Interview between Speaker 1 (Meg) and Speaker 2 (Timotheus Gordon)
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Welcome to the Two Sides of the Spectrum Podcast. A place where we explore research, amplify autistic voices, and change the way we think about autism in life, and in occupational therapy practice. I’m Meg Proctor from learnplaythrive.com.
Meg: Before we get started, a quick note on language. On this podcast, you’ll hear me and many of my guests use identity-affirming language. That means we say, ‘autistic person,’ rather than, ‘person with autism’. What we’re hearing from the majority of autistic adults is that autism is a part of their identity that they don’t need to be separated from. Autism is not a disease, it’s a different way of thinking and learning. Join me in embracing the word ‘autistic’ to help reduce the stigma.
Welcome to Episode 28 with Timotheus Gordon. Timotheus blogs and posts on social media as ‘The Black Autist’. His posts center around autism acceptance, race, disability, and the latest news relevant for autistic people who are black, indigenous, or people of color. You’ll hear us use the abbreviation BIPOC to shorten black, indigenous, and people of color in this interview. So, in my talk with Timotheus, we talked about the role of race in the disability rights community; we went into the stories of BIPOC autistic people interacting with police in the United States; we talked about community-based alternatives to police intervention for mental health crises; and Timotheus gave some really important advice to therapists working with BIPOC autistic people. So, at the beginning of the interview, Timotheus and I were talking about the stressors in the lives of people who live at the intersection of racial oppression and disability. We are going to jump right into this part of the interview. Here’s Timotheus.
Timotheus: The funny thing is that some of my stresses that I get for being a autistic, black person doesn’t come from my community as much or the outside. It’s within the disability community. The fact that we focus mainly on disability rights and we all want to be the same, but they overlook how, even within a disability community, or even in this case, within the autistic community, there’s variations. There’s different narratives, there’s different answering. Because of where a person comes from or their ethnicity. But some people on the spectrum write it off as, “Oh, you’re not really autistic enough,” because, you know, our quote-unquote ‘requirements’ of being autistic even though we have the traits and we have the passion — which are interests we have, even though in my case I’m more of a Pokémon, a sports person than a mathematics person, but we still have a strong passion or something. I think it’s the racism within the autistic community that strikes us the most, in addition to our marginalized communities, not without understanding what autism is.
Meg: That makes a lot of sense. You know, I hear a lot of autistic people talking about the comfort that they find an autistic community, that they can finally unmask. And I imagine as a black autistic person, you’re facing code switching all the time, trying to fit in in white culture, and masking, trying to fit in in non-autistic culture. And it sounds like it’s much harder to find a space where both of those parts of you are normalized, and expected, and understood, and accepted, that it’s even hard to find community in autistic community, it sounds like, because there’s still issues with race that haven’t been worked through there.
Timotheus: Yes. And the fact that there’s a myth that autism is what we’re seeing as a ‘white person’s disability’ still strikes me. So, that alone, to me, says that we still have a lot to learn about how autism plays out in different parts of the world. And just learning that autism is a range of experiences, not just Temple Grandin or the one narrative, but it’s multiple variances.
Meg: Absolutely. Had a woman on the show recently talk about not being able to get a diagnosis as a kid because she didn’t look like Rain Man. She wasn’t a hyperactive boy who had sort of a classical presentation of autism. And you’re saying, you know, there’s still this disparity in how black autistic people are being diagnosed, and they’re being diagnosed with other more stigmatized things instead, right. We’re seeing higher levels of Oppositional Defiant Disorder instead of autism when the right label would be autism.
Timotheus: But because cultural events are the standard, they will assume that, “Oh, this black person is acting in defiance,” even though you could apply the same label to a defiant person who’s a white in the class, but you could call it autism. But then there’s also instances where there’s this labeling of autism because of, like, the medical field not understanding sort of the culture, for instance. For some Asian communities, speaking is not the big thing, but they will label that as autism, even though it may not be autism at all, it may be just a cultural thing of not talking much. And that’s okay.
Meg: Okay. So, here we talked more about how poor cultural competence and racism overlap to create a lot of oppressive circumstances for disabled BIPOC folks. And then, we shifted our focus to police, which is a topic that, in my opinion, we cannot talk about enough. As a white neurotypical person in the world, it could be pretty easy to forget about the role that the police play in the lives of so many BIPOC and disabled people. I’ve actually noticed a trend. My podcast episodes on race get the fewest downloads. Many white therapists are ready to learn about neurodivergence but still shy away from thinking deeply about the role of racism in our world and in our therapy. So, back to the conversation. First, we talked about Matthew Rushin. This is a story with a relatively positive ending, at least compared to many others. Before we get into more triggering conversations around police violence, I’ll pop back in and give you a quick warning. But first, here’s Timotheus telling Matthew’s story.
