How I felt after the Toronto Van Attack
Updated: Jun 13
What April 23, 2018, was like for me.
As today is the third anniversary of a horrific day, I write about it as it hit close to home on some levels. I remember the day well. It was originally just a regular Monday for me. I was working a four or five-hour shift at my previous job. It was also one of the first nice days of the spring after a cruelly rotten start with endless cold, overcast weather. Mid-teens under full sunshine was the weather this day.
Things go smoothly throughout the day until suddenly, at around 2 p.m., an upset customer gives me her shopping cart and informs me that there was a major attack in Toronto. I was shocked, so when I finished my shift, I looked up the details on my phone, and I was stunned to learn what happened. I will never look at any vehicle within the Ryder brand ever again. It is always a reminder of the tragedy whenever I see one on the road.
Learning the first details
The van attack hit close to home when I learned that one of my cousins and his girlfriend work near where the crime scene occurred. His girlfriend was home at the time, but my cousin was walking up Yonge Street during the attack for lunch. The van went right past him and missed hitting him. This scared me, but I was relieved he was safe.
Like many of us, especially since I was a Journalism student, I looked up the details on the alleged killer, 25-year-old (Now 28), who the media now refers to as John Doe, to stop further fame. At this point, details I picked up on were that he was a special education student with habits his peers considered strange (Meowing, hissing, biting and running away from girls), he was an ex-military recruit who did not complete his training and he was a long-time Seneca College student who studied Computer Science.
Learning the suspect is on the spectrum.
Soon, I was heartbroken to learn that John Doe is on the autism spectrum as I am. His mother was quoted in a 2009 Richmond Hill Liberal article talking about a son who has Asperger’s Syndrome losing funding for a program named Helpmate. The report did not name the mother’s son, so you couldn’t have ruled out the possibility that she could have referred to his brother, but when you see everything the media has covered about the suspect, it was him.
I was heartbroken since because many people do not know a lot about autism, some may have jumped to the conclusion that autism was a reason for the attack and that people should be cautious and afraid of people on the spectrum. To me, this is nonsense because a tiny percentage of people on the spectrum would even think about premeditating horrific attacks such as the Toronto one. I was scared to death that people would start treating me differently because people with autism might be associated with Doe and the Incel sub-culture from then on. Almost all of us on the spectrum are not like Doe because he had other issues if he decided to kill people.
Secondly, understanding Doe's motivation for the attack is also heartbreaking. Doe having difficulty experiencing romantic/sexual relationships compared to his normally-developing peers was at least part of the motive, as evidenced by his cryptic Facebook post minutes before he started his rampage. He praised another Incel mass murderer, Elliot Rodger in California, who killed several people and injured many others in a multi-weapon attack in May 2014. Rodger’s reason for this attack was revenge against those who had more active sex lives than he had.
Autistics rarely commit violent acts.
I and many others on the spectrum have experienced extreme anxiety, depression, ridicule, hatred, loneliness and jealousy of peers because of our difficulties forming friendships, let alone romantic and sexual relationships. Still, we would never do anything over-the-top like this. Unfortunately, in some rare, extreme cases, as Dr. Robin Holloway noted, some people may develop resentful attitudes toward society to the point that they may snap like this. This can happen to any vulnerable person who has a mental health issue of any sort, but again, in extremely rare cases. Most seek help and try to improve to be a functional society member.
My point is, autism itself does not cause extreme violent incidents, as autism does not wire people to want to hurt others, but rather years and years of anger and resentfulness could in any person experiencing extreme, unbearable difficulties in their lives. It could be family issues, personal issues, health issues and you name it. You often see on the news about people not on the spectrum attacking their partners, family members, or other society members. Even then though, it is scarce that vulnerable people would engage in extreme violent acts similar to how most non-vulnerable people wouldn’t. Most people from all backgrounds consider right from wrong to the point that they will have manageable lives and be at least somewhat respected society members.
Getting the word out
I was not the only one concerned about autism being linked to the horrific attack, especially since people have associated autism with Sandy Hook and Parkland in the past. Shortly after the attack, the Asperger’s Society of Ontario released a statement cautioning the link. Another autistic man who briefly went to high school with Doe was also interviewed an article on the Toronto Star because he was concerned about the negative societal image the attack may have caused for people on the spectrum. In 2019, a second autistic man who went to high school with Doe released an opinion piece on the Star about his experiences with him and how he felt about the link. Both articles are informative and get the message out.
What also breaks my heart is, of course, the victims, both the deceased and the injured. I wonder what their families have been going through. I have read about the injuries some of the wounded victims have experienced, and they are hard to process. Their lives will never be the same again. It is beyond unfair that people just wanted to enjoy one of the first genuinely nice days of the spring in a busy, popular area of the world, and then a van driver suddenly jumps a curb and mows 26 people down. Also, before the attack, these victims would have likely been willing to help Doe with whatever difficulties he faced, even if they were strangers before it was too late.
I am thankful that Constable Ken Lam did not shoot Doe because, quite frankly, he deserves to suffer the consequences alive for what he did. He asked Lam to shoot him after all, so firing him dead would be getting him off easy in this case.
Say no to stigma
Do not stigmatize those with disabilities or mental health issues. One doing something foolish does not reflect an entire population. If we all be kind to one another regardless of backgrounds, the world would be a much better place. #TorontoStrong
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