An Open Letter to Ralph Northam RE: Matthew Rushin

12 min read

Governor Northam and Commonwealth Lawmakers and Stakeholders,

I’m writing to you as an autistic woman, a wife to an autistic husband, and a parent to an autistic child.

Over 300 autistic people are on the team here at NeuroClastic. More than 2.5 million people have visited our site in the last year, and our reader surveys demonstrate that about 87% of our audience is autistic.

I interact with the autistic community all day every day, and this is going to be read by many autistic people. I say that to establish that even though I’m credentialed to talk about autism as an expert, I am writing as a representative of the autistic community. Autistics who disagree can leave comments, and you can read those– in the spirit of objectivity and transparency.

I need your patience and your good faith, because no matter who is on your investigative team, no matter what is on paper in front of your or your team’s eyes, you cannot and they cannot read, interpret, or empathize with the autistic experience.

So this open letter is to let you know what you need to know about why autistic people are so passionate about the release of Matthew Rushin. 

For anyone unaware, Matthew Rushin was a Black, 20-year-old college student who had a serious car accident and was sentenced to 50 years in prison (with 40 suspended). He was charged the night of his accident with attempted murder.

To understand Matthew, one needs to truly understand autistic people. This is a crash course.

Justice

Justice is one of the highest values for an autistic person, and it is also one of our most invalidated and neglected needs. To deny autistic people of justice and an avenue to seek equity is a violence that needs to be understood.

Very Grand Emotions

RBG said, “Justice and mercy. [ … ] They’re very grand emotions.” And it hit me, that to me, those are two of my deepest-felt emotions. Justice, equality, fairness, mercy, longsuffering, Work, Passion, knowledge, and above all else, Truth. Those are my primary emotions.
Learn about Autistic Emotions

Pattern Recognition

People kill, beat, incarcerate, bully, exploit, and abuse us often. Please pay attention. Please listen to us.

People react viscerally to autistics.

Thin-slice judgements occur when someone has an initial impression of a person based on appearance and body language.
Learn About Autistic Oppression

Cruel and Unusual Sensory Hell

What we can do, others find impossible, so they don’t even acknowledge our capacity. But what we feel, our sensory thresholds, makes our internal experience so very different. Even if others can’t see these differences, we feel them acutely.

What you see v/s what we feel

“My ability to suffer in silence is monastic. I have taught myself to shoulder such profound suffering and appear centered that– not once, but twice– I’ve shown up to work with sepsis and multiple organ failure, yellow as a lemon. I was wearing heels, my hair was fixed, my clothes were starched and ironed, I was on time, and I smiled at everyone there as I walked in. I made small talk and eye contact.”
Experience One Day as an Autistic

The Social Cost of Autistic Advocacy

For us to even try to ask that you treat us like humans, we are exposing ourselves to abuse from the public and the acute pain of stonewalling from people who don’t even try to represent us.

Autism is not a puzzle.

Autistic people are a larger percentage of the population than redheads or people with green eyes. It’s inexcusable to continue to be in the dark about autism.
50 ways society gaslights us

Society Versus One Autistic Person

Matthew’s case is one example of the truth of autistic existence. It is one person against a system that does not understand us, that fears us, that conceives of us as a burden or a threat. We have experienced this in large and small ways for our whole lives. 

We aren’t surprised that this happened. It happens all the time.

But the pain of it isn’t easier. As a mother, as an activist, as an autistic person, it is my hope that for Matthew Rushin and for all the other autistic people out there– diagnosed or not– that you will use your privilege to understand.

The reason I could never do your job is that I could not look the other way for a single second while someone like Matthew Rushin languishes in the inhumane conditions of a prison where he is more vulnerable to loss of life than he is from the bullies that tormented him in school, from the Virginia Beach Police, from employers or professors or bystanders who think his behavior is “creepy.”

For 14 years, I’ve been through gastroenterologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, neuroopthalmologists, rheumatologists, allergists, endocrinologists, geneticists, etc. Nobody understands autistic neurology. You’re not going to be able to save Matthew’s life unless he gets sustained, curated care from experts who understand autistic health issues. Our average life span is 38 years. Our medical needs are complicated and trauma mitigated.

You can’t throw Matthew Rushin in a transport van and get him an MRI and learn enough about his needs to know how to treat him. It’s going to take sustained, ongoing care.

