Autistic Soldiers Find Their Place in the IDF

January 20, 2023 | Joshua Zitser
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While a diagnosis of autism generally leads to an exemption from military service, autistic Israelis are nonetheless welcome to join their country’s armed forces as volunteers. A program called Ro’im Raḥok (Seeing from a Distance) has since 2013 been providing specialized training to prepare people with autism for enlistment. Joshua Zitser reports:

Autistic volunteers are assigned to units where they are deemed to have a comparative advantage—usually military intelligence. Though military intelligence and analysis are vital to every modern army, Israel places a particularly high value on it. . . . In return for volunteering, recruits with autism are offered the skills and connections that could help ease them into an independent future working in civilian professions.

Military divisions in the UK, the U.S., and Singapore, as well as civilian industries in Israel, have shown interest in developing the model. . . . So far, more than 300 soldiers have been recruited from the program to the IDF and serve across 27 different units.

The first unit to recruit from the program was the classified Unit 9900—a prestigious visual-intelligence outfit. Unit 9900’s Major R., [whose full name has been withheld for security reasons], was approached a decade ago about including graduates of Ro’im Raḥok’s aerial-photo-analysis course. He said he agreed even though he didn’t really know what autism was at the time. His unit, he said, needed strong photo analyzers to support its secretive work.

Major R. said he noticed early on that many autistic soldiers seemed to have a natural aptitude for aerial-photo analysis. His neurotypical soldiers easily got distracted, he said, whereas the autistic soldiers seemed able to hyperfocus on the tasks at hand. “Most of them aren’t interested in their surroundings. They don’t want to talk to their friends; they want to sit and work,” Major R. said.

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