Day 6·Q&A

Why defence strategy in Toronto van attack trial is potentially harmful to autism community

Writer Sarah Kurchak, who is autistic, says that despite assurances autism is "not on trial" in the case of Alek Minassian, she worries the connection could have lasting impacts on stigma surrounding people with autism.

'In the court of public opinion, autism is now on trial': Sarah Kurchak

Alek Minassian, pictured in a virtual trial at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov 30, 2020, has admitted he deliberately targeted pedestrans in the 2018 Toronto van attack. However the defence has argued he's not criminally responsible due to autism spectrum disorder. (Pam Davies/CBC)

With an Ontario judge set to deliver her verdict on the man behind the 2018 Toronto van attack, writer Sarah Kurchak says that despite assurances autism is "not on trial," she worries the connection could have lasting impacts on stigma surrounding people with autism.

Alek Minassian has admitted that he deliberately targeted pedestrians as he drove a rental van down Yonge Street in north Toronto on April 23, 2018, and has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

The decision rests not on whether he carried out the attack, but his state of mind at the time. Minassian's defence lawyer has argued he is not criminally responsible for the attack due to autism spectrum disorder.

Justice Anne Molloy will issue her verdict on Wednesday morning.

Kurchak, who is autistic, spoke with Day 6 guest host Eli Glasner and says the trial is relying on stereotypes about people with autism while ignoring other issues that contributed to the attack, like online radicalization.

Here is part of that conversation.

Give us a sense on the day of the van attack. How did you see your followers responding?

It's a sizable following, but it's a passionate following. And most people don't have any knowledge of geography in Toronto. 

So when they heard there was a van attack in Toronto, I had people all over the world contacting me to make sure I was OK. And the progression from there, once they settled that I was OK, was genuine upset that other people weren't OK.

As that started to wear on, people started to admit that they were nervous, too, because any time there's a public attack of that nature, we do have the fear that either the perpetrator themselves is going to be autistic and use that as an excuse — or that random people are going to start theorizing that they're autistic and it's an excuse. And the blowback to the community is painful and quite harmful.

WATCH | Autism community concernced Minassian defence could stigmatize its members:

Autism defence presented at Toronto van attack trial

3 years ago
Duration 2:02
A forensic psychiatrist testified in court Monday about whether Alek Minassian's autism could be a reason to find him not criminally responsible for the deaths of 10 people in the Toronto van attack, a potential finding the autism community is concerned could stigmatize their members.

How does that [reaction] speak to the arguments that were made in the trial about people with autism and their supposed lack of empathy?

It's so painfully ironic because as someone who experiences empathy in a way where it's actually quite painful for me ... I have to kind of shut it off and sleep it off sometimes. And to the point where I know autistic people who do not experience empathy, but just do incredible work in their communities because they believe in the right thing. 

To see all of this thrown aside for an age-old debate that plays into stereotypes of autistic people having no empathy — and then to see it extrapolated into this argument that experiencing empathy in the way he did, he would have no awareness of the consequence of his actions in a meaningful way — it was upsetting ... but also just genuinely baffling. 

Like, this is not the autism I know in any way.

The defence viewed Minassian's actions largely through that lens of autism. Why is that so problematic for you?

A lot of it sounded like they made a conclusion and then worked backwards to make everything work through that lens. 

There are many other factors that I can look at as someone simply reading the articles and following this case, that would suggest to me that there may be bigger issues here in terms of online radicalization, the incel community [and] misogyny in our culture in general. 

A portrait of a woman with pink hair and glasses.
Sarah Kurchak is a Toronto-based writer. (Submitted by the Kurchak family)

His interaction with those communities and the ideas he's actually expressed, to me, maybe they should have actually just taken those at face value instead of working through did his autism make him do [it], and was he aware of what he was doing because [of] the autism?

It's irresponsible, and I think it ignores a lot of factors that not only need to be addressed in his case, but in society in general.

Just to give me a sense of proportion, how much of the defence of Minassian would you say centred around this so-called autistic behaviour?

Not just the behaviour, but this sort of autistic understanding. Justice Molloy's quote was that the issue is whether the particular impact of autism spectrum disorder in this particular person, at this particular time, was such that he should be held criminally responsible. 

[That] suggests that there's this special expression of autism where you can methodically plan an entire crime, carry it out, but because you don't have the special level of moral understanding the defence thinks is necessary to understand what you're doing, that you're sort of incapable of understanding or being culpable of the massive harm that you've caused.

What's your main concern heading into the verdict?

Leading up to this trial, as I was following it, my main concern was simply the long-term impact on autistic people, because even though Justice Molloy said that autism was not on trial here, in the court of public opinion, autism is now on trial. 

The debate about whether or not we have empathy. The debate about whether or not we're inherently violent. The debate about whether or not we can apparently just get off or whatever crimes we commit — [when] we're usually more likely to be the victims of than the perpetrators in real life. 

But as I get closer, I am actually genuinely afraid this defence is going to work and I don't even know what the impact on autistic people is going to be in that case.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.