January 6, 2017 — (Virginia Beach, VA, USA)
Matthew Rushin, a 19-year old Black ADHD and autistic college student, drives his friend to urgent care during a blizzard. On the way back, he is involved in a single car accident that nearly killed him, leaving him in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, two collapsed lungs, and severe bleeding around his brain.
Despite the odds, Matthew survives, adding PTSD and traumatic brain injury to his list of diagnoses. He returns to college at Old Dominion University where he is a mechanical engineering student.
Following his injury, Matthew could only sleep on the floor.
Immediately, I recognized this position. This is how I self-regulate. From an article I published on PsychCentral:
What’s more, my vestibular system– the system responsible for balance— is so under-responsive that it’s the equivalent of being blind or deaf; therefore, my sense of balance is contingent on my vision and my hearing. If everything is moving too fast, if there are too many sounds, I just become so dislodged from balance and physical space that it’s dizzying enough to actually cause me to faint. I have to sit down a lot, especially in loud and busy public places.
I asked Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, The Autistic OT, why someone might suddenly start sleeping on the floor following an accident. Here’s what she had to say:
Individuals on the Autism spectrum experience sensory information more intensely than other people. Just like some sounds can be literally painful for an autistic person, someone with an impaired vestibular system may experience intense dysregulation, such as dizziness, disorientation, and nausea.
In someone autistic, a TBI could exacerbate already-present sensory issues. This extreme vertigo may be even more pronounced, to the point that even slight shifts in a reclined position, such as the bed, may feel to them as if they are literally falling. The firmness of the floor may be like a functional anchor that keeps them safe.
Vestibular issues often come with visual processing deficits. Vestibular.org lists possible visual symptoms of vestibular disorder as:
- Trouble focusing or tracking objects with the eyes; objects or words on a page seem to jump, bounce, float, or blur or may appear doubled
- Discomfort from busy visual environments such as traffic, crowds, stores, and patterns
- Sensitivity to light, glare, and moving or flickering lights; fluorescent lights may be especially troublesome
- Sensitivity to certain types of computer monitors and digital televisions
- Tendency to focus on nearby objects; increased discomfort when focusing at a distance
- Increased night blindness; difficulty walking in the dark
- Poor depth perception
According to the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Organization,visual problems following a TBI are often overlooked or symptoms are not present at the time of injury. One symptom noted was,
The integration between the vision and balance system can be disrupted, making it difficult to process motion properly. Symptoms can include discomfort and even dizziness when scrolling on a computer screen or phone, or when in busy environments such as grocery stores, social settings, or sporting events.
This will be relevant to Matthew’s story shortly.
January 4, 2019
Matthew left home to go to a nearby shopping center and get some pastries from Panera Bread. Pulling into the shopping center, he clipped a car that was leaving. This triggered the extreme PTSD Matthew as a result of the car accident which almost cost his life.
**Update: Or, it triggered a seizure. Upon gaining more evidence and reviewing it, it became clear that Matthew lost consciousness before the accident.
In a panic, he drove away, doing his breathing exercises and trying to calm down. After only a moment, Matthew realized he needed to go back to the scene. As rain poured down, Matthew made a U‑turn, and at that point appeared to partially lose consciousness. The next thing he remembered clearly as the LED lights of a Ford Explorer.
There was no sign of brakes having been applied.
**Update: Three forensic engineers examined the evidence and all arrived at the same conclusion: this was pedal misapplication. Matthew was slamming on the accelerator thinking it was the brake.
Tragically, the driver of the other vehicle, a 72-year-old man, was severely injured.
When Matthew climbed out of the back of his vehicle, as the airbags were deployed and that was the only way to exit the vehicle, he was confronted by a man who came to him yelling, asking him, “Are you trying to f$#king kill yourself?” Matthew shrunk back against his vehicle as the man continued to press down on him, yelling. Matthew was repeating “trying to kill myself.”
Every autistic person will instantly recognize this reaction.
It’s called echolalia.
We repeat things when under duress. Matthew’s speech was slurred and witnesses claim he seemed confused. Note that there were no drugs or alcohol in his system.
In fact, yesterday, I asked the autistic community a question on Twitter. This whole thread needs to be read by every parent, teacher, therapist, medical provider, and police officer in the world.
Let’s look at some of the responses:
Emmanuel’s response should be given paramount attention. He is a young Black autistic man in the United States.
Ira Kraemer, an autistic neuroscientist, had this to say:
Autistic novelist C.L. Lynch had this to say
Autistic writer @Joseph_Wolfstar was thorough in their response:
Always bad but specifics vary, including:
- no ability to speak
— only able to repeat the same phrases without really processing what input I’m getting (often related to whatever set me off, eg “but it’s not fair”)
— i don’t recall the last time i had a meltdown in an unsafe environment where ppl were trying to verbally pester me. It’s theoretically possible i might be able to form a couple words if I thought my life or safety depended on it,
a) it would be REALLY damaging and significantly up the recovery time i needed
b) any such ability is dependent on who i was trying to communicate with and how they were responding (take me somewhere safe and give me ample time to try to speak might get you a few words leaving me in an overwhelming environment and keep pestering me with input after input, no way)
c) bc of that, the sorts of environments where my safety would be most dependent on verbal abilities are likely the ones I’d have zero of them d) even best case scenario, it’s really unlikely I’d be able to say anything complex and I’d be unreliable about even basic one or two word needs like “home” or “too loud.” My writing ability wouldn’t be intact either but you’d be much better off trying that than getting me to talk
As is clear, no matter how articulate someone is, autistic people do not have the words during a meltdown. Pastiche Graham, a Black autistic woman, had this to say:
And because this is so extremely important, and for consistency’s sake, here are some more responses:
Autistic Barbie, an autistic advocate with a large social media presence, responded:
Autistic Barbie’s response is from the experience and perspective of a white autistic female who has fluency of speech. Imagine the amplification of this terror of being a Black autistic male.
