After years of exempting them from serving in the Israeli military, the IDF is aiming to recruit some 500 soldiers on the autism spectrum by the end of next year.
The future soldiers will join the army as part of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate’s TITKADMU program which recruits people with autism into the military.
“Today there are 52 soldiers with autism in the program, and by the end of December, we will have 70. By the end of 2022 there will be over 500,” said Capt. Udi Heller.
Heller, the highest-ranking soldier with autism in the IDF, initiated the program which he says gives hope to the thousands of people with autism in Israel.
According to Heller, there’s been an 18% increase year-by-year of those diagnosed with autism in Israel’s education system; 19,500 diagnosed in 2019, 27,300 in 2020, and some 32,000 this year.
And with all those young people diagnosed with autism in the education system, “there’s no reason why there can’t be 10,000-15,000 with autism in the army. We want thousands of recruits with autism to serve in the IDF - it’s not a military of only geniuses,” Heller said.
Israel didn’t recognize autism as a medical disorder for years and the first diagnosed soldier with autism volunteered in 2006. Other than TITKADMU, there are currently some 200 other people with autism volunteering through other organizations and programs like Ro’im Rachok (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”) that helps students on the spectrum prepare for military service.
TITKADMU builds a special track for volunteers with autism who spend six weeks along with specialized mentors who help them integrate into military life and who accompany them throughout their service. During the six weeks, the mentors also meet with the families of the cadets in order to learn more about them.
“This project begins from their draft notice and throughout their service until they are released and even if they stay on for a military career and reserves,” Heller explained. “It allows them to succeed in both the army and in civilian life since they receive three-to-five full years of professional training.”
Many are already excelling in areas that had once been off-limits to those on the spectrum like units that require security clearances such as Military Intelligence’s Unit 9900 that deals with intelligence gathering using satellites.
“Because of this project, a youth who is a genius entered a very unique position that was tailor-made for him in unit 8200,” Heller said, adding that another high-functioning recruit with autism is currently serving in Military Intelligence’s research division and a third volunteer who is not high-functioning is currently serving as a technician.
“We know how to give them courses that will give them a future with a profession,” he said. “It’s a revolution.”
With the military having changed its draft system and tests for new recruits, “there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be volunteering to serve” either, Heller said, explaining that the new changes make it much easier for those on the spectrum to be drafted and placed in appropriate roles.
And as more join the military, many will hopefully become officers.
Some argue that militaries are the wrong environment for those with the disorder, especially those who have extreme social or communication problems.
While those on the spectrum tend to need more help in some situations and commanders need to be more aware of their needs, “the army can also be very good for them. They can focus on a subject that they like and in which they excel. They also really like schedules and set routines,” Heller explained.
“There are few countries in the world that allow people with autism to volunteer for the military like Israel. There are other countries that don’t even recognize the spectrum and make them serve just like other people,” Heller said, explaining that forcing those on the spectrum to serve can lead to horrible scenarios including prison and suicide.
It is up to parents to inform government bodies such as the health and education ministries about their child’s diagnosis, something that many parents try to hide in order to give their child the ability to serve in the IDF.
“There is a big negative stigma surrounding autism. And when parents want a ‘normal’ kid, they keep the diagnosis at home. And then the kid is drafted into the IDF and there are issues while in the army. But for those who do report, there are not any issues,” Heller said.
Because of the disorder, many were not able successfully to be drafted into the IDF even when they tried. And if they were able to, many times it’s the commanders who recognize that the soldier is on the spectrum and are able to identify where they are best able to succeed and even excel.
Heller was diagnosed with the condition at age three, but because his parents did not notify the health or education ministry he was drafted into the IDF like all other 18-year-olds. The beginning of his service was not easy, but he later had commanders who recognized his potential, he said.
Now he wants thousands of others on the spectrum to reach their potential and succeed in a way that they could have only dreamed of before.
Heller managed to recruit the Planning and Personnel Administration Division in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate and met with leading experts in the field of autism, with social workers, and special needs teachers to build the tailor-made program.
“This project opens the doors for thousands,” Heller said. “Parents write me that their child now has a future. Military service in the IDF is an ethos - it’s something very important.”
According to Heller, while it was the dream of one man, “it takes a lot of courage to get this project off the ground, to change the army for those with autism. Not every army or chief of staff would do this.”
“There’s discrimination in the community against autism and if there’s a way to change the stigma it’s to draft those on the spectrum into the army,” he said. “There’s room for everyone in the IDF.”