January 26, 2024, Rockville, MD – The Autism Society of America is thrilled to announce that the 2023 David Joyce Self-Advocate of the Year will be presented to Mr. Neli Latson. This annual award is a tribute to Autistic individuals who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to enhancing the well-being of others within the Autism community. 

The David Joyce Award recognizes the outstanding contributions of Autistic individuals who have dedicated themselves to raising awareness, advocating for inclusion, and fostering understanding of the unique challenges faced by individuals on the Autism spectrum. Neli Latson embodies the spirit of this award through his remarkable journey and advocacy work. 

 “I’m hopeful that people can, over time, adopt a different kind of outlook so that all people can feel safe in their communities and not have to worry about the stereotypes other people put on them. ” – Neli Latson 

 Neli Latson’s story is one of resilience and determination. In 2010, at the age of 18, Neli was innocently waiting outside his neighborhood library in Stafford County, Virginia, when a concerned individual reported a “suspicious” Black male, possibly armed. Neli had committed no crime and was unarmed, but the encounter with a deputy led to an injury to an officer when Neli resisted physical restraint. Tragically, prosecutors failed to consider Neli’s Autism and dismissed it as a mere “diagnosis of convenience.” Instead of providing him with the necessary disability services, they chose incarceration. Neli was convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer and spent five years in prison, and several more years in a restrictive behavioral health setting. Throughout his incarceration, he endured prolonged periods of solitary confinement, taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair due to behaviors associated with his Autism. 

 It was only through the tireless advocacy efforts of several disability groups that Neli’s situation began to change. In 2015, Governor McAuliffe granted him a conditional pardon, and was moved to a group home; in 2021, Governor Northam granted him a full pardon, allowing Neli to return to his home and live as a free individual. His incredible story was featured in a February 2023 Washington Post article, shedding light on his remarkable journey to justice. 

 Now, Neli Latson is determined to use his experiences to help others like him. He has actively participated in advocacy efforts, including serving on a criminal justice panel at the 2023 Disability Policy Seminar, co-hosted by the Autism Society and The Arc of the U.S. Neli also contributed his insights on the intersection of race and disability during a White House panel discussion. 

 “The Autism Society is honored to recognize Neli Latson’s unwavering dedication to advocating for the rights and well-being of individuals with Autism. His story of perseverance is a reminder that one person’s determination can lead to positive change for countless others,” stated Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society of America. 

 Neli currently serves as an ‘ambassador’ to the Autism Justice Center, where his lived experiences provide invaluable insights into crucial focus areas, including Autism in jails and prisons, Autism in police encounters, and the intersection of race, disability, and the criminal legal system.  

 The award presentation ceremony for the 2023 David Joyce Award for Self-Advocacy took place on January 25th, 2024, at 4 pm ET following a Self-Advocacy Workshop on Safety on the Internet. 

About the Autism Society of America: 

 The Autism Society’s mission is to create connections, empowering everyone in the Autism community with the resources needed to live fully. As the nation’s oldest leading grassroots Autism organization, the Autism Society and its approximately 70+ local affiliates serve over half a million members of the Autism community each year. It envisions a world where everyone in the Autism community is connected to the support they need, when they need it – including education, advocacy efforts, and supports and services throughout the lifespan. For more information visit the Autism Society at AutismSociety.org, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter 

About the Autism Justice Center: 

The Autism Justice Center focuses on empowerment, advocacy, and justice, standing as a beacon of hope and support for Autistic individuals, their families, and advocates. The Autism Justice Center aspires to be a pioneering force for the Autistic community. Challenges like securing affordable housing, workplace accommodations, and the troubling frequency of negative law enforcement encounters. It uses various strategies, including direct advocacy, education, and litigation support. The Autism Justice Center is developing resources for legal professionals so they may better represent and support Autistic clients. The Autism Justice Center works closely with the Autism Society’s public policy team on legislative initiatives, and with our National Programs team on training first responders and other safety initiatives. 

About David Joyce: 

David Joyce, the namesake of this award, is a remarkable young man filled with boundless energy, love, and kindness. As a non-speaking Autistic young adult, he is the proud son of Joe and Elise Joyce and a loving brother to Matt and Tara. David’s spirit and resilience continue to inspire us all.