I’ve been following and often posting about many wonderful disabilities relates stories this summer—from our successful National Ramah Tikvah Network virtual vocational training and socializing program, to several of our Ramah campers creating successful ventures—from Uriel’s t-shirts were a lot of money was notated, to the shredding company started by Uriel and fellow camper Jacob.
But, it is also important to report on upsetting stories. It is known that people with autism are sometimes misperceived as “acting strange” or “dangerous” by law enforcement personnel. Autism Speaks even has a link on their website which explains that “A person with autism might:
Have an impaired sense of danger.
Wander to bodies of water, traffic or other dangers.
Be overwhelmed by police presence.
Fear a person in uniform (ex. fire turnout gear) or exhibit curiosity and reach for objects/equipment (ex. shiny badge or handcuffs).
React with “fight” or “flight”.
Not respond to “stop” or other commands.
Have delayed speech and language skills.
Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands.
Avoid eye contact.
Engage in repetitive behavior (ex. rocking, stimming, hand flapping, spinning).
Have sensory perception issues.
Have epilepsy or seizure disorder.
It then goes on to offer tips for first responders to be able “to identify that a child or adult may have autism, [so] he or she can then respond in a way that best supports the individual.”
This is useful background to a troubling case that has been getting a great deal of attention in recent months. I first learned of the now widely reported story of Mathew Rushkin from colleagues at neuroclastic, the autism self-advocacy organization. There have also been articles in the Washington Post and Salon, and blogs at neuroclastic.com
Please read some of these articles. It is essentially the story of a young black autistic man was sentenced to 50 years for a car crash. Rushkin was on a trip to pick up pastries at a Panera where he worked, accidentally struck another vehicle in a parking lot, fled and then had another car collision. According to reports, prosecutors claimed that he was trying to kill himself by citing words he said that others claim were taken out of context, but his defenders insist that it was a genuine car accident.
Terra Vance, an autistic woman and psychology consultant, who first told me about the case studied the case in depth, blogs about it extensively, and concluded that it was a regular car accident without suicidal intent. She published a letter from a forensic engineer and traffic collision reconstruction expert who studied the evidence and likewise concluded that it does “not support the theory of suicidal behavior or attempted homicide” but rather “strongly suggests pedal misapplication as the primary collision factor.” This is supported by the fact that he told police during his interrogation that he had applied his brakes, tried to stop and did not intend to hurt anybody.
The forensic engineer's letter also notes that poor executive function is common in autism and ADHD. (I can relate: this author is on the autism spectrum and, because of his executive functioning disability, cannot drive.)
The case is now attracting a lot of attention, protests, and calls for his release. He is still in prison, where his mother claims he has received neither mental health care nor attention for the headaches, dizziness and transient blindness he has suffered since the crash.
A psychologist friend, Marcia Eckerd, has been closely following the case and is pleased with the amount of attention the case is attracting—including from the star of the Netflix series about an autistic person ( Atypical)–and the cast is making a happy birthday video for him.
Marcia’s letter to the governor of Virginia offers a good summary of the worrisome story:
Matthew was a college student with a job, a girlfriend who volunteered and was praised by the many character witnesses. He is also an autistic young man with a history of a TBI, anxiety and ADHD. The allegation in this narrative, that Matthew committed a “horrible, selfish reckless action” is that he intentionally caused the accident, based on what he said at the time of the accident, that he wanted to die.
What an autistic young man says in a traumatic situation in which he is described as overwhelmed and incoherent, surrounded by police, being yelled at, being pinned against a car, is only evidence that he is completely emotionally overwhelmed. Autistic people can be overwhelmed emotionally by social and sensory overload; this situation went far beyond that.
Matthew was taken to jail and interrogated for 7 hours. To interrogate an autistic person after a what was clearly a traumatic accident for 7 hours without a familiar person or anyone who is supporting him or trained in autism is to take advantage of him and to undermine him and to overwhelm his ability to cope with the situation and make decisions.
Although to my understanding, VA Beach has people trained to deal with mental health crises and autistic individuals. At no time was a someone trained to deal with an autistic individual in crisis called, even though the entire narrative of the interrogation based on the camera footage is pushing Matthew with the suicidal intent narrative. At one point when Matthew is repeatedly denying being suicidal and stating that it was an accident he tried to avoid, he’s told “but you know what it looks like,” pressuring him to change his own thinking.
The only way Matthew could be determined to be suicidal would be for a trained mental health professional to evaluate him. At no time was there an evaluation by a trained mental health professional with the knowledge and experience to determine if Matthew was in fact suicidal. A policeman or a prosecutor or a judge are not competent to ascertain if someone is suicidal. No one present was qualified to make that determination. And without an evaluation, there is no evidence that this was intentional.
The only trained mental health professional who came anywhere near Matthew was Dr, Keenan, who evaluated him on 1/17, the day after the bail hearing in which Matthew was denied bond based on the idea that he presented a danger to himself or others. He diagnosed Matthew as having an anxiety disorder and as needing treatment, but said nothing about him being suicidal. Given what Matthew went through in the days since the accident, it is not surprising that he presented as a young man with extreme anxiety
The fact that Matthew signed a plea deal is meaningless. A fundamental quality of autistic people is that they are truthful, and they are subject to being manipulated because they don’t understand when someone is lying and something is against their own interest. If someone told Matthew that signing a paper was the right thing to do, he would believe them. According to Matthew, he thought signing it meant he could go home.
This entire case is based on a narrative that is belied by reality. A young college student with a job, a girlfriend and good community connections as indicated by the letters I read by those with whom he volunteered is accused of having malicious intent to knowingly harm people based on one comment he made in an overwhelmingly emotional moment. Matthew’s treatment by the VA Beach police can only be described as cruel given his autism and the total disregard for his wellbeing.
The prosecution used hyperbole to put it mildly to describe Matthew’s callous indifference to life which has no supporting evidence whatsoever. And no evidence was presented with alternative explanations of what might have caused the accident, although now Terra has a book of possibilities.
Basically, Matthew was presumed to be suicidal and guilty of intentionally causing the accident from the time he was was brought in to the time when he was sentenced with no evidence proving it whatsoever; they could have called in a psychiatrist or mental health professional to evaluate him but they actually weren’t interested.
In jail, Matthew has been vulnerable to being targeted and attacked by other inmates. (Don’t mention drugs- if that shows up publicly there could be consequences). He has had transient blindness and severe headaches but despite his prior TBI, cyst on his pituitary gland and neurological symptoms, his only opportunity for an MRI after 1 1/2 years is to be taken to a jail where there is Covid. The daily heat is over 100 degrees, which exacerbates his neurological symptoms.
165,000 people have signed a petition for his release. BlackLivesMatter has included #FreeMatthewRushin. His case is getting national attention and is before the Governor, which means going to the Commonwealth Attorney and the parole board.
I encourage everyone to follow this case closely and get involved as you see fit.