In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between police and autistic people. Police officers need training to respond appropriately. When they do not, things get out of hand.
The 23-year-old, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury, is now home from prison, living with his parents in Virginia Beach. But that is only because former Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D) granted him a conditional pardon, resulting in his release in March 2021. Before that, Rushin spent more than two years behind bars following a crash that left a man with life-altering injuries. Rushin was taken into custody that night and later sentenced to serve 10 years of a 50-year sentence.
Body-camera footage obtained by The Washington Post shows one of the first officers at the scene telling others, “He’s f---ing squirrelly, trying to run over here and fake crying. And then he’s talking about, ‘Oh, I just want to kill myself.’ ”
“The police don’t know what it means to be autistic … They don’t understand the differences between how we process language and what our bodies do under stress without our conscious choice,” said psychologist Erin Findley, who is autistic and has viewed the footage. “This is not me saying autistic people get a free pass. If you’re a bad actor, you’re a bad actor. This is me saying if police misunderstand us before they even get on the scene, it’s just going to go worse from there.”
She said one lesson of Rushin’s case is that autistic people should play a role in the training law enforcement officials receive. She also pointed to the importance of recognizing how a person’s different identities, including race, disability and gender, can lead people to place assumptions on them.
Rushin is not the first Black autistic man in the country, or even Virginia, to end up spending years in prison. In 2010, I wrote about Neli Latson, a teenager who was waiting outside his local library for it to open when someone thought he looked suspicious and called the sheriff’s department. A violent encounter with a responding deputy led Latson to spend years in prison. In June, after 11 years and the intervention of two governors, his time under state supervision finally ended.