Parents of Black autistic sons share their stories after tragic encounters with police

Only eight states offer police training for autistic individuals.

April 28, 2023, 4:11 PM

The intersection of policing, race, and autism has the potential to result in tragic outcomes.

Black Americans are two to three times more likely to be killed by cops than white Americans, according to police data. Some of the hallmarks of autism - a developmental disability that millions of Americans have been diagnosed with - can further complicate interactions with police.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism can create challenges in social interactions, communication, and behavior.

"Many individuals with autism don't respond immediately to commands. Many don't necessarily understand even some of the complicated commands that may be given by law enforcement agencies. So that may be seen as a form of noncompliance," autism advocate and ABC News contributor Areva Martin told "Nightline."

Matthew Rushin
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In 2019, now 24-year-old Matthew Rushin caused a life-threatening multivehicle crash in Virginia Beach. His mother, Lavern Rushin, says her son's echolalia - a coping mechanism some people with autism may use when struggling to find their own words - was misunderstood by police at the scene of the crash.

Lavern and Matthew Rushin say he was not suicidal and did not intentionally cause the car crash. Lavern Rushin said he was experiencing a focal seizure at the time of the crash, the result of traumatic brain injury sustained in a car accident two years earlier.

"You can't fault somebody for having a medical episode. Just like you can't fault someone for having a heart attack behind the wheel," she said.

Matthew Rushin was arrested and initially charged with attempted murder. He eventually pleaded guilty to three felonies including malicious wounding and hit and run. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Believing her son's sentence to be unfair, Lavern Rushin took to social media to share Matthew's story. Her posts went viral, and in early 2021, then Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted Matthew a conditional pardon - freeing him after more than two years behind bars.

Lavern Rushin
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"I truly believe that the petitions and the posts [and] just everything was brought up because he's a Black autistic young man that was wrongfully prosecuted," Lavern Rushin said.

Matthew Rushin is still considered a felon and barred from driving and from contacting any of his victims or their families. He and his mother are now seeking a full pardon, saying that his felony conviction makes it harder for him to get a job.

The family of one of his victims, George Cusick, is strongly opposed to Matthew Rushin receiving a full pardon.

George Cusick, one of the victims in the crash, was so badly injured he'll never walk, talk, or feed himself again, and needs 24-hour care, according to his family. Cusick's family maintains that Matthew was suicidal when the crash took place.

"Matthew Rushin should not have been driving that night. He should never drive again. The parole restrictions must remain in place to protect him and the public," Cusick's wife Danna told "Nightline."

The Virginia Beach Police Department said in a statement that their officers have been trained to identify and respond to people with autism, and expressed sympathy for "all who were impacted by the events of this tragic day."

"My son is not a killer," Lavern Rushin said.

Iyun and Sylvester Osagie's autistic son, Osaze, also had a tragic encounter with police that turned out to be deadly. The 29-year-old was shot and killed by State College, Pennsylvania police in 2019 after a tense confrontation.

The violent nature of his death is a stark contrast to the gentle and deeply religious young man they loved.

"He was the peacemaker [with his siblings]. He was the one that would try to make sure that they don't fight and they get along very well," Sylvester Osagie said.

Sylvester and Iyun Osagie
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Osaze Osagie also had schizophrenia and at times his parents had asked the police for help.

"We actually thought they understood because they knew his situation," Sylvester Osagie said.

As a young adult, Ozaze Osagie had been living in a residential program with his peers. He found comfort in the structure, like many people with autism.

"He liked a pattern of activities," Sylvester Osagie said. "But when he was not in that structured environment, the level of discouragement and anxiety was overwhelming. And that's when he got off his medication and his situation would just spiral."

When he left the program to live in an apartment with a roommate, the change seemed to disrupt him. In March 2019, his father received worrying messages and texts including one that indicated there would be trouble with the police "in a little bit."

Sylvester Osagie says he frantically searched for his son, then alerted police when he couldn't find him. Osaze Osagie was not located that night.

The next morning, Sylvester Osagie says he drove to his son's apartment only to find police and media swarming the building.

"Eventually, they told me that they confronted him, that he had a knife and they shot him," Sylvester Osagie said.

Police say someone saw Osaze that morning at a nearby grocery store and alerted police. The closest on-duty officer was sent to Osaze Osagie's apartment - an officer, the Osagies say, who did not know their son or his case.

When Osaze Osagie opened his apartment door, police say he was holding a knife in his hand and that after unsuccessfully trying to subdue him, they opened fire - killing him.

"A lot went wrong, just men with guns that show up to an autistic child's apartment and give him a million instructions. It shouldn't be this way," said Iyun Osagie.

The district attorney declined to bring charges against the police officers, saying the shooting was justified.

The Osagies have now filed a lawsuit saying police did not respond appropriately to someone with a known disability having a crisis and that they used "excessive force."

The borough of State College called the shooting " a tragedy," but stated," that the police have "handled thousands of other mental health-related calls (including several with Osaze), with a number of these calls involving threats of violence and weapons, and none previously ended with a negative result and/or the need to deploy deadly force."

Osaze's mother says she believes the fact that her son was a young Black man played a role in his death.

"I made it very clear to them personally that if that had been their son at the other end of their gun, they wouldn't kill him," Iyun Osagie said.

Around 20% of autistic youth had been stopped and questioned by police and nearly 5% had been arrested by age 21, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"Unfortunately, what we see in law enforcement is that most of societal issues are placed upon the officer in the street. Now all of a sudden he or she has to react immediately and be able to see something and make that pivot almost immediately," said former NYPD and ABC News contributor Robert Boyce.

Sleepy Hollow Police Officer Wendy Yancey leaves her home with her son James.
ABC News

Sleepy Hollow, New York, Police Officer Wendy Yancy is working to find ways to improve outcomes between the autism community and police. It's personal for her as she has a young son who is autistic.

She attended a training session for law enforcement on working with autistic individuals two years ago.

"This type of training should be given to police departments as a whole, not just a select few," Yancy said.

Only eight states require law enforcement to receive training specifically related to autism, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yancey is now implementing a new program she created for her department that allows families to voluntarily provide authorities with information about the needs of an autistic individual so first responders know what to do and not do in an emergency.

"For example, if it's noise sensitivity, we would know because you would put it in here, that we have to tell officers to arrive with the sirens off, and then this way he's not triggered or upset," Yancy told a parent at a recent event.

Caption Sleepy Hollow Police Officer Wendy Yancey, takes part in the town's autism acceptance walk.
ABC News

Yancy said she hopes other police departments follow suit with similar programs.

"You need to sit with the people, talk to the people and show you truly care," she said. "The only way they trust you is if they know you and they can't know you from behind the window of a car."'

ABC News' Arturo Ruiz contributed to this report.