IDF taps into unique abilities of autistic soldiers

A special IDF program channels the abilities of soldiers on the autistic spectrum, turning disabilities into advantages.

By: Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Since 2013 there has been a special group of volunteer soldiers serving with distinction in the IDF – those who are on the autistic spectrum.

They serve in the innovative “Seeing Far” program in such areas as informatics, Quality Assurance software, electronics, opto-electronics and – perhaps most sensitive of all – intelligence, decoding aerial photographs.

Their enhanced visual acuity, patience and ability to go down to the tiniest details are used to excellent purpose in a small army that utilizes every human resource available.

According to Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s book, The Weapon Wizards, How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower, it was former director of the Mossad Tamir Pardo’s idea to recruit soldiers with autism to the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 9900, which analyzes satellite imagery.

They have “remarkable visual and analytical capabilities,” which are used mainly to identify changes in terrain that could mean that a rocket launcher or arms cache has been hidden in the ground, the authors explain. These can then be added to a list of future targets that the Israeli Air Force should hit at an opportune time.

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Corporal A. is one such analyst. He has Asperger’s Syndrome – and, as of 2018, a Medal of Excellence representing his 9900 unit. His enthusiasm for his work is clear.

‘A vast reservoir of knowledge’

“The hardest thing for me is to feel ineffective,” he says emphatically. “I know that if I look at something long enough, I’ll understand it. I won’t give up. I’m the type of person who doesn’t stop. I knew that if I enlisted, I would do a full service. There’s no way that I would decide to give up and be released. This isn’t an option for me.”

His commander called his special soldiers “a vast reservoir of knowledge,” and the IDF is very protective of them. Staff members from the “Seeing Far” program come to the unit every week and meet with the program’s soldiers and their commanders to help them deal with the unique challenges they face during their service.

Cpl. A. wants others like him to know that their future can be bright.

“Often when people are in the same predicament as I was, they’re first told that they can’t do it and that they are not capable,” he says. “I want them to know that they are the only ones who can decide whether they can or can’t.”