On a bright sunny day in September 2006, I started Grade 9 at Thornlea Secondary School in the east end of Thornhill. I loved school and actually enjoyed the first day back throughout my elementary school years, despite growing up with Asperger’s syndrome and requiring support from an educational assistant in class. But this first day of school was different — very different. Not only was I entering high school, a monumental transition, but it was the first time in nine years when I didn’t know anyone. I had gone from having a tight-knit circle of friends and a group of peers who understood me to being at the bottom of the social ladder.
Instead of knowing 20 or so familiar faces and having my three closest friends with me on my first day of high school, I only knew one friend (also on the spectrum) in a sea of thousands of new faces. Instead of going to a large classroom with our neurotypical peers (that is, people who do not have autism spectrum disorder) at first period, there were about 10 of us who started our first day at Thornlea in Room 208.
Room 208 housed a unique learning strategies program designed to help teens with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other neurological conditions build and practise the social and academic skills to succeed in high school and life in general. It would be a sort of “hideout” for me over the next three years.
Each of us had our own strengths and weaknesses, and we would all become acquainted. When the bell signalled the end of first period, I went to grab my books out of my new locker when a tall, lanky boy with jet-black hair startled me with his approach. I recognized him from 208, but we had not yet been formally introduced. He didn’t say a word, but he looked at me with the most bizarre smile I had ever seen. He squinted his eyes and clenched his teeth so tightly I couldn’t tell if he was happy or angry. He came far too close for comfort, showing little regard for my personal boundaries, and his face almost touched mine.
I had just met Alek Minassian. I didn’t know how to respond.
The weeks that followed Toronto’s horrific van attack were a time of processing shock, horror and grief. Not just for the city, but also for me — someone who used to sit next to the suspect in class and, dare I say it, even considered him a friend. In writing this piece, I have to admit that I am reluctant to open up and talk about what it was like to know Alek and even be close with him.
In the year since April 23, 2018, there have been many questions asked about the alleged driver. What were his motivations? How did he come to be associated with the “incel” subculture? Did something from his youth lead him down a dark path?
I sometimes ask the occasional friend about Alek and the attack (whilst being extremely cautious about acknowledging my relationship to him) and they often say they don’t really know what to make of him or his supposed motivation.
One of the few things the media learned about Alek only hours after the attack was that he has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, just like me. The condition is an autism spectrum disorder; the characteristics vary from person to person, but the most common signs are difficulty understanding social situations, trouble making eye contact and the ability to focus intently on certain tasks, which can lead to fixation and obsession.
This can make someone with Asperger’s a brilliant employee and creative thinker; however, they may have difficulty making friends or dating. The revelation that Alek was on the spectrum was especially concerning for many people like him as they feared for their societal image. The fact that an administrator from the Asperger’s Society of Ontario had to write a statement on Facebook saying that people on the spectrum are not deliberately violent or malicious sent a chill down my spine.
The time I knew Alek was one of insecurity and difficulty with making friends. My parents and I agreed that Thornlea’s special needs program would be beneficial for me, but little did I know that I was in for some of the biggest learning curves and personal challenges of my youth. I would evolve through a painful process of trial and error when it came to fitting in and learning about my peers as well as myself. I hardly recognized the boy in the mirror by the end of high school.
In terms of its special education programs, Thornlea was considered a neurodiverse learning environment, 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 cues as fast as they did, 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. This was especially true for dating. We in our program all knew that dating would be challenging for us in high school, but I still badly wanted to experience it.
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). For three years, our daily routine consisted of starting in learning strategies class, going to our other classes with the general population, regrouping in 208 during lunchtime, then getting a head start on our homework in study hall before the end of the day.
Room 208 was a modified classroom that had computers, a lounge with a TV, a small library of books, comics and magazines, a shelf stocked with card games and board games, and a padded room that anyone could use to cool off during stressful situations. It was a perfect hideout from the rest of the school, and we all took advantage of it. Not everyone in 208 liked each other or got along, but as time went on I was able to make friends in this tight-knit community. Alek was one of these friends.
It was the first time in my life where I was part of a circle of friends in which everyone was on the spectrum. We had our own quirky chemistry and, at the age of 14, I became curious about how this condition that I had lived with my whole life was affecting everyone else. Alek was a whole other story. Some of his quirks, tics and habits matched the signs of autism as I understood them, but his overall behaviour at school resembled something else entirely that I have never seen in autism before, or since. I became interested in the way his brain worked and I found him to be one of the most fascinating people I had ever met. But that didn’t mean it was easy to be around him all the time.
