The Israeli Military Program for Autistic Soldiers

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Friday, October 18, 2019
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Six years ago, three former Mossad agents launched an experimental Israeli Army program to recruit those on the autism spectrum, harnessing their unique aptitudes—their "superpowers," as one soldier puts it. The name of this big military success? Roim Rachok, Hebrew for "seeing into the future," and it may bring neurodiversity to the broader workforce.

 

Autism and the Israeli Army


It’s early June in Israel, as sirens blare and golden explosions burst the black sky. Clashes have been raging since before President Trump moved the U. S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing it as the country’s capital to the outrage of Palestinians, but the relocation sparked the most deadly outbreak in years along the Gaza Strip. Legions of protesters hurl firebombs and rocks at Israeli soldiers over the security fence. Burning kites fly over from Gaza into the brittle, dry fields along Israel’s southern border, setting the ground ablaze.

 

IDF Autistic soldiers 

 

Forty-five miles north, in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel Defense Forces personnel bustle around the Kirya, the sprawling campus that has served as the IDF’s main base and headquarters since shortly after the founding of the country in 1948. On an upper floor of one heavily guarded building, at the end of a narrow hall, a half-dozen young intelligence soldiers in olive-green fatigues stare intently at their dual computer monitors. Aerial-­surveillance photos of the country’s borders flicker on their screens. They’re doing visual analysis, eyeballing an ever-­shifting cascade of thousands of satellite images, looking for the slightest sign of enemy activity—a small stockpile of explosives behind a hill, perhaps, or a tiny, upturned pile of sand indicating a nascent underground tunnel. Missing one detail could cost lives. Their high-stakes work is crucial for protecting Israeli citizens and soldiers. It’s also unforgiving. For nine hours a day, or more during a crisis, they exhibit almost bionic focus, an uncanny ability to stare at a screen and process highly complex data without tiring or daydreaming.

 

 IDF Spokespersons Autistic Soldiers


For that reason, as their scruffy, middle-­aged commander Eitan (to protect some IDF identities, aliases are used) tells me, “These are the best soldiers in the unit.” They are also the most distinctive—not only in Israel but in the world. They’re part of an innovative military program called Roim Rachok, Hebrew for “seeing into the future.” The elite group consists entirely of members of a burgeoning but underserved and overlooked population with powers as special as their needs: autistic teens.

 

 IDF Troops Along Israels Border

 

Founded in 2012 by three former agents of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, it accomplishes two goals: providing the military with highly skilled analysts and providing autistic teens with the opportunity to serve. The program scours the country for capable volunteers, men and women, then trains them for three months in life and work skills to integrate them into the unit known as 9900 (which also includes soldiers who aren’t on the autism spectrum).

 

 Intel in Israel

 

The experience doesn’t end with the service, which can last several years. The soldiers enter the workplace with this invaluable expertise, and companies such as Intel seek them out. The story of Roim Rachok has implications far beyond Israel. It demonstrates an inspiring new way of thinking about autism, one that empowers both those on the spectrum and those around them. “It’s a win-win for the country,” Eitan says. “It’s a win-win for the soldiers. And it’s a win-win for me. This is the right thing to do at the right time.”

 Autism Symptoms

Autism is on the rise. A study released in April 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on the most recent data, from 2014, found that one in fifty-nine children in America has autism-spectrum disorder—a 15 percent increase from two years prior and a 150 percent increase from fourteen years before. Although autism predominantly affects boys, the rate for girls is also increasing. In 2012, boys were four and a half times as likely to be on the spectrum; in 2014, that figure fell to four times as likely. In total, about 3.5 million Americans have autism-spectrum disorder. The stats track around the world, where roughly 1 percent of the population shares the diagnosis.

 

 Autism Awareness in the Brain


There is no single cause of autism, which is thought to develop from a combination of environmental and genetic forces. The increase has also been correlated with a greater awareness of symptoms. People with ASD often struggle with social skills, communication, and repetitive behaviors, but the range of individual strengths and weaknesses is vast. About one third of people on the spectrum are nonverbal, and the same fraction have an intellectual disability. Autism can also coincide with a variety of physical and mental challenges, such as seizures, anxiety, and ADHD. According to a Drexel University study, among young adults with nonphysical disabilities, those with autism have the lowest rate of employment.

