Every Citizen Serves: Autistic Soldiers in Israel’s Army

Israel’s Special Intelligence Unit 9900 shows there is a space for every citizen in the military.

Israeli soldiers train in the desert, December 9, 2013
Israeli soldiers train in the desert, December 9, 2013 (IDF/Gil Kremer)

In Sparta, children that were judged to be “imperfect” were left on a hillside to die. As in most militarized societies, there was only one model for health and perfection. Those that did not fit did not survive, let alone join Sparta’s army.

Even modern, democratic states have a particular vision of what a soldier should look like. Although the heirs of Athens are less discriminate than Sparta, the popular imagination still has its own model soldier.

Israel defies convention and shows that every person can make a unique contribution to their nation’s defense.

Making the most of its people

The country’s defense forces (IDF) have always had to make the most of its people. After all, the state was outnumbered against its neighbors from the start and still is.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when the IDF needs a satellite photo analyzed or a map refined, it turns to soldiers with autism. They excel at concentrating on a single task and have better focus than most.

Special Intelligence Unit 9900 is a mix of soldiers with and without autism and devoted to the analysis of satellite and aerial images. The soldiers examine images to help mission planning.

Integration

“In the beginning I definitely had difficulty relating to the people around me but I wasn’t the only one who had this problem,” a 21-year-old sergeant from Hadera, a city in the north of Israel, tells the Atlantic Sentinel.

Once I moved into a department with “regular” soldiers it was a little hard for me to integrate with them in the beginning, but then it got better and now I have a lot of friends from the office.

He was one of Unit 9900’s first recruits and will probably serve his whole three-year military service with it. His father heard about the project through an Asperger syndrome support group before suggesting it to his son.

Apart from working fewer hours and on specially chosen tasks, the sergeant says his work is similar to that of the other troops:

We listen to radio while we work but other than that there are no differences between us and the rest of the soldiers.

After his service is complete, he intends to study business administration and economics.

Diversity

A private from Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv, says his parents were excited about the prospect of him being drafted. He points out that unlike many other soldiers, he chose to serve in the IDF:

I work like any other soldiers in the unit and there is no difference between me and any of the other soldiers. I learned about social connections and how to manage on my own.

The IDF is not alone in recognizing the contributions people with autism can make to an organization. German software giant SAP aims to add some 700 programmers with autism to its workforce by 2020.

At a time when Hollywood’s risible 300 franchise celebrates a rather bland form of Spartan “perfection,” the best real-life armies are open to human diversity.

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