. When I was a boy, I had to keep myself under control at school to escape the taunting and bullying and what could have been almost continual fights (there were a few anyway). Though I was constantly criticized for it, I avoided talking to people because talking only got me in trouble. It worked, but only I seemed to understand why.
When an autistic young man loses control and performs violent acts, those of us with an autistic background aren’t as mystified as everyone else seems to be.
Echakowitz also says that due to their psychological/social disability, autistic people are more likely to be victims of violence than to be the perpetrators. I second that too.
Minassian, by the way, is said to come from an Armenian background. Someone has pointed out that April 23rd was the eve of the date commemorating, for Armenians, the intense and prolonged genocide they suffered from at the hands of the Turks in World War One while the rest of the world looked on. Read a history of that and you won’t be surprised that some people with an Armenian heritage get angry at this time of year.
But why, you may ask, should unhappiness in a young man result in something as extreme as this?
Well, when it happened, I was reminded again that Freud, when he first began analysing people, said he was shocked at how many men harbor an unconscious hatred of civilization (it’s in his famous essay, Civilization and its Discontents).
When you consider that real wages have been falling since 1973, while personal debt has been rising steadily, reaching an all-time high recently, and good jobs are increasingly hard to get, I suspect that Alek Minassian may be at the top of an enormous iceberg of anger in young men, not just those who are on the autistic spectrum.
When violence is cultivated in films, TV, fiction and computer games, and almost no one speaks out against it anymore (I gave up objecting 20 years ago), why are we surprised when real violence becomes more extreme?
When horror has become the most successful, most lucrative genre in fiction, why are we surprised to meet horror in our streets?
But to get back to the difficulty most people have understanding those who are autistic, Kyle Echakowitz said something that I found very moving. He said:
“I think it’s going to be very important to hear what (Minassian) has to say in court …. Because too often when these things happen we don’t get that story right.”
Well Kyle, I’m with you. I’ll be listening to Alek Minassian closely too, trying to understand. But I’m afraid most people will be too prejudiced by what they’ve seen this week to hear him at all.