This guest post is by Shirley Blaier-Stein, an autism mom, activist, attorney, special education advocate and the author of Autism Mom: New Ways of Thinking.
When you walk into this large room at the elite intelligence unit filled with rows of desks, where lights are dim, and green blinking light is coming from a large screen displaying satellite photographs on the wall, and rows of monitors are stationed by young men wearing olive green military uniform, you feel like you’ve entered a scene from some movie.
The first time I walked into such a room was 22 years ago, when I served as a Communications Officer in the Israeli Air Force. I remember the excitement, the adrenalin, and the feeling of being part of something great.
This room is unlike any other, though, because soldiers manning the monitors and analyzing satellite photographs are on the autism spectrum.
The Center for Disease Control reports that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has autism. Most of these children are destined to become jobless adults.
While most people with autism experience communication hardships and other sensitivities that make it hard for them to perform in a standard employment environment, they also have capabilities that are highly advantageous, such as unique brainwork and memorialization.
To realize these capabilities, innovative minds in the Israeli military have set up a special program that recruits youngsters on the autism spectrum as deciphers of satellite photographs. These youngsters’ unique visual abilities and pattern recognition enables then to perform phenomenally at that job.
While virtually all Israeli eighteen year olds join the military, those with autism are exempt. For Israelis, military service is a platform for social integration and professional success. That’s why parents of newly-diagnosed children are devastated to hear, “your child won’t be able to go to the army.”
The new program, “Roim Rachok,” - Hebrew for “looking far and beyond” turns things around. Soldiers on the autism spectrum in the program look far and beyond when they identify satellite images that others cannot see. Commanders also look far, and beyond the youngsters’ diagnosis to uncover their true abilities and by that they break the social stigma, and show that people with autism can.
I met with the creators of this unique program in Tel Aviv (I’ll use letters for some of the names for discretion). T is a retired Mossad officer, L is an autism mom and Efrat Selanikyo is the program’s Professional Director. “We want to change the way society views autism,” T begins. “Our program gives people with autism an opportunity to realize and execute their relative advantage. We train them in a way tailored to their unique needs, teach them skills and create a life-model, so they can live independently once they are discharged from the army. “We spotted the potential in the special minds of people with autism for certain intelligence jobs that require analytical skills, memory, meticulousness, concentration, and constant attention to details,” L says. “However, the military was not equipped to recruit and train people with autism.”
This became possible thanks to Ono Academic College, headed by Professor Dudi Schwartz. The college provides therapists and graduate students who join the military commanders in the training.
“The training we created emulates the military facility,” Selanikyo smiles at me, radiating endless positivity. “We introduce all the components of the military environment: understanding the hierarchy, approaching a commander, finding the work station. Typical soldiers learn that stuff on the go, but our students need support. Some of them started using public transportation for the first time and we taught them how.”
The door behind me is opened to reveal Captain B: “We’ll be ready for you in twenty minutes.” “Am I going to meet them?” I turn back quickly to the group and they smile at my enthusiasm. “You’re our first visitor and they’re very excited.” My heart starts beating fast. I’m about to meet the eleven youngsters who overcome their disability every day and participate in this unique program that changes their lives.
At the classroom, the soldiers tell me about themselves. D tells me proudly how he was mainstreamed into a typical classroom during high school and when it was time for his classmates to go to the army, he was exempted because of autism. “I wanted to be like everyone else in my class,” he says, “so when I heard about this opportunity I did my best to get in.”
Y tells me how he lives outside his parents’ home for the first time. “How does it feel?” I ask; “Great!” he smiles. N tells me he had a very rough childhood. “People at school treated me like I’m second best. It was so hard, for years. But now I’m over it, it’s in the past,” he says, “and I am happy to be here to show them that there are things I can do that they couldn’t even imagine.”
Then it was my turn. “I’m a writer. My book Autism Mom, describes my journey with autism since my son, Dan, was diagnosed at age three. Now he is eleven…” I couldn’t complete the sentence, because the group erupted with questions.
“What’s Dan like?”
“Does he talk?”
“Does he have friends?”
“What does he like to do?”
I told them that Dan is verbal, yet not conversational. “That’s ok,” N. says, “I was silent until I was 13, we all were,” he is gesturing his arm around the room, “ask any of them.” The soldiers nodded in approval. “I promise you that Dan will talk to you soon.” At the end, T. addresses the soldiers, “When you look in the mirror, you must love what you see. Be proud to be who you are, just the way you are. This group and each one of you individually are an example for what people like you can accomplish. I’m proud of you.”
As I’m writing this, my Israeli friends called to tell me that the soldiers I saw have just had their graduation ceremony and received their deciphering pin. “Nobody’s eyes stayed dry,” they told me. “We asked the graduates to select a song for the ceremony and they chose “Imagine” by John Lennon.