Timotheus: So, this story happens in Virginia where a few years ago, a autistic black person by the name of Matthew Rushin — at the time he was a teenager — so, he got involved in a car accident and the car accident left him with some injuries, some of them still affecting him to this day. In the meanwhile, while like the police were asking him questions about the accident, he got nervous, or he — I think he was — correct me if I’m wrong — I think he also mentioned killing himself, or something like that. Even though he was not really thinking of killing himself, but he was repeating words back. That’s what we do sometimes, we repeat words when we get stressed. But instead, they took it as a form of violence or whatever, but they pretty much put him in jail for like a long time. He’s back because of a pardon, a quote-unquote ‘conditional pardon’, he’s finally released. But it’s a shame that it took a parson to clear Rushin’s name, where he did nothing but being in panic in a car accident. But I guess we pretty much see the things or whatever again with — we have racism plus lack of cultural competency, and lack of awareness or compassion about disability, you get those moments where you just off and abuse black, indigenous, and people of color with disabilities.
Meg: So, I’ll fill in just a few more details here. Details from the police body cam and Matthew’s reports are that Matthew and another car collided at an intersection on a dark rainy night. How exactly this happened is a little bit of a ‘He says, she says’, but it doesn’t really matter. It was a minor traffic accident. Matthew waited for the other driver to come talk to him, it didn’t happen. The other driver was on his phone. The way Matthew tells it, his body went into a flight response at this point. It was a crisis. The rules weren’t being followed. He was scared, and he suddenly felt like he had to get out of there. He drove away. What happened next is controverted, but he left in a panic, he made a U-turn, there was another crash that left someone injured.
The way Matthew tells the story, he tried to slam on the brakes, he accidentally hit the gas. The way the police tell the story, he hit the gas with intent to hurt someone. In the conversation with the police afterwards, Matthew said, “I want to die, I want to die.” The police made this out to be a suicide attempt, to crashing head on into another car on purpose. They berated him, cursed at him, insisted that he was suicidal, that he had intent to hurt other people as well. These police incidentally were technically trained in autism response. But other evidence indicated that he freaked out, he misapplied the gas when he meant to hit the brake, he was obviously panicked. The police story doesn’t line up with body cam footage. Matthews, which hasn’t changed, does. Matthew said that he wanted to die because he was scared, that he had just caused this crash, that he was scared that he was being interrogated, that he was panicked and wanted out of the situation. But the interaction of the police with Matthew was one of the police in the United States, with a black autistic man. As a black man, Matthew was more likely to be treated with deadly force, more likely to be assumed guilty, more likely to be charged, to be treated as a criminal. As an autistic man, he was likely to be misunderstood in the least innocent of ways. His comment, “I want to die,” was not taken as panic and fear but as malicious suicidal or even homicidal intent. So, whatever happened in the crash and in the conversation afterwards?
What happened next was even uglier. Matthew, a young, autistic, black man who actually also had a traumatic brain injury from a previous accident was sentenced to 50 years in prison, of which he was expected to serve 10 for this car crash. Matthew is a young man. He was an engineering student. He’s known for his kindness, and compassion, and desire to do good in the world. He was given a harsher sentence than would be expected for the crash, even with his guilty plea. So, Matthew spent more than a year in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, which is by World Health Organization standards, torture. All of his time was without proper access to health care or mental health care. He was released in 2020 only because of a conditional pardon from the governor of Virginia at the time.
So, here’s the message to BIPOC people, autistic people, and especially the people who cross into both of these categories. You aren’t safe here. The laws and the systems won’t protect you. So, after this, my conversation with Timotheus has shifted to stories of other BIPOC autistic people whose names you may not know, and these were people who were killed at the hands of the police. So, here’s my trigger warning. If you’re from a community that’s already traumatized by these stories, you may want to skip ahead just a couple of minutes. But if you’re in a place where you can keep listening and keep learning, I encourage you to do so. Here’s Timotheus after I asked him about the other Matthew Rushin’s sitting in jail or not, whose names we don’t know.
