I was friends with Alek Minassian in high school. We were both outcasts
|Toronto Star 22 Apr 2019 at 14:23|
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.