Alek Minassian’s Plea of Not Criminally Responsible is an Insult to Justice and All Autistic People

Image Description: Black Label with White writing that says "Actually Autistic"
Image Description: Black Label with White writing that says “Actually Autistic”

Alek Minassian killed ten people: Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Anne Marie D’Amico, Andrea Bradden, Chul “Eddie” Min Kang, Beutis Renuka Amarasingha, Geraldine Brady, Munir Abdo Habib Najjar, and Mary Elizabeth Forsyth. He is also responsible for injuring sixteen other people. After the attack in 2018 it was reported that Minassian is autistic. I too am autistic, and I worried at the time that negative associations with Minassian might carry over to increased prejudice against autistic people in general.

I could not have imagined that Minassian and his legal team would attempt to claim that he was not criminally responsible for so much death and harm because he is autistic. I, and many of my peers in the autistic community, are horrified by this development.

The argument relies on serious misconceptions of autistic people and ignores the differing realities autistic people face if they are not straight white men. Autistic women are often not diagnosed until later in life and often learn to mask their autistic traits (at the expense of their mental health) because of social expectations for women and girls. People rarely question whether the entitlement and sexually predatory behaviour exhibited by some white autistic men is not in fact inherent to their autism, but rather that they simply have not been held to a high enough standard and have routinely not faced consequences for their actions. And this is certainly a white privilege offered to men like Alek Minassian, as it is certainly not extended to autistic men and boys of colour. Men like Arnaldo Rios Soto whose caregiver was shot because They believed the toy Arnaldo was holding was a gun.

This legal defense is only possible for Alek Minassian because he is a white autistic man, who benefits from a cultural understanding of autism that often ignores the existence of—much less the starkly different realities of—autistic people who are not straight white men.

The legal defense also relies on a primary misconception of autism. Other autistic people and I watch in horror as Minassian is described in court as not having empathy and having that tied directly to his being autistic. The idea that autistic people lack empathy is simply untrue and there is plenty of contemporary research to back this up. Sue Fletcher-Watson and Geoffrey Bird theorize that past research has used flawed terminology and measurements to determine autistic empathy.

Minassian is described as only understanding wrongfulness on an intellectual level— a statement I find particularly difficult to parse. As an autistic person, I understand perfectly well that mass murder is wrong. I also understand the human toll that occurs after such an event takes place. It is not just that people have died and been injured. There is the secondary victimization experienced by the families who lost loved ones, people whose injuries might have resulted in permanent disabilities, and the ongoing trauma experienced by everyone touched by this event.

The defense has further claimed that Minassian’s autistic way of thinking is “similar to a psychosis”. This is absurd. I have experienced an actual diagnosed psychosis; it was very different than my autistic way of thinking. The consequences of my being a psychotic autistic were that I didn’t leave my apartment for several days, said some inappropriate things on Twitter, and spent eight days in a locked psychiatric ward, after which, I spent months finding the right balance of medications to keep that from happening again.

Getting blocked by a few people on Twitter for having a psychotic episode, is a far cry from planning and carrying out mass murder. All of which he did while apparently completely aware of what he was doing.

Disability, particularly a disability that impacts how a person relates to the world, is a convenient scapegoat. It is so convenient that at times prosecutors themselves have assumed that something must be psychiatrically wrong simply to make sense of horrible events. Consider Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 77 people in 2011. He was quickly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, a diagnosis that was later removed.

Disability is a convenient and perhaps even comfortable scapegoat that explains why horrible things happen. It, however, ignores the insidious nature of white supremacy and misogyny that are prevalent in Incel online communities. It ignores a long history of regular people rationalizing committing atrocities. Disability is a convenient boogey man that allows people to deny accountability to bigoted belief systems. I can only hope that it will ultimately be recognized that Alek Minassian is a man who was radicalized by misogyny and that he is punished accordingly.

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