Timotheus: And it is to the Matthew Rushin’s out there that’re still in jail, I also think the Stephon Watts or the Kayden’s out there who were killed by the police, or because — well, in both Kayden’s and Stephon’s case, like I was saying about autism, but in Stephon’s case in particular, because race. And the fact that butter knife was — you know of the butter knife. But because he was a large, autistic teen, black teen, at that, he wasn’t spared. But he was a kid. He was a kid. Come on.
Meg: Stephon Watts was a 15-year-old autistic teen who was shot to death in his home in 2012 while wielding a kitchen knife. The police shot him in the leg, and when he moved, they shot him again, a deadly shot to the head. Kayden Clarke was a transgender autistic man killed by police in Arizona in 2016, again, while wielding a kitchen knife after police were called about him being suicidal and in distress. There are a lot of other stories, a lot of other names, and more autistic BIPOC people who are in jail, who will be put in jail, or who will be killed by the police. That being said, we wanted to shift the conversation to a project that Timotheus is involved in, called the Community Emergency Services and Support Act. You’ll hear him use the acronym CESSA, or the CESSA bill. So, from here I’m actually just going to play you the rest of the interview, starting with Timotheus talking about his work with the CESSA bill.
Timotheus: I love it. Because, if there’s something that me and a group that I’m part of called Advance Your Leadership Power — it was called Advance Youth Leadership Power at the time but now it’s changed to Advance Your Leadership Power. It’s basically a racial justice arm an independent living center in Chicago called Access Living, and we’ve been working on the Stephon — no, we’ve been working on the CESSA bill, sorry, for five to six years. So, it’s been a while.
But basically, the Community Emergency Support Services and Support Act is a bill that’s on the table in Illinois right now, where, when it passed — I’m very confident, personally, that it will pass because we are getting more support — when it passes, instead of the police being the first responders to behavioral and mental health crises, because it is shown through the stories that the more police involvement in those situations, the more likely they’ll end up — the person’s will end up dead or in jail. Instead of having the police be involved, regions in Illinois will have the opportunity to create a mobile unit where first responders of some sort, that is trained in mental and behavioral health emergencies, can be the first ones to arrive and assess the situation, and then taking the person to the hospital, or local mental or behavioral health resources, or even to a support person in those times. And there is no police involvement whatsoever in the process, unless the situation is criminal. That’s the only time when the police step in, but other than that, it’s completely those first responders first at the scene.
Meg: That’s great. It’s — whatever people’s range of opinions are on police, it’s pretty hard to argue with that as a first step, right, that mental health crises should be dealt with by mental health professionals, not by cops. By people who are trained and helpful.
Timotheus: Yes, just like, you know, when you break your leg, or when you’re sick, or have a heart attack, would you call the police first? No, you’ll call ambulance. Same thing CESSA will bring to the table when it’s passed and signed by our state legislators, you will have somebody trained to take you to where you need to go for help. So, I think it will be a life-changing thing. And also, I would like to also add that in addition to creating the mobile unit, each region will also have committees that will oversee how those units are structured, based on what’s available already. So, even if the rural areas don’t have as many resources, that’s okay, they can still work with what they have. Or if you’re a big city, to utilize the bulk of the resources in the area, and the committee that oversee the mobile unit formation in each region will be overseen by a mixture of people in EMT, people in the mental health profession, advocates. I mean, we try to — we want to gather as many diverse stakeholders as we can to create a effective mobile unit. And particularly, regions of Illinois, to save lives and provide resources to people in those crises.
Meg: That’s a great model, and I hope that those of us listening who care about our communities, we can watch for it to be passed and hopefully find ways to help replicate it widely. So, for those of us, which is most of us, especially in the United States who live in communities where our clients, when we’re working with black youth who are autistic or otherwise disabled, who are going to be interacting with police, knowing that that’s going to be where their interactions are in their communities and given the rates of violence against disabled people and black people, indigenous people, people of color, are there things that you were taught about interacting with the police that were helpful to you?
Timotheus: Helpful… And the interesting thing about it is — see, I’m a second-generation person who lived in the North all their lives. My grandparents are originally from the South. So, it’s been kind of passed on where whenever you come across authority, “Yes, sir, no sir,” don’t argue, just answer the question, and you’ll be good to go. It’s sad that we still have to do that, especially for the black, indigenous, and people of color communities. But our compliance is the way to go. Now — of course I’m learning now that there are ways to still report wrongdoing, of course, through writing a complaint or filming something that is wrong and reporting it to trusted authorities. Those things are coming out right now, but as far as what have been taught from the childhood is more so just obey, even though law enforcement as the system is violent, racist, sexist, you name, it all the -isms you could think of. But we have to obey to survive, so that’s one thing.
