If I had to make a list of improbable professions for Autism, at the top of my list would be the Army. However, on the 6th of Jan I read an article about Israel’s Defence Force’s “Visual Intelligence Division”. Unit 9900 soldiers act as eyes on the ground for highly sensitive operations, analysing complex images delivered in real time from military satellites around the world. Isn’t that mental? When I think of army, I still think of open fields, Captains riding horses, swords and general gruesomeness.
So, I researched a bit more and found that between 2004 and 2011 in Israel, the number of Israelis on the autism spectrum increased fivefold, with 1,000 new diagnoses per year, according to a survey released by the country’s Social Affairs Ministry. Obviously, that is due to a lot of things; mostly, the scientific advancements that have occurred within the past 20 years which enable diagnosis to be available more readily and accurately now. I wasn’t surprised to read about the stigma that follows Autism everywhere it is. There have been suspensions from schools, mostly attributed to the fact that there are no official special education guidelines for autistic students which the school should follow. That’s why we need awareness – so that we can create a framework for all over the world, so that children on the spectrum won’t be branded as naughty or get dosed up on medication at school. This doesn’t just happen in Israel, this happens in the UK, this happens in the US – children on the spectrum are not provided with the education they deserve.
Ro’im Rachok, which in Hebrew means “seeing into the future” is a programme that is aimed at teenagers/adults with Autism. They recruit graduates and provide them with training for enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. The programme has already had two cohorts of autistic Israelis who have successfully served as image analysts. Much like any other high risk job there are a lot of tests to overcome in order to become part of the Ro’im Rachok. It’s not like the army goes in and picks up all the autistic kids and forces them to join. In fact, students have to undergo tests and interviews so as to ensure that they actually have the skills to be able to analyse images. Not everyone on the spectrum is a genius, or can analyse pictures. Only 12 made the cut this year.
Israel’s 12 then were hosted by the Ono Academic College, which teaches satellite-image analysis. This is a three-month course which runs three times a year. During the three months, the unit’s commanders begin to train the recruits on how to read aerial maps, amongst other things. The thing that really impressed me was the support provided to the ‘students’ during the initial process as well as the course. They can opt-out at any point, they have a team of therapists who they meet regularly who are there to help them with adjusting to the new routine and dealing with stress. I mean this could be anything from getting to campus for class and to digesting the importance and responsibility of the work itself. They have constant support which is crucial. It’s one thing to start a programme with autistic recruits and it’s a whole other world knowing how to maintain it and reinforce it with the appropriate support.
The final phase, which is also 3 months, consists of professional training and therapy sessions at an army base in Tel Aviv. Then they, and they alone, decide if they are ready for enlistment. So, from recruitment to the end of the 6 months there is absolutely no obligation to enlist. Some may walk away with enriched social skills, enhanced professional training and benefits from the therapy which will lead to a better life, hopefully, for them and their families. They get to go home with a sense of worth – they get to apply for jobs and say ‘Hey, I trained for the army’. They get to go out into the world and destroy stereotypes. The ones that do enlist also have the choice to opt out after the end of each year. Or they can go on to complete the required term of service; three years for men and two for women. Yes, women with Autism can be recruited, trained and enlisted too – why did you think they couldn’t? Ro’im Rachok has had one female soldier to date (2016).
One of the recruits, who is only 21, described the job as sitting in front of computer screens and scanning high-resolution satellite images for suspicious objects or movements; this is decoding. I also found out that Israel’s battlegrounds are very complex and inhabited by civilians most of the time; which I guess is the case in most conflict zones. This is why the job Unit 9900 does is so important – because it protects civilians. The autistic recruits analyse these satellite images, decode them, comb through each millimetre of the same location from various angles and warn soldiers on the ground of what lies ahead, inform them if there is dangerous or suspicious activity; they are helping prevent the loss of life of soldiers on the ground and civilians.
When you think of Autism – do you think it is capable of this enormous responsibility? Because they are, and reading and learning is the way for you to realise the potential held by these remarkable individuals. Autism isn’t something negative, it is not a disease; it’s a character trait. Ro’im Rachok is already thinking long-term and for ways in which they can train recruits to apply for roles like quality assurance, programming, and information sorting. This expansion by the Israeli army means that the autistic community in Israel, and the world, will get recognition domestically and globally. On a domestic level they are given the opportunity to work, just like with Microsoft and the BBC. They get to become known for more than just their Autism and be welcomed and integrated into their societies.
“When the whole neighbourhood suddenly sees their neighbour, a boy on the autism spectrum, coming home on Friday in uniform, and hears that they can also continue in these fields into civilian work—it naturally has an enormous influence” – Efrat Selanikyo, occupational therapist at Ono College.
When the whole world suddenly finds out about people on the spectrum that are put in charge of handling situations which carry such great responsibility and excel at it; when they read about how Autism can advance, develop and surpass all the expectations the global community has of them; when they hear stories about how an autistic decoder helped save the lives of soldiers and civilians on the ground; and when they see a picture of an autistic person in uniform being praised for their bravery and service to their country and the Autism community; that’s when we break society’s rules. That’s when we expand our society into accepting people that are unique.
That’s when we become human.