IDF's Cyber Defense Academy school welcomes first autistic cadets

There are nine cadets on the autism spectrum who will be studying the school’s cyber defense course, an intensive program of several months. 

 IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

With the backbone of the IDF reliant on programming, cyber and other technology, thousands of soldiers have passed through its Computing and Cyber Defense Academy, which for the first time is opening its door to troops who are on the autism spectrum.

The Ramat Gan school teaches dozens of courses related to tech needs in all parts of the military, including the C4I Directorate, Navy, Air Force, and ground forces.

The academy is ground zero for the training of all personnel who will have a computer-related position in the military, and it “gives the opportunity to everyone,” said its commander, Lt.-Col. Liat Litvak.

“We don’t only take people who have prior [computer] knowledge,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “It can be anyone who has math skills; they can come and succeed.”

There are seven cadets on the autism spectrum who will be taking the school’s cyberdefense course, an intensive program of several months.

The cadets are part of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate’s TITKADMU program which recruits high-functioning autistics into the Israeli military.

IDF cyber defenders are seen participating in an online international exercise. (credit: IDF)IDF cyber defenders are seen participating in an online international exercise. (credit: IDF)

Most of them are high-functioning autists who will be doing everything that non-autistics cadets are doing, but they will “just be getting a bit more help along the way,” Litvak said.

Every four cadets will be assigned an officer, compared with one officer for each six non-autistic cadets. They will be learning from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will have several breaks during the day to make sure they can maintain their concentration.

The cadets spent six weeks prior to the course with mentors who helped them integrate into military life and will accompany them throughout their service. During the six weeks, the mentors also met with the families of the cadets to learn about them.

“Everyone is totally different, and we can learn so much about each cadet,” said Cpl. Pnina Gershenkroin, a special integration mentor. “Our goal is to integrate all of the cadets into the army. They have equal opportunities just like everyone else who is drafted into the IDF.”

In recent years, the IDF has been giving special emphasis to cyberwarfare, increasing funding and training the next generation of online soldiers for the IDF’s most coveted units, which are responsible for much of Israel’s breakthrough technology.

  IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT) IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

Learning at the school is not easy. The intensive courses last between 15 to 20 weeks, and non-autistic cadets learn from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

But, unlike other schools, more than 50% of the course allows cadets to learn on their own by using videos, podcasts or other means.

“We know today that everyone learns differently,” Litvak said. “Some need to have a teacher, some need more one-on-one learning, and some need other ways that work best for them.”

“We give them the opportunity to learn in the way they want, which in turn allows them to succeed more,” she said, adding that officers also sit with cadets once a week to see how they are managing.

  IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

The cadets are not given grades; rather, it’s all about showing improvement, Litvak said.

“We show them where they are less strong,” she said. “Marks don’t really matter here; instead, we want to give them the chance to see where they can get better.”

If, for example, a student who received 80% in an exam and then got the same mark in another test has not shown any improvement. But if someone started with 30% and then sat and learned and the next test got 60%, “it’s amazing,” Litvak said. “It shows that he learned; that he knows how to learn; that he knows how to look at where he’s less strong and improve.” 

 IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) IDF soldiers compete in a multinational Capture the Flag cyber drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)