At school, Alek took the class clown cliché to a whole new level. We called this his “silliness.” He always spoke in a high-pitched voice to students, but never to teachers. He made jokes and puns often, would giggle hysterically when anyone uttered profanity and was constantly insulting himself as a strange form of self-deprecating humour. He always flaunted that weird, clenched-teeth smile that he used to introduce himself. His overall maturity seemed non-existent. I often asked him why he constantly put himself down, but he never gave a serious answer.
Alek had very little regard for personal boundaries and would uncomfortably approach people by invading their spaces, though he never physically hurt anyone. Alek’s silliness annoyed most of us in Room 208, and some days we didn’t care to invite him to hang out with us. I complained about him the most, to the point where one of our friends — who knew Alek from middle school — told me to “quit whining.” All he knew about Alek was that he was acting this way for attention, and every time his silliness upset us we were giving him what he wanted. Despite his constant clowning around, he was an attentive student who never seemed to question or argue with a teacher. He was brilliant and focused when his behaviour was kept in check.
Eventually, Alek and I were invited to see Spider-Man 3 at a birthday party. I dreaded having to put up with his silliness in a crowded movie theatre during one of the biggest films of 2007, but to my surprise his out-of-school persona was the polar opposite of the goofy kid we knew in class. At birthday parties and hangouts, he was calm, collected, and articulate — if not a little nervous. He was also good at video games.
There was almost a charm to him out in the world. Was his obnoxious in-school persona some sort of rebellion? Perhaps it was a cry for attention? To this day, some of us from 208 believe that Alek was conducting a social experiment. We often took advantage of the personal moments outside of school to ask him about his clownish ways, but he dodged our questions, never giving an actual answer. Knowing Alek was like knowing two different people in the same body.
Of all Alek’s mischief, the one antic that infuriated us the most was his apparent “fear” of girls. I remember the first time he was paired up for a class assignment with one of our female classmates in Room 208. It was the last time he ever worked with her. He said nothing to this girl, only cowering, shivering and whimpering in her presence like a toddler. I could see that she was beside herself. One of the teachers angrily called him out on his embarrassing charade. After class, another classmate sneered at him and called him sexist — Alek didn’t care. He kept up this act around every female student at Thornlea for the entire time I knew him.
Kids of Thornlea’s general population occasionally bullied Alek. He was teased and mocked for his silliness that no one outside of Room 208 could understand, but he made no effort to stand up for himself. The neurotypical kids eventually dubbed him “Chewbacca” after the famous Sasquatch-like creature from Star Wars, whom Alek liked to imitate.
Boys would frequently ask him nonsensical, not-to-be-taken-seriously questions like “Do you like anal sex?” or “Are you going to eat dog feces off the ground for lunch?” to which Alek would always respond with a gleeful “Uh-huh!” There were even more lewd and grotesque comments that boys made. Girls caught on to the fact that Alek would pretend to be scared of them, and some would tease and poke him, knowing he would squirm at their touch.
As we watched Alek make a mockery of himself as a “weird SPED student,” our group grew insecure about being affiliated with him; afraid even that everyone would think we were just as immature and goofy as he was. It felt as if we had to show the school that not all of us were like him. At 16, my goal was to blend in and act as “normal” as possible. I never wanted to be labelled autistic because I knew I was nothing like Alek, and the condition did not define who I was.
By the time we entered Grade 11, I grew apart from Alek and started conversing with him less and less. As I matured, he stayed the same and kept playing the same game, year after year, not having a care about what anyone thought of him.
In my best effort to act “normal,” I stopped taking the class in 208, joined extracurricular activities and even landed a part in a school play. I learned a lot about making friends and managed to fit in with the crowd. Even better, I discovered my love for film as well as my drive to study film and make movies of my own. However, I still had to fall down hard during my senior year of high school.
My first attempt at dating was an utter disaster. I said all the wrong things and made all the wrong moves. I did a lot of research on how to ask out girls and manage my social skills to be attractive to a crush, thinking that it would come just as easy for me as for my neurotypical peers. But putting these skills into practice was like being trapped in a maze. No one really taught me how to articulate my feelings and that was probably my biggest struggle from my teen years to my early 20s. Also, the tremendous, nagging sensation of peer pressure to hook up with girls, combined with the difficulty of letting go of feelings for one of my first crushes, made me extremely uncomfortable — I couldn’t be around her without things getting awkward fast.
By the time graduation came, 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 on multiple occasions, as my peers ripped away whatever dignity I had as a high school senior, they made it very clear that they were treating me this way because I was a “SPED retard” in their eyes.