 

 autistic soldiers

 

In fact, nearly 42 percent of people in their early twenties with autism have never worked for pay at all. The wide majority of those who do work are lucky to earn a living wage. For young Israelis with autism, the frustration is compounded by the country’s mandatory military service. Citizens over the age of eighteen are required to enlist in the IDF, two years and eight months of service for men, two years for women. For generations, it has been viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood, a way to both serve the country and spread one’s wings after high school. But it’s an experience that has been lost for teens on the spectrum, who, along with others with disabilities, are exempt from conscription. They fall under a category known as Profile 21. “I wanted him to learn to have a profession, to be able to work and support himself in the future.”

 

 ipad communication device

 

The pain of missing this experience is one that Leora Sali, one of Roim Rachok’s cofounders, and her family know firsthand. A physicist who managed the technology team for the Mossad, Sali has an autistic son herself. By the time he was three, she saw that he seemed to be having trouble communicating and reading social cues. Like many parents, she and her husband didn’t understand the scope of his subsequent diagnosis. They feared that, given his exemption from the military, he would never get to find himself and his purpose as they and generations of others before him had. “I wanted him to be part of society,” Sali tells me. “I wanted him to learn to have a profession, to be able to work and support himself in the future.” But Sali wasn’t willing to give up her dream of having him serve his country.

 

 

“This is something I knew he could do,” she says. She believed that her son had powers of focus and concentration that could be of great use to the military. In 2011, she persuaded her colleagues in the IDF to allow her to put together a small team of researchers to explore what special capabilities autistics might have that would entice the military to take them on. She wasn’t the only one pursuing this goal at the time. Tal Vardi was a veteran Mossad agent who had spent decades in service (including during the Yom Kippur war and the raid on Entebbe). Since retiring, he’d been teaching yoga and giving tours of the country. In January 2011, he gathered with former colleagues after one of their sons had been killed in Gaza. As they sat in a garden catching up with one another, one of the men, now a wealthy software executive, said that he had two autistic teenage sons who were struggling to contribute to society and lead happy lives. The anguish of his friend’s family moved Vardi, who offered to help.

 

 

With the support of his friend Tamir Pardo, then the head of the Mossad, Vardi organized a meeting of dozens of scientists and researchers, including technologists within the IDF, to see how autistics might play a role in military service. This is when he learned that Sali was looking into this matter herself. With a go-ahead from the IDF, in 2012 they began the Roim Rachok pilot program. It wasn’t just about transforming Israeli service. It was also about proving to the world that young people on the spectrum could not only perform but excel. “I felt that this is the purpose I’m here for,” Vardi, a tanned sixty-five-year-old with short gray hair, tells me, “to create a new life model for people with autism.”

 Teen Autism

 

It's midafternoon inside a windowless classroom at Ono Academic College, a school of fourteen thousand students in a leafy suburb outside Tel Aviv. A dozen Roim Rachok recruits sit around a table, listening intently as two others stand up front by a whiteboard reporting on the Lebanon war. The speakers—a guy and a girl in their late teens—confidently click through their PowerPoint slides, taking pains at the end to make eye contact with the others, who pepper them with questions and comments. “You displayed a good memory for dates,” one classmate, Ari, tells them in Hebrew, “but it’s a bit too long, and you didn’t use body language enough.”

 

 Roim Rachok Hebrew Banner

 

The students here are two months into their initial three-month training before moving on to the IDF headquarters. As Ari’s critique suggests, the focus is not just to build their military knowledge but to help them develop the social skills they’ll need in order to work with those they call “neurotypical” soldiers—or NTs, as they nickname them. “The issue wasn’t really the Lebanon war; it was the teamwork,” Vardi tells me after class. “It was them being able to stand in front of people and talk and present something and then later on going through the process of getting feedback in a respectful way.” In this sense, Roim Rachok presents a model for how autistics can be integrated into the Israeli military as well as one for integration into society at large. It fits with Israel’s reputation for innovation—as chronicled in books such as Start-up Nation. Vardi refers to the program, which they designed from the ground up, as “a social start-up” whose template can be adapted to operate just as effectively in the workplace.