Nicholas Grider responded,
Given the sociopolitical climate, Grider didn’t want to center himself in the current narrative because he is not Black, but he does note that prior issues with police interaction have left him with PTSD and melting down daily.
For those who don’t know, autistic meltdowns are terrifying, semi-conscious experiences that I, as an epileptic autistic, compare to para-seizure activity. They are similar to being stuck in a night terror. As a mother, I can say that comparatively, giving birth is far easier than experiencing a meltdown.
Police Arrive on Scene
Eventually, a bystander asked the man yelling at Matthew to leave.
When officers arrived on scene, they noted that Matthew’s speech was slurred and he was not fully coherent.
Still, even though they acknowledge the fact that he was mentally incapacitated, they claimed that Matthew told them that he was attempting to kill himself.
Matthew told them he was autistic.
Yet there was no evidence of Matthew saying this from the recorded footage of the officer body camera videos from Virginia Beach officers Cordingly, Dolida, and Nash. Over 12 hours of body cam footage with no time unaccounted for, and not once did Matthew say he tried to commit suicide.
What he did say, over and over and over, was that was not trying to commit suicide. Multiple times he repeated, over and over and over, that he lost control of the vehicle.
January 4, 2019, 9:30 pm
Lavern Rushin and her husband receive a call from a police officer. The officer asks if the truck Matthew was driving belonged to them. After they confirmed that yes, the truck was theirs, the officer asked if the truck was stolen.
Once on scene, Ms. Rushin’s husband was again asked if the vehicle was his or if it was stolen.
That night, after hours and hours of interrogation, Matthew was charged with 2nd degree attempted murder.
Body Cam and Interrogation Footage
The police officers told Matthew they had videos of the crash, which they claimed clearly showed he was intentionally driving into oncoming traffic. This is the evidence that was used to bring charges to a magistrate.
That night, after hours of interrogation, a magistrate charged Matthew with 2nd degree attempted murder.
How could officers acknowledge that Matthew’s speech was incoherent, yet his alleged words were enough evidence for a magistrate to charge an autistic college student with attempted murder?
Later, due to lack of evidence, that charge was reduced to two counts of aggravated malicious wounding an a hit-and-run charge.
Lack of Evidence
Three officers accused Matthew of saying he wanted to commit suicide. Conveniently, none of the three officers were wearing a body cam.
Autistic Neurology and Traumatic Brain Injury
The day of the accident, Virginia Beach was experiencing flash flooding and heavy rain. Matthew first clipped a car in a parking lot. Given the nature of his sensory processing issues, exacerbated by traumatic brain injury, did the constant movement of rain cause Matthew’s vision, depth perception, and spatial awareness to be compromised?
Matthew has been experiencing transient blindness in prison. He has a cyst on his brain as a result of his TBI. The leap is not a large one acknowledge that intense stress might have impacted Matthew’s visual processing that night.
An autistic meltdown is characterized as a loss of control, wherein many autistic people report difficulties with motor/movement planning, visual and auditory perception changes (things becoming blurry or appearing to move in slow motion or sounds being distorted.
In a 2019 article, autistic writer Mike Wise interviewed autistic people about how meltdowns feel. Here are a few responses:
I can’t answer the question of what my meltdowns feel like because I literally don’t know. That’s why they’re so terrifying. I have an extreme need and can’t tell what it is in order to meet it. It’s as extreme as being on fire, but even then I’d know I needed to either smother it or get in some water. With this, I don’t know what the feeling is or how to stop it.
Another autistic wrote,
Like I am going to die right then and there and there is no hope, and I hate literally everyone– even those I cherish most in the world. I speak very quietly and walk into another room to be alone and cry in darkness and quiet, and my entire body aches. I scream into a pillow and feel complete agony until it passes. I also can’t really feel my body as I’m walking. I feel like I’m outside of my body pushing myself to move into another room by sheer mental force.
One woman relates of meltdowns,
Intense brain fog and irritability signal that I am going to have a meltdown soon. If it’s slow coming on, and I recognize what’s happening, the symptoms often feel similar to a migraine. My senses are heightened to a painful degree (the stuff that is usually just sort of irritating becomes debilitating, like I am going to throw up), and I can’t handle light or sound or smells– must escape– my anxiety becomes so consuming that I feel like I will never be free from the intense misery I am feeling at that moment.
Matthew Rushin was having an autistic meltdown. He suffered from PTSD and traumatic brain injury caused by a car accident. Any autistic person coming in contact with this story will find it relatable and will immediately understand Rushin’s behavior.
This will not be speculation or conjecture, as this behavior is as understandable to autistics as breathing.
The question is, did the Virginia Beach Police Department know Rushin was autistic, and had they been trained to understand and support autistic citizens?
The answer to that question is damning. More on that soon.
To be continued…
Click here to continue with Part 2 of this series.
This is article 1 on a series of articles covering the details of the Matthew Rushin wrongful imprisonment case. Please stay tuned to NeuroClastic for explosive details about political and police corruption, footage and evidence from Rushin’s case, media reports from the case, and interviews with Rushin’s family.
Please review this petition from 757 Black Lives Matter to Governor Ralph Northam which contains more information about Rushin’s case and sign the petition, which currently (at the time of publication) has approximately 14,500 signatures.
- Autistic Vs Neurotypical Perception: People react to facial expressions — July 8, 2020
- Matthew Rushin, My Bias, and Your Bias — July 1, 2020
- Matthew Rushin: Did Virginia Beach PD suspect seizure and hide it? — June 29, 2020