Alek Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder left him with significant problems understanding emotions and vulnerable to the ramblings of an American mass killer who hated women, a psychiatrist who assessed the man behind Toronto’s van attack testified Wednesday.
Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder and argues he was not criminally responsible — due to autism — for his actions when he drove a van down a busy Toronto sidewalk on April 23, 2018.
Dr. Rebecca Chauhan, a forensic psychiatrist testifying on behalf of the defence, said she met with Minassian three times in September 2018, and once with his parents, as part of her clinical evaluation of the 28-year-old.
“He had significant impairment in moral reasoning,” Chauhan said.
Minassian, who has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack, struggled to understand other people’s emotions as well as his own, she explained.
“In terms of really appreciating the magnitude of how distressed the victims would be, no I don’t think he appreciates the magnitude of this highly violent offence,” Chauhan said.
Minassian spoke freely about the van attack and at all times showed no emotion, even failing to understand why his parents would be upset, she said.
“It was my view that he really did suffer with some amount of ‘mind blindness,”’ Chauhan said. “He seemed to struggle with fully grasping the internal world of other people and why other people would be so distressed.”
Chauhan said Minassian told her he became fixated on mass murders in high school as a way to deal with girls’ rejection and being bullied.
He began a ritual then of searching online for elementary school shootings, high school shootings and general mass shootings, court heard.
“He was responding to this period of hopelessness and feeling bullied,” Chauhan said.
Minassian seemed to turn a corner in college, he told her, when he had some success studying software development. The fantasies of mass murders had abated, she said he told her.
Those fantasies came back when struggles arose later, she said, particularly when Minassian tried to juggle a job with his studies, which led to a few course failures.
Minassian told Chauhan that at some point in 2016 he became aware of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who went on a rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., in May 2014.
Rodger killed six people and hurt 14 others before killing himself. In a “manifesto,” Rodger said the attacks were retribution against women and the men who date them.
In the bowels of the internet, Rodger became the forefather of the so-called “incel” movement for men who were involuntarily celibate _ and hated women.
Minassian told Chauhan that by late 2017, he was “obsessed” with Rodger and read his “manifesto” repeatedly.
“He talked about parallels: both had autism, struggled with relationships with females and experienced loneliness,” she said.
“But he didn’t seem to be able to see the differences, just able to see the similarities.”
Minassian’s “rigid” thought process and his ability to “hyperfocus” on those similarities left him fixated on Rodger, Chauhan said.
“Mr. Minassian’s underlying autism caused him to be vulnerable to hyperfixation and the writings of Elliot Rodger,” she said.
Court also heard that Minassian told Chauhan he noticed he was hitting both men and women at random during the van attack.
“He said he was, these are his words, ‘wishing for more female victims’ and hoping there would be more young, attractive females in particular,” Chauhan said.
She said he told her the attack was “worth it.”
“He talked about feeling happy that he had managed to get attention,” Chauhan said.
Minassian’s lawyer, Boris Bytensky, asked Chauhan if his client displayed any emotion while talking about the attack.
“No, he was recounting facts and devoid of emotion,” she said.
The trial has heard that Minassian told a detective he carried out the attack as retribution against society for his rejection by women.
Minassian’s state of mind at the time of the attack is the only issue at play in trial.
When asked by Global News about the defence being put forward by Minassian lawyers, Dermot Cleary, board chair for Autism Canada, called it “completely misplaced” and not an “appropriate thing to contest.”
“We’re receiving an overwhelming number of requests for support at this time,” he said.
“Autism begins with stigma in the first place, it begins in the playground and those on the spectrum have enough challenges as it is dealing with stigma without this completely unnecessary stigma being introduced into their lives at this time.”
— With files from Nick Westoll