The first thing you do is remove him from the source of extant trauma. That is what he needs most. His intracranial hypertension may subside after that.

Mine might, too. I’m typing this with only a sliver of a visual field, and it’s strobing.

Like Matthew, I have experienced such severe trauma that I have had inflammatory events that caused swelling of the meninges around the brain and transient blindness. I sit here at my computer for the last two months, 20–22 hours a day, to ask you to act like an autistic person and care about justice for Matthew.

The stress of this is so visceral that my body is breaking. I need a lumbar puncture to relieve the tension around my brain, and I’ll need another one in a few days because I’m not going to stop until Matthew is safe at home with his family.

My need for Justice, my neurologically-driven autistic need, is more exigent than my need for sleep, food, health, and safety.

This is what it means to be autistic.

Please don’t take the path of the “moderate white” MLK repined.

All of the injustice we face is more urgent for Black autistics.

Colin Stolle, the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney and undeserving beneficiary of generational nepotism, wrote a letter to Ralph Northam and the Parole Board.

He started by opining about how the court system is not the court of public opinion. That’s a response to me. I’m the one who has been tagging Stolle on social media. I’m the one who keeps saying “court of public opinion.”

I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to only have the court of public opinion as recourse because you, Virginia lawmakers and executive appointees, aren’t trying hard enough to hear us.

That means that we have to try to patiently ask the general public to understand that autistic doesn’t mean “mentally defective,” “retarded,” and that we don’t belong in asylums.

Adding that to the violent racism of advocating for Black autistic lives, and you’re having thousands of autistic people out there standing in the line of fire and being abused while you do paperwork.

Doctors don’t know how to talk to autistics, don’t understand autistic meltdowns, don’t realize that almost half of us have seizures. They see us as being awkward and literal-minded. That’s about the extent of their understanding. My doctors usually ask me if I’ve seen Rainman after I tell them I’m autistic.

We don’t get adequate care because no one is consulting us when we’re totally capable of explaining what we need.

Colin Stolle, Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney, based his case against Matthew on echolalia, the autistic behavior of repeating phrases we hear. This is a neurologically-driven response. Matthew explained that he is an “empath” that night, and feels other people’s emotions.

Ralph Northam, you’re a neurologist. You know about mirror neurons. They are named for their function, in that they fire to “mirror” social behavior.

Hosang asks how many times he thinks he told that guy (Wentz) that he was thinking of killing himself or wanted to kill himself. Rushin says five or six. times. Hosang asked if he recalls what words he used and he replies, “I want to die.” Hosang asked him to tell us about that statement. Rushin explains he is very empathetic and felt the guy’s emotions, and that he started to feel that when ‘he got out and saw how bad everything was.

Matthew Rushin to Officer Hosang, Body Cam Summary

At that point a white Male, who I now know to be Mr. Wentz, came up and asked Mr. Rushin if he was the driver of the red Tahoe, to which Mr. Rushin stated, Yes. At that point Mr. Wentz yelled, You could have fucking killed us.

Officer Cordingley, Court Testimony, March 8, 2019

I said something to him, something to the effect of, What the F are you doing? You could have killed somebody. He was agitated. I would describe him as maybe a little in hysterics.

-T. Wentz, witness testimony in court, March 8, 2019

Rushin said he can’t remember what he (Thor Wentz) was saying, but Rushin responded “well maybe I was trying to fucking kill myself”. I said, “What makes it so you said that?” Rushin said it was the first thing that popped into his head to say.

Matthew Rushin to Officer Hosang, Body Cam Summary

Every autistic person understands this. Matthew didn’t remember what Wentz (the witness) yelled at him because he couldn’t process it. The words just “popped into his head” because he doesn’t realize someone else said them.

That’s echolalia.

It buys us auditory processing time, and people think we are trying to be antagonistic or mock them. This happens even more often when autistic people are distressed or in overwhelm. It doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s a mirrored behavior.

Matthew didn’t process and absorb what Wentz said. He repeated it because he didn’t process it. Here, see for yourself:

A Jury of Peers

Matthew wasn’t given a jury. His attorney told him that if he went to a jury trial, they’d take a look at him and the case and declare him guilty. She told him to take the plea. Autistic people respect facts, experience, and expertise. She told him it was his best option. 

