As the world marks World Autism Day, the IDF and Special in Uniform are celebrating the over 400 young adults with special needs who are serving their country.
Shachak Shriki is one of those 400. At age 15, he was diagnosed with autism but this did not stop him from pursuing his dream of serving in the IDF. Now at 19-years-old, Shriki is a proud soldier serving on the IAF Palmahim base.
“One of my earliest dreams were about the day when he would graduate high school and enlist in the IDF, serve my country and safeguard my people,” he recalled.
He said that while growing up, “my parents and I knew for many years that there was something different about me, although we didn’t understand exactly what it was.”
“When I was finally diagnosed with autism at the age of 15, I said to myself, ‘Hey, that sounds so like me,’” he said.
At age 17, Israeli teenagers receive their call-up notices for the IDF, but while most of Shriki’s classmates received their call-up notices, he received an automatic exemption.
"I was exempt from military service, but I really wanted to enlist,” he explained. “My Mom always told me: ‘You are not only autistic, you are so many other things and you can do so much.’”
He didn’t only believe his mom, but he also believed in himself. This is why he refused to take no for an answer.
Despite his diagnosis and the odds against him, there was no doubt in his mind that he would yet fulfill his dream of being a soldier.
Working hard to be accepted into the IDF, and through vehement research, Shriki came across Lt. Col. (Res.) Ariel Almog, chairman of the IDF’s pioneering Special in Uniform project.
Special in Uniform, a collaborative effort of Lend A Hand to A Special Child, the IDF, and JNF-USA, incorporates 400 young men and women who are on autism spectrum, into military service in 25 bases across the country. It focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant and incorporates him or her into the IDF based on the belief that everyone belongs and has the right to achieve his full potential.
Almog voiced that he was highly impressed by Shriki potential, skills, and perseverance, and recruited the aspiring IDF soldier into Special in Uniform.
Since then, the young man has been volunteering on the Palmachim airbase in the transport unit.
Lihi Lapid, whose daughter is on the autistic spectrum and serves in the IDF as part of Special in Uniform, is an activist for children and adults with autism.
Meeting recently with the JNF Taskforce on Disabilities, she said, “There are people who fight to listen, and people who fight to be heard even when they have no voice. I am here, trying to explain in words that my daughter lacks, what it means to be autistic.”
At a special event hosted recently to mark World Autism Awareness Day, President Reuven Rivlin, who is a vocal supporter of Special in Uniform said that “estimates place some 25,000 Israelis on what we now know to refer to as the ‘autism spectrum.’”
“This means that every one of us knows someone — an adult or child — who deals with autism,” he highlighted “There is also a steady rise in individuals being diagnosed every year. This compels the State of Israel and our society to promote treatment and support for people with autism and their families, from birth until old age.”
For Rivlin, integrating children and adults with autism into society “is an important priority that each and every one of us can facilitate.”
“We need to go beyond the familiar, to try to meet and appreciate the wonderful people hidden beneath the label ‘autism,’” he continued. “We need to want to do a little more for them, and certainly not to use the term in a derogatory fashion.”
In addition, the IDF also has a small elite group of soldiers who are on the autism spectrum that serve as part of the Unit 9900.
The IDF explained that special intelligence Unit 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs and space research.
“Within this unit there is a small unit of highly qualified soldiers, who have remarkable visual and analytic capabilities,” it said. “They can detect even the smallest details, undetectable to most people. The uniqueness of this elite group of intelligence soldiers in Unit 9900 lies in the fact that they are all diagnosed on the autism spectrum.”
According to an IDF interview with a colonel from this unit in 2014, “it is important to remember that people on the autism spectrum have strengths in music, mathematics, as well as the visual field.”
“These autistic soldiers of Unit 9900 play a major role in intelligence gathering–a role not easily filled due to the difficulty of the task of this unit,” he said. “The IDF believes in the ability of these autistic soldiers and will continue to work for their advancement in military and civilian life.”
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