 

 Unit 9900


Selected candidates must be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, with self-sufficiency in daily routines and basic time-management skills. Of the roughly one hundred applicants each year, about 80 percent are accepted. For the new participants here in class, being part of the program fills them with a deep sense of pride and purpose. “I’m here to prove to the world that not all autistic kids are dumb or have trouble with relationships,” one young man, Hillel, tells me, “because it really is a rainbow, it’s a spectrum.”

“Autism is a present,” says another, Yosef. “It is a gift to the world, and people on the spectrum can offer a lot to the world. And that’s why I’m here, to spread this word.”

 Autism Hands

For many of them, this kind of opportunity for self-growth eluded them before in school and at home. “I had problems with really making friends,” a student, Oded, says. “It was like being on an alien planet. . . . I believe I’m not a person with a disability; I’m disabled because society doesn’t put that much effort into integrating me.” Michal, the young woman who presented on the Lebanon war, tells a heartbreaking story of what it felt like to be cast aside when she was young. After being diagnosed with autism at age three, she was sent to a special school at a hospital where “they always treated me like I’m a worthless and stupid girl,” she says. “People told me that autism is not good.”

 

 Autism is my super power


Part of the problem is the feeling of not being challenged, that skills and interests are going unacknowledged. Gil, another participant, laments how after his diagnosis in fourth grade, he was put into a special class that left him depressed. “I thought, I can’t be in this cage,” he recalls. “I want to be like everyone else.” But he wasn’t simply on par with the NTs in his school; he was in many ways far beyond them. Gil is among the 10 percent of autistics with savant abilities, such as a photographic memory of Japanese history and an aptitude for jujitsu. He shows me a video on his iPhone of him deftly playing the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It can take years to learn, but he mastered it in two months by watching his teacher play and memorizing the motion of his fingers. “I try to build some road with my hands, and on this road I can remember which notes to play,” he says. A passion for specialized knowledge runs through many of the students. “We have people interested in bitcoin, the fuels of the spaceships, the history of the Holocaust,” says Efrat Selanikyo, an occupational therapist specializing in autism who serves as Roim Rachok’s professional manager. During a class field trip to a historical site, one teen fresh out of high school shocked the archaeologist guide by speaking to him about the area in an ancient and arcane Hebraic language. “He’s on the level of my doctoral students,” the archaeologist told Selanikyo. Another student astonished his father during a vacation to China by speaking fluent Mandarin, which he had recently taught himself. “I can say it as a parent: There’s a stigma. The word autistic is a hard word.”

 

 Israeli Army with paint faces

 

Sali wants to ensure that those in Roim Rachok see themselves more positively. “I can say it as a parent: There’s a stigma. The word autistic is a hard word,” she says. “We believe that you should tell somebody, ‘You’re on the autistic spectrum. However, you have strengths, you have abilities, you have potential.’ ” Roim Rachok puts its members’ intelligence, focus, and determination—their “superpowers,” as Gil calls them—to use. Beyond cultivating social and communication skills, the program trains the participants in areas of military intelligence that utilize the unique talents of someone on the spectrum.

 

intelligence gathering 

 

In addition to visual analysis, recruits get schooled in information analysis, which means gathering intelligence online. Information warfare—the kind practiced by Russia against the U. S. during the 2016 election—requires analysts who scour the web and make sense of all manner of information, from fake news on Facebook to propaganda videos on YouTube. It’s the perfect task for those in the program, who are able to spend several hours in front of a computer assimilating a flood of data while maintaining intense concentration. This knack also makes the candidates ideal for what’s known as quality assurance, or QA, searching for and fixing bugs in software and hardware.

