This spring new memorials appeared on Yonge Street commemorating the anniversary of Alec Minassian’s van attack when he killed ten pedestrians and injured many others.
The Toronto Star published a three page article (I was friends with Alek Minassian. We were both outcasts – April 21/2019) by writer Evan Mead, who attended high school with Minassian, both of them diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Now I grew up in the 1950/1960s, when there was no attempt being made in our schools to deal with autistic children (other than putting them in classrooms for problem kids – little day prisons). Because of that, I’ve always assumed that autistic kids today are better off. There are treatment experts now who seem sincere and knowledgeable. It should be better now, shouldn’t it? Well, maybe not.
Evan Mead and Alek Minassian attended Thornlea Collegiate’s ‘special needs’ program. They and their parents expected it to help them. They were assigned to ‘Room 208’ which housed a unique learning strategies program designed to help teens with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other neurological conditions. They were told that it would be a ‘neurodiverse learning environment’. Evan comments:
…. but that didn’t mean coexistence with neurotypical kids would always be easy. After getting bullied daily by the boys in my Grade 9 gym class for not picking up on social clues …. I vowed to keep my diagnosis and any affiliation with Room 208 a secret from the school’s general population. My friends and classmates on the spectrum opted to do the same.
But it was hard to keep it a secret. He adds:
Alek and I didn’t really fit in anywhere at Thornlea except for Room 208. As far as the general population was concerned, we were SPED kids (SPED is an abbreviation for ‘Special Education’ – and its context was almost always negative).
Room 208 became their ‘hideout’, and this separation from others caused them to become friends with each other.
But Alek had more trouble than most of them coping with the ‘normal’ school kids. Everyone in that room had their own ‘quirky chemistry’, but Alek was the quirkiest. This caused him a lot of difficulty outside Room 208, where he was called “Chewbacca”, mocked and bullied.
While Mead says he had set himself the goal of blending in as much as possible, Minassian didn’t seem to understand that and went another way. They parted company. But when Mead was in his senior year and trying to learn dating, he found “being normal” was harder than he expected, and it had unexpected consequences:
I was once again the target of bullies who knew full well that I was on the spectrum and was struggling with dating. Their painful harassment continued in the form of hurtful Facebook comments and prank phone calls well past high school and into my first year of college. And the most infuriating part of the torment I endured was that …. they made it very clear that they were treating me this way because I was a “SPED retard” in their eyes.
This makes me really angry. Early in school, when I was receiving no help at all, I solved most of the bullying and abuse by separating myself. Through much of elementary school and all through high school I remained alone, aloof, not talking to anyone (there are avoidance skills you can learn). I ignored the taunts. Only if they put their hands on me did I fight back. Of course this was seen as negative by teachers, but I ignored them too and it looks like this avoidance got me through those years without as much trauma as Evan Mead and Alek Minassian experienced.
Of course, there was no Facebook in the 1960s.
Evan Mead is still haunted by his friend Alek Minassian’s revenge last spring on the social world. Following the day of the murders, he says “I was almost tempted to deactivate my Facebook account out of fear that the same kids who harassed me years ago would target me again.” But it also left him wanting to know more about why Alek did what he did. He says:
I don’t claim to know anything about what has happened to Alek mentally…. but as his former friend, there is a part of me that wishes I could talk to him to find out more.
In the years since I last saw Alek, the world has changed. For many the threat of mass attack keeps hitting closer and closer to home.
We are quick to condemn the perpetrators, but when you actually know the person accused of the violence, you get a different perspective.
As time ticks closer to Alek Minassian’s trial – set to begin in 2020 …. I continue to see the faces of the van attack victims in my dreams. ….. The question in my mind that has been ringing since that day – why did this happen? The filmmaker in me will attempt to find these answers, as I plan to document this story on film.
Yes, Evan Mead is planning a film on it, one that cannot help but be compelling. And yes, Alek Minassian’s trial will not be heard until next year. He and the victims and victims’ families will have to endure another year of tortured waiting. The delays in our courts are strong evidence that we live in a dysfunctional world, yet most people accept this as reality.
And I too remain dismayed by a world that pretends to be sympathetic with people who are different, yet mistreats them more than ever.
So I’m trying here to help Evan Mead say what he wants to say. For, as Quixotic as they sound, I agree completely with his closing words:
Now more than ever, we need to understand each other.
My previous post: Autism and Toronto’s van rampage