Those experiences left a scar. For a long time after I tricked myself into believing that I had deserved what happened to me because my behaviour was a product of Asperger’s syndrome. Autistic people around the world go through different experiences in learning how to build and manage their social skills, and the disgusting insinuation that we are some monolith of a community that normalizes violence and monstrous behaviour is the same kind of revolting garbage that has been peddled by bigots, out-of-touch medical “professionals” and even some politicians.
In recent years, I have become comfortable talking about my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. I also became driven to support people on the spectrum in learning the social skills to build friendships and have the love lives that they want and deserve, so in 2016 I started Asperger’s Social Camp, a workshop I designed to help people like me build their confidence and social skills.
In the midst of all this growth and change in my life, Alek was mostly forgotten.
The last time I saw him in person was at our high school graduation ceremony in June 2011. He seemed closed off, guarded, and extremely uncomfortable. I only remember speaking to him twice in the seven-year gap between high school and the attack — as recent as February 2018, when he sent me a friend request on Facebook and asked how I was doing. No mention was made of him joining the Canadian Armed Forces, nor did he talk about his feelings. He just asked how my life was going and then disappeared into cyberspace.
The next time I heard his name was when a reporter from New York contacted me on April 23, 2018, to tell me that Alek had been connected to the carnage at Yonge and Finch.
I stopped breathing when the reporter spoke his name. How did the shy, goofy kid with a vast knowledge of video games and computers, who never so much as raised his voice, who was always overly happy, who never picked a fight with anyone at school, become tied to this horrible crime?
Wanting desperately not to assume the worst about my old friend, I casually answered the reporter’s questions off the record, hung up the phone, caught my breath and carried on with my evening. I tried telling myself over and over again as I paced back and forth at home that the media had somehow made a mistake and were after the wrong guy. But alas, police alleged Alek was the man behind the wheel of that white van.
Some of my old classmates from Thornlea spent the rest of that night venting their shock, disgust and confusion on a Facebook post of Alek’s picture that had gone viral. The media scrambled for answers, and all through the chaos that unfolded, my old urge to hide my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome had come back to haunt me.
As I read through the angry comments lamenting Thornlea as a learning environment, wishing death upon Alek, and shutting down anyone who dared to suggest that “maybe we should be talking about mental health in this case?” my emotional turmoil felt too familiar. I flashed back to the summer of 2011 when a buddy of mine who knew about my diagnosis and struggles with dating lectured me on how I “had a reputation” because of my behaviour around girls at the time and my failed attempts at finding love.
It was a pathetic attempt to rationalize and justify the bullying I was receiving back then, but as the sun set on the day of the van attack, I remembered the sheer embarrassment and shame of being told that everyone thinks I’m creepy and dangerous because of social mistakes. My former classmate had been linked to a horrible crime and a community of men who feel completely isolated from the modern dating scene. 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 in the wake of the attack but, fortunately, they never did.
I don’t claim to know anything about what has happened to Alek mentally or where he’s been in the years since high school, but as his former friend, there is a part of me that wishes I could talk to him to find out more. I want to know what has been going through his head all these years. What made it so difficult for him to articulate himself? Why did he feel the need to be the class clown in high school? What happened that day one year ago, and why?
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. Horrific crimes have been carried out for the ugliest of reasons — from racial prejudice, to anti-Semitism, to homophobia, to religion, to party politics and now allegedly over lack of intimacy. Many of these crimes seemingly committed by young, impressionable men.
We are quick to condemn the perpetrators, but when you actually know the person accused of the violence, you get a different perspective. It’s only natural that we are all on high alert these days. We fear for our kids at school, for our relatives overseas, and for ourselves as now it seems that death can strike on any given day. But for some of us, fear takes on a different shape. People who have difficulty forming relationships, kids who are quiet in class and who get called “loners” risk stigmatization. We all just want to fit in. I feel for the kids who wear the weight of these labels today.
We can condemn acts of evil until we are blue in the face, but until we understand where it is coming from and why it is happening, boys like me will remain misunderstood.
As time ticks closer to Alek Minassian’s trial — set to begin in 2020, and the charges against him have not been proven in court — I continue to see the faces of the van attack victims in my dreams. I continue to wonder how their families are holding up. The question in my mind that has been ringing since that tragic day — why did this happen? The filmmaker in me will attempt to find these answers, as I plan to document this story on film.
Now more than ever, we need to understand each other.
Evan Mead is a filmmaker, writer and social activist based in Toronto.