 

 military intelligence collection


Not everyone makes it through the initial training phase. One recruit took one look around the room and insisted he was better than the rest. “I’m not like you,” he told them bitterly. “I’m going to be a real soldier.” Even Sali’s own son couldn’t make it, because his anxiety was too high. But the 97 percent who do get through the first stage leave with a sense of self that they never knew was possible. “I love my autism now,” Michal says with a smile after class. “I’m proud of it.” Corporal Lev and Sergeant Lev, two twenty-one-year-old autistic soldiers now serving in IDF intelligence, share more than a name. After befriending each other in Roim Rachok and working together as visual analysts in Unit 9900, they began sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, where they play video games and guitar like a lot of young guys their age. But they also share something deeper: pride in being able to serve their country, and confidence that they can do it just as well as, if not better than, their NT peers. As Corporal Lev tells me frankly, “Probably I will be way more motivated than them.”

 

 Autism is like a rainbow of colors

 

In fact, it didn’t take long after the first class of eleven volunteers joined the IDF for the autistic soldiers to distinguish themselves. Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, entailed comparing tens of thousands of aerial photographs to determine potential terrorist activity. Eitan expected it would take them at least a year. “We’ll see how they do it, and we’ll see what their next mission will be,” he had said. The team members took to their dual-display computers, eyeing picture after picture after picture of terrain around the Israeli border, looking for signs of cars or bombs or terrorists.

 

 Future of Computers


It’s the kind of mind-numbing, detail-oriented work that would leave NTs with dry eyes and wandering minds, if they managed to persist at all. “Any regular soldier wouldn’t last in this duty more than a month, because it’s very Sisyphean and boring,” Eitan says. But day after day, the autistic soldiers rose to the task. “They enjoy repetitive work,” as Selanikyo puts it. “They like the routine.” What was supposed to take twelve months they finished in three—earning a special commendation from the IDF. “It’s not because they’re autistic,” Eitan says. “It’s because they did great work.” It’s now become expected that Roim Rachok soldiers will not only outlast NTs but also approach their commanders requesting extra work.

 

Preparing for a Job 

 

The benefits, however, don’t come without challenges, for either the autistics or the NTs who work with them. The Roim Rachok soldiers can easily overwork themselves. They must be told to take a break and clear their minds; otherwise they would keep going until they burned out. During training, Gil became obsessed with determining the location of a monument in a satellite photo. It haunted him day and night that he couldn’t figure it out. “I will not stop until I find it,” he tells me. “But in the middle I will get very tired. I will be very sad because I can’t find it. Not eat. Nothing. Not sleep. When I go to sleep, I will think how to find it. Never stop.”

They can also be brutally blunt and expect the same in return. “You have to make sure everything you’re saying is clear, without bullshitting, without being embarrassed about it,” says David Kreizelman, the military-­history instructor in Roim Rachok. “They can misread social cues and hurt people,” Selanikyo says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you are very fat’ or ‘Why did you cut your hair that way?  "Sometimes we're not sure whether they can understand what is classified and what is not.”

 

 Screen Shot 2019 05 15 at 4.42.06 PM

 

Since the soldiers are working in sensitive military intelligence, though, the risks run far deeper than hurt feelings. A difficulty in reading social cues can manifest as an inability to distinguish right from wrong. “Sometimes we’re not sure whether they can keep a secret or not, whether they can understand what is classified and what is not,” Selanikyo says. “It’s a very serious situation.” They can be a weapon that falls into the wrong hands. “They’re sometimes very naive, and they believe what other people say,” Selanikyo continues. “So they may be exploited.” One Roim Rachok soldier, who desperately wanted to be friends with other soldiers, was talked into stealing items from stores and holding weed for the NTs. He had to be let go as a result. Another’s trust was taken advantage of by NTs who would sell him cheap goods—like headphones—for twenty-five times the appropriate price. The concern is that an enemy could find out that these people are soldiers and extract top-secret information in a similar way.