Maybe that’s true. I can’t know that because I don’t understand how non-autistics (we call y’all “allistics”) reason. It seems you care more about status and emotional appeals than facts. Your emotionality seems like a performance to us.

Our facts are our emotions. We don’t “perform” externally enough, so we get regarded as unfeeling. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Stolle’s letter to you, Governor Northam, he stated that the Court of Appeals found Matthew Rushin’s behavior to be “callous and malicious.”

We hear that all the time. See above about gaslighting.

Stolle explained away the total lack of understanding of autism with the old, “So-and-so knows a guy whose neighbor’s kid is autisic” trope and said that the officer who used deception techniques to interrogate Matthew had some trainings.

That doesn’t absolve anyone of what happened to Matthew or of the extreme danger that autistic people face in the court system due to this kind of willful ignorance.

To be frank (because that’s our M.O.), Stolle’s bloodlust concerning Matthew Rushin is not unusual to us. If you read the article above, you’ll learn that research substantiates that people make “thin slice judgements” about autistic people after only seeing them for a couple of seconds, feeling such a visceral distrust that they say they wouldn’t want to live in the same neighborhood with us.

Stolle concluded with the following:

Rushin’s behavior has escalated from self-harming and self-destructive actions to actions that pose a severe danger to the community at large. A number of people became victims of Rushin’s intentional, malicious conduct on January 4, 2019. If he is released, the public at large is at risk of becoming Rushin’s next victim.

Colin Stolle to Governor Northam, July 9, 2020 in a letter wherein he impersonates a provincial 1956 sheriff from the backwoods of Louisiana and puts on public display his unabashed social Darwinism

Autistic people self-harm. It serves a neurological purpose and people do it to help regulate themselves. Stolle lies in his letter, calling Matthew’s self-harm a suicide attempt. It’s literally called “NSSI,” or non-suicidal self-injury. Matthew didn’t attempt suicide. He self-harmed. Once.

As you can see, more than 85% of us self-harm or have. I have. My scars look like Matthew’s, like tally marks. That’s what I used to do to stave off an autistic meltdown before they happened, at least before I knew what a meltdown was. It was a neurological consequence of an excruciating amount of social and sensory stimuli I couldn’t process, a neuronal storm. Then the autistic community taught me that it wasn’t a moral failing and how to deal with it.

Veterans, a large percentage of the Virginia Beach population, have a high risk of having PTSD. People with PTSD experience the same phenomena and also regularly self-harm. In no way is self-harm a sign of violence. It’s an attempt at self-help when there are not better tools.

Are we going to lock up everyone with PTSD like their lives are disposable and they don’t deserve freedom?

But Virginia Beach used Matthew’s one instance of self-harm to paint him as a dangerous deviant.

That’s counter to the science of human behavior and to Matthew’s life. Matthew has been, every day of his life, a gentle and loving person, a selfless human who spent his days and nights trying to help the most marginalized people around him.

Here’s a little more information about who Matthew Rushin is:

Meet Matthew Rushin

It’s unacceptable to allow such violent bigotry and glaring Dunning-Kruger egoism to determine the fate of someone vulnerable. It’s likely that Matthew Rushin has had seizures. You can learn about that here:

Matthew Rushin: Did Virginia Beach PD suspect seizure and hide it?

And about Matthew’s loss of consciousness here:

First Statement from Matthew on Body Cam:Officers knew he lost consciousness

The fact is, a “jury of one’s peers” for an autistic person is other autistic people. All autistic people I’ve encountered (thousands) believe Matthew Rushin is telling the truth.

It’s sad that someone was badly injured in his accident, but it was an accident. Laura Bush had an accident and killed someone. It is tragic, but her life was allowed to continue, and she was allowed to live at the highest rank of privilege in the world.

Matthew Rushin was sober. He went to get pastries and hug his new girlfriend as she got off her shift. He was happy, existentially. He lost consciousness, and instead of being treated, he was tortured, denied bond, and told repeatedly he was a selfish monster who tried to kill people.

For all of us, please, do not allow Matthew Rushin to spend another day in sweltering 120 degree cell. When you allow this to happen to Matthew, you show our entire community what you would allow to happen to all of our children. 

Would you let this happen to my daughter?

Fight like autistic people.

Justice in an oppressive system isn’t practical, easy, or politically expedient. Do it anyway.

Black autistic lives matter.

