By Judy Gruen
Irit and Benny worried about the day when their son, Ariel,* would come of age and discover that unlike nearly all other 18-year-olds in Israel, he would be barred from the IDF because of his autism. Israeli parents naturally worry about their sons’ and daughters’ safety while on active duty in the Israeli Defense Forces, but service in the IDF is also a rite of passage, an integration from youth to adult Israeli society.
Not only would Ariel be excluded from serving in the IDF, but his formal schooling would also end and with it, nationally subsidized services for special needs children. Now how would Irit and Benny keep their son productive and engaged, and provide him with a sense of purpose? Young autistic adults are often very bright, but their difficulties with social engagement and communication leave them with poor employment prospects. They often linger at home without purposeful projects or work.
To succeed in this elite intelligence unit, they must have rare powers of concentration.
But then the unimaginable happened: Within one year Ariel was a volunteer soldier in Unit 9900, where high functioning autistic adults help interpret images taken by aerial reconnaissance vehicles and military satellites. He was part of the first “class” of autistic young men whose integration into the unit was made possible by an innovative program called Ro’im Rachok, or “viewing beyond the horizons.”
To succeed in this elite intelligence unit, they must have rare powers of concentration, along with strong spatial intelligence and visual perception, to decipher what they see. Their interpretations of the images help the IDF plan combat missions, sometimes changing strategy based on newly deciphered images.
Research has shown that the visual perception of people on the autism spectrum is often different, rather than better, than those not on the spectrum. But autistic individuals can excel at approaching complex visual images “objectively,” focusing only on the “raw data,” without preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be.
In the three years since Roim Rachok was launched, approximately 30 young autistic adults have worked in unit 9900, and 20 have worked in other units in roles related to software assurance, information sorting, and as electro-optic technicians. Now, two veterans are being trained to integrate into private sector jobs. Soldiers from Roim Rachok’s first course of analyzers will be released from assignment in January 2017.
This sensitive work in military intelligence is ideal for many individuals on the autism spectrum. First, they excel at paying attention to small details and can remain focused for long periods of time on repetitive work. Second, autistic individuals are less likely to yearn for career advancement, and Unit 9900 has had a chronic shortage of decipherers because the soldiers accepted into the elite unit are eager to move up into integrated intelligence positions. Finally, the work in the unit is top secret. As one mother of a Unit 9900 soldier observed, “Autistic people tend to see things in black and white. If they understand something is secret and they are not allowed to talk about it, they won’t talk about it. Ever.”
Ro’im Rachok was the brainchild of T. Vardi, a former IDF commander, and L. Sali, a physicist who had worked in the technology side of military intelligence as well as the mother of an autistic young adult. She well understood where the confluence between the special capabilities of autistic people and the needs of the IDF.
"The program is based on the idea to match the special capabilities of people on the autistic spectrum with real needs of the IDF and its intelligence units," Sali says. "This match is the win-win that will enable the program to last."
Autism diagnoses are rising in many countries, including in Israel, making the need for this program acute. According to the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, about 10 times more Israeli children have autism as do adults.
Vardi was inspired to create the program while meeting with a group of men who had all served together as paratroopers when they were young. They had gathered to offer condolences to Dror Rotenberg, whose son Nadav had been killed in a “friendly fire” incident at the Gaza border in 2011. During the get-together, one of the men spoke of his worry for his two sons, both autistic, and what sort of future they would have. “I realized at that moment that creating a new life model for people with autism that gives them a chance to utilize their potential was what I was meant to do," Vardi said. “This program was meant to create hope out of the pain.”
Not everyone with autism is suited for the program. Participants who are accepted in Ro’im Rachok attend a three-month course at the Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv. The college was chosen for its respected departments of occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy, as well as its location near Tel Aviv. In the program, the recruits are trained not only in photo analysis and optics but equally importantly, in the social, communication and life skills they will need help with in the IDF. Autistic people can have trouble organizing and expressing their thoughts, so they learn how and when to speak up in a rank-appropriate manner. They also learn how to follow orders, stay on schedule, work with a team, and independent life skills, such as managing their own bus or train commutes to work.
"During the course they learn the army profession as well as how to be an independent soldier," says Efrat Selanikyo, the professional manager of the program,
The father of one soldier serving today, a former F-16 fighter pilot, secretly followed his son in his car to ensure his son could successfully commute to the course, and helped him on one of the first days when the bus transfer did not work according to plan. Since that day his son has grown toward much fuller independence.
The recruits as well as their colleagues and commanders can find the social dynamics intimidating of this blended society, and therapists meet with the unit weekly. Flexibility and understanding are keys to success. Some recruits have intense sensitivities, such as to flickering lights or to the sound of the air conditioning unit. Some need frequent exercise breaks to release tension. When one soldier could not keep up with his assignments, a therapist suggested dividing the tasks into smaller chores. This soldier became one of the unit’s strongest decipherers.
Recruits accepted in Ro’im Rachok sign up only for a voluntary service of one year, but most extend their service for another year or two. Dan Korkowski graduated with the first group of Ro’im Rachok and held the torch on the traditional Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl. In describing his work in the unit, he said, “I look at pictures and find things. I write reports that show more aids and pictures for other soldiers to show them what’s in the field. Regular people have all sorts of other things on their minds but I concentrate on one thing. There are no distractions. If there’s too much music I put headphones one. It keeps me focused.”
The incredible focus of Unit 9900 enabled them to complete one analysis in three months that was expected to take up to eighteen months. Their speed and quality was also extremely helpful during Operation Protective Edge, according to one unit commander, who noted that the need for soldiers with these skills is only increasing. “The gap between the amount of information coming in and the ability to process it is becoming greater and more complex. The need for personnel who can help us deal with this gap is crucial.”
“‘Your son won’t go into the Army,’ he said. It was one of the worst days of my life.”
Ro’im Rachok has offered a solution to problems that seemingly had nothing in common. The participants have added to the safety of the State of Israel while gaining the opportunity for a more meaningful and hopeful future. For many, it has also been a relief to stop having to try to “pass” as being like most other people, and to be openly autistic in a group that understands and accepts them for who they are.
One mother of a Ro’im Rachok participant said, “When my son was four the speech therapist said to me, ‘Your son won’t go into the Army.’ It was one of the worst days in my life. Now I cry every time I remember it. I tell my son, “We did it! It’s a feeling I can’t describe, a dream come true.”
One father said that his son’s growth as a result of Ro’im Rachok has allowed him to worry much less about his son’s future. “You constantly wonder what will be in five,10, 20, 30 years,” he said, “constantly looking for solutions and looking for ways to advance them and secure their future. Because in the end, their lifespan is normal and when we are not here, they still will be, and someone needs to care for them.” The staff of Ro’im Rachok are working with several private employers to prepare them to hire several alumni of the program, continuing the integration into normative Israeli society.
“I see myself as an equal person and citizen.”
“There were times when it bothered me to think that something is wrong with me,” said N. Geffen, another soldier in unit 9900. “I didn’t know what to call this thing (until) at 17, when I discovered that it’s called Asperger’s. Besides the fact that it’s mandatory to serve in the army it’s also a great privilege to serve the country. I also see myself as an equal person and citizen.”
Another soldier, known as Private E, said, “It gives me a chance, on-the-job education. It’s a beginning. It’s a very solid beginning.”
Finding jobs that suit their skills and temperament will remain a challenge, but these soldiers with autism will have learned how to cope with a changing environment, strategizing to complete a complex assignment, and dealing with a variety of people different than they are.
"We come at a crucial time in their lives,” adds Vardi. “They are leaving home and transitioning to independence. If it’s done the right way, the sky is the limit.”