 

 Autistic teens praparing from military to jobs


Maintaining privacy is paramount in the IDF, which has restrictions on allowing soldiers to post pictures of themselves in uniform on social media—and thereby put their lives at risk. But one autistic soldier let himself be filmed playing video games and was soon on gaming sites compromising his identity. Enemies could then make contact over the Internet—one tried to approach a soldier claiming to be his cousin. “They could ask him for information,” Selanikyo says, “and we are not sure he can understand.” Still, of the hundreds of volunteers who have been placed in the IDF, 86 percent have been able to stick it out. This high success rate is due to Roim Rachok’s extensive support efforts, which ensure not only that the soldiers adhere to the requirements of service but also that they receive the help they need. Each volunteer meets with a psychotherapist once a week for emotional counseling and an occupational therapist once a week for help navigating the workplace. This isn’t just for their benefit. “It’s needed for them, for the commanders, for their colleagues,” Vardi says. “And this is the kind of support people on the spectrum will need all their lives.”

 

ebay logo Israel 

 

Now that it’s going into its sixth year, Roim Rachok is beginning to fulfill its ultimate mission: transitioning its soldiers from the IDF into the job market. “We’re using the stage of the military to give these young adults the experience of work so they can utilize it in life,” Vardi says. Intel and eBay are among the first companies in Israel to hire people from the program. The skills the autistics learn—from quality assurance to information analysis—is directly applicable in many high-tech fields. And the soldiers’ focus and dedication are equally valued. In fact, what has long been considered a liability is starting to be seen as an asset.

 

1200px Intel Israel Logo

 

Neurodiversity—a term that applies to a variety of conditions, such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism—is a burgeoning movement that seeks to “reject the idea that autism should be cured,” according to a statement from the National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University, “advocating instead for celebrating autistic forms of communication and self-expression, and for promoting support systems that allow autistic people to live as autistic people.” The notion is catching on among corporations, which are cultivating and capitalizing on this population’s powers of concentration and understanding of complex systems. “It’s a talent pool that really hasn’t been tapped,” Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the chief accessibility officer at tech giant Microsoft, told CBS News last year. In addition to Microsoft, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Ford, IBM, Ernst & Young, and JPMorgan Chase are some of the companies exploring how to include autistic people in the workforce.

 

 

One afternoon, I visit Barak, the first graduate of Roim Rachok to enter the corporate world, and his family at their apartment outside Tel Aviv. Having volunteered in QA for three years at the IDF, he now works for Intel finding bugs in computer chips. A twenty-two-year-old with dark hair and a Nirvana T-shirt, Barak is rocking cross-legged in a reclining chair, clutching a small, purple plastic box. “This is my hobbies box,” he tells me. “There are many, many surprises there.” He takes out a deck of cards and begins shuffling them over and over. Barak’s parents, who have a fifteen-year-old daughter who is also autistic, both worked in army intelligence and never thought their son would be able to follow in their footsteps. “I couldn’t even imagine that he would join the army,” his mother, Dalia, says with tears in her eyes.

 

 

Though Barak scored in the upper end on intelligence tests in grade school, he says he struggled to fit in. “High school was hell,” he tells me. “There was a group that I wanted to integrate with, but they didn’t seem to want this too, so they sneaked away from me.” But he’s happy to have found his place among the others in Roim Rachok, whom he considers lifelong friends. “They were always there for me,” he says, “and they will always be there for me.” Vardi and Sali are now expanding their program into further areas of Israeli society, training and placing autistics in the Land Authority and the transportation industry. Other nations are taking note. Singapore is among those looking to emulate the program for people on the spectrum in their own country. In the Netherlands, a police detective agency, after consulting with Roim Rachok, hired autistics to crack a cold case. The police force had the team examine hundreds of hours of city-surveillance footage looking for a suspected murderer—one whom they ultimately found and brought to justice. In the meantime, Roim Rachok continues to school more and more teens in Israel. The program now runs three groups of recruits per year. The volunteers look forward to the day when they will put on their uniforms and serve their country at last. “I feel like it’s a miracle,” Gil tells me with a smile. “I feel like it will be a dream come true.”