Another thing that I learned is being connected with a police officer that understands you also. I know of parents of autistic people that will tell me — or I will hear stories of them talking about police officers who are nice to them, who will know what to do when a person is in a stressful situation, they will approach calmly. And I’m assuming those are like the trained police officers that know more about disability and crisis intervention. But unfortunately, especially in Chicago where I’m at, there aren’t many trained people in crisis intervention and disability.
Meg: Right. It’s an interesting debate. I had a black, autistic behavioral therapist on, Joy Johnson on Episode 6 of the podcast, and she had this message that all of us, you know, white people, talking about how we should stop teaching autistic kids to mask their autism, which generally, right, we should. She’s like, “What a privilege because you don’t have to survive the police the way we do.” And I had her on because I wanted to hear that message and I got this pushback, “Why did you have a behavioral therapist on this pro-neurodiversity podcast?” I said, “I wanted to hear the message. If the message is bound in white privilege, we need to know that.” And I’m listening to as many people as I can and adding on these levels of nuance that like, yes, there is a certain amount of masking and compliance that you have to be able to do if you can to not have a really bad outcome as a black, autistic person interacting with the police, and you can know your rights. You can let them know you know your rights. You can film the interaction. You can, like you said, have connections. There’s other more empowering things that we can layer on as well, it sounds like.
Timotheus: Yes, but at the same time, just know that just masking ourselves as autistic people of color, or black, or indigenous autistic person, is harder than people want it to be because of the fact that we have to mask ourselves every day, because we are autistic, because of our skin color and ethnicity, and don’t forget our sexuality too, or gender, or class. It’s a lot of masking to do that people just don’t want to see, especially some people who are white and autistic. They don’t really understand how much masking we have to do to just survive.
Meg: Yeah. And I imagine in a really stressful situation, that becomes even harder to do.
Meg: Yeah. Is there any advice that you have to all of the white neurotypical therapists out there who are trying to find our blind spots a little bit better, and become more culturally competent and serve our autistic black, indigenous, POC clients in a more affirming empowering way?
Timotheus: Mm-hmm. I think I could go with — I could give two things and it all points back to going to the source, which is the autistic BIPOC folks themselves. The first one, if you’re not sure of how to approach people of color with autism in your field, especially when it comes to therapy, I recommend reading works or blogs of people in those communities, because they can give you good insight on what they deal with daily, or how race and autism affects their personality; or if you happen to know one, just ask, “What is your day-to-day like?” and such, and, “How can I make sure that I don’t get over the fences when a person like me comes to your office?” It leads to my second suggestion, is to just listen to our story, even if it doesn’t make sense or even if there’re different cultural nuances to the stories, just listen to our stories because our stories tell of how therapists could approach autistic people of color coming in to their practice. I think listening and respecting us stories could go a long way.
Meg: That’s such wonderful advice. I just heard you give us three specific ways that we can listen, right. We can seek out autistic BIPOC writers, bloggers, whoever we can find to listen to; we can listen to our clients; and we can seek out the voices of people in our communities. And that’s really empowering advice because it’s not saying, “You need to already know,” it’s saying, “You need to be ready to listen,” and put aside what you think you know, and listen to your clients, and learn from them, and learn about them. That’s wonderful advice. Thank you for that. Speaking of folks we can follow online, tell us a little bit about your website and your projects.
Timotheus: Sure, If you want to know more about my thoughts on being black and autistic, you may check out my blog at blackautist — autist spelled A-U-T-I-S-T — .wordpress.com. You can also follow back on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok. Also, if you want to follow my, you know, advocacy, my research slash activism stuff, or even my speaking engagements, and if you would like to reach out to me about speaking engagements to the future, you may go to my Facebook live page, my Twitter, and my Instagram under Timotheus “TJ” Gordon, Jr. I’m still working on a website right now where I will give more details about prices.
Meg: Wonderful. We will link to all of that in the show notes as well. Thank you so much, Timotheus.
Timotheus: No problem.
Thanks for listening to the Two Sides of the Spectrum podcast. Visit learnplaythrive.com/podcast for show notes, a transcript of the episode, and more. And if you learned something today, please share the episode with a friend or post it on your social media pages. Join me next time, where we will keep diving deep into autism.