Thank you,

Terra Vance
CEO, NeuroClastic

To learn more, visit here:

#FreeMatthewRushin

Editor’s note: Featured image used with permission from BlackLivesMatter757

9 Comments

  1. I agree with this letter. I’m autistic too, and I feel like I am going to lose all hope if you do not release Matthew Rushin.

  2. I am autistic. I agree with the contents of this letter and support it fully. Matthew’s wellbeing is not separate to that of his autistic family. Our fates are tied. Free Matthew Rushin and grant him a full pardon. You’ll save his life and so many others.

  3. Terra, thank you so much for giving the autistic community a voice and advocating for Matthew Rushin. Your articles are brutally honest and that’s what we need in this day and age to get the message through. I have so much respect for you! Your articles have really helped me understand autism better than any class or interaction I’ve ever had. Please don’t let any negative comments from anyone get to you! Those who are saying your articles are not based on facts aren’t able to accept the facts they don’t fully understand. I look forward to reading your next piece! You are amazing and so very strong! Stay well!

  4. I don’t know if I am autistic or not. I know my grandson is. Matthew’s innocence seems very clear to me, as does the danger he is in. I am a retired psychologist whose training included very little about autism, but I have been reading everything I can get my hands on since realizing my grandchild’s challenges. I can see the incredible strengths he has along with the challenges and can easily imagine how he could respond as Matthew did under the circumstances that Matthew experienced. I definitely add my voice to Terra’s letter.

  5. I agree with this letter wholeheartedly. I am autistic. I have autistic children. It is clear to anyone who knows anything about autism that what happened with Matthew Rushin was ableist and unjust. It was an unfortunate accident, but if you know anything about autism none of the facts or evidence point toward an intent to cause anyone harm. Perfectly normal and innocent autistic behaviors have been twisted and misunderstood. I’m sure there are many autism experts that can also confirm the information shared in this letter and someone needs to speak with them and listen.

    In my opinion the police manipulated and took advantage of a vulnerable individual. If they had truly believed he meant to harm himself, why didn’t they get him any mental help? Isn’t that what policy demands?

    There have been drunk drivers who have killed people who weren’t sentenced as quickly or as harshly as Matthew Rushin!
    This is cruel and unusual punishment. This is NOT justice.

    I would like to see him pardoned. He has served his time and suffered enough. But at the very least he deserves a retrial with proper representation, an expert opinion from someone who understands autism, and a jury that includes autistic peers.

  6. In exactly the same way as a black person’s trial jury must include black people, an autistic’s jury must include autistic. It’s elemental JUSTICE.

  7. Cosigning this letter. This is clearly a violation of human rights.

    Autistic people in the world are denied proper recollection of events in judicial procedures by virtue of neurotype, and in this case the neglect is willfully doubled because of Blackness. Nobody there knew how to interpret Matthew’s words and body language. Anyone well versed in autism knows how much of a big deal this is (and no, “i know the nephew of someone’s brother who is autistic” DOESN’T COUNT AS COMPETENCE).

    Thank you so much for writing this letter, the rage I have for this exact sort of situations being a “by design” matter is infinite.

  8. I am autistic, and this letter speaks my heart. Matthew Rushin needs compassion and HELP not the sensory violent Hell of 10 years in prison. I understand if allistics don’t want to drive with him, but he is not a violent threat to anyone! Please find it in your heart to hear and understand our community!

  9. Dear Governor Northam,

    I’m guessing that you have heard from some of the thousands of individuals calling on you to pardon Mr. Matthew Rushin. I too believe that this young man is wrongly in jail and needs to be released, receive some excellent medical help and perhaps a revoke his Driver’s License as punishment…

    Matthew doesn’t deserve 10 years in prison for his auto accident where an elderly man was severely injured. Accidents happen. They are not planned events. That is why we term them as “accidents.”

    Herein Mrs. Terra Vance has written you a very detailed letter and she’s also isolated all sorts of background and evidence for your personal review regarding this particular and detailed public case.

    From someone non-autistic (who has been studying this neurotype), I urge you to visit with Matthew, then the Prison Warden, Matthew’s Parents, the injured elderly Couple in the other car and finally with Terra Vance, the expert on autism. Take a scheduled day out of your busy life and please put your hands, eyes and ears on this one. Thank you.

    Carbon Bridge
    Darby, Montana

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