As our country continues to amplify the injustice within our criminal legal system, CHAT uplifts youth with communication diagnoses who are funneled into this system—misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and wrongfully convicted. We stand in solidarity with changemakers like Matthew Rushin, a Black autistic college student convicted of a crime he did not commit.
A diligent student in Virginia’s Old Dominion University, Rushin spent his time working at Panera, exploring his passions of photography and music, and pursuing a career in mechanical engineering. These plans came to a halt on January 4th, 2019, when Rushin was involved in a traumatic car collision that left two injured, and Rushin wrongfully convicted.
With echolalic speech (a verbal behavior common among autistic individuals involving repetition of verbalizations) and visible distress, it was clear that Rushin needed intervention and emotional support. However, rather than interpreting these behaviors as a call for intervention, law enforcement took his echolalic speech as incriminating evidence. Rushin signed a plea deal that he did not understand, convicting him of two charges of malicious wounding. In November 2020, Matthew Rushin was granted a conditional pardon that sets his tentative release date to spring 2021. Today he remains in custody, unable to reunite with his loved ones or access much-needed health and therapy services.
Stories like Rushin’s uncover a sobering reality: youth of color with intersecting communication differences or disorders are acutely harmed by our country’s criminal legal system. From having their behaviors criminalized when interacting with law enforcement, to signing plea deals they cannot comprehend, they navigate a system ultimately stacked against them. How can we uplift youth through therapy and intervention, rather than defaulting to punitive measures? How can we collectively learn about and recognize behaviors associated with different communication diagnoses, so that we support rather than criminalize youth? At CHAT, we work to empower youth with the communication tools to self-advocate, while fighting for broader systemic change within our health, education, and criminal legal systems. In solidarity with movement-makers across the country, we strive to build a world where those like Rushin can live lives fully accepted, understood, and empowered.