Nir BenZvi is the Director of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) in San Diego. We discussed an interesting, innovative IDF approach that integrates autistic individuals into the army: the Ro’im Rachok, (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”) program. He said individuals on the autistic spectrum offer analytical strength and provide data and image analysis in many areas for the IDF. One vital area of focus includes the identification of nuclear information located Iraq. Highly trained autistic individuals identify the source in order to prevent attacks on Israel.
Autistic men and women are selected with the most unique skill sets, possessing highly developed analytical interests regarding data. High level decision making skills are important in terms of the proprietary nature of these positions. Maximum performance is reached, as these individuals remain highly focused and are not distracted easily by minutia or emotions.
The first course of training opened in 2013, deciphering aerial and satellite photographs for the environment and infrastructure. Individuals on the autistic spectrum are visually oriented and many are able to focus on the details the work requires. The program has been expanded to train individuals in other professions needed in IDF and the civilian job market. Software Quality Assurance is one area; information sorting and electro optic technologies are other opportunities.
Ro’im Rachok highlights the personal significance of belonging for people on the autistic spectrum. Qualified young adults interested in volunteering for service in the IDF or integrating into the job market are taught professions for which they will have a competitive advantage.
The first three months of the program is held in a civilian framework where participants learn professional and essential work skills. They are assigned to IDF units and work as civilians gaining experience before being drafted as volunteers, subject to IDF approval. Upon completing this portion of the program, they are able to continue working in the same field or further develop their skills in other related or unrelated scientific and academic directions.
Many autistic soldiers who would otherwise be exempt from military service have located a place in Unit 9900, a selective intelligence squad, showcasing their heightened perceptual skills. Autistic volunteers harness their unique skill sets, including an extraordinary capacity for visual thinking and attention to detail. These skills lend themselves well to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis.
An individual we will refer to as “E” sits daily in front of multiple computer screens, scanning high-resolution satellite images for suspicious objects or movements. Decoding Israel’s complex and often heavily civilian battlegrounds, he has prevented the loss of soldier’s lives on the ground multiple times, according to his officers.
“E” has requested his name to be withheld honoring army protocol. On the autistic spectrum, he describes his job as relaxing, “like a hobby.”
Geraldine Dawson, Director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development relates that in early life, autistic children often compensate for lagging social development. They develop exceptionally strong perceptual skills, excelling in visually and systematically oriented activities like puzzles or drawings.
“People with autism often talk about thinking in pictures, rather than categorizing information according to language,” she explains. “They tend to think less in a holistic form, they’re integrating lots of pieces into a whole, and they’re much more likely to see the finer details of something.”
For many of the unit’s autistic soldiers, challenges include communicating and socializing with peers. “E” experienced this through high school with a sense of isolation exacerbated by the special aide assigned to him in school.
His biggest setback came from an exemption letter he received from the army while in the 12th grade. In Israel military service is compulsary for all 18 year olds following high school. Exemptions are issued for a number of reasons, including residence abroad, religious reasons, physical or mental disability. In 2008, the country ended the practice of issuing blanket exemption notices for autistic Israelis and instead, now accepts them on a case by case basis. Often individuals are accepted for secretarial roles or voluntary civil service positions in hospitals or schools. “E” was not interested in these options, deciding instead he would only enlist if he could have a more “typical” soldier experience.
His high school was visited by representatives from Ro’im Rachok, a program assisting students with autism preparing for enlistment in the IDF which literally enables them to see into the future regarding their specialized line of work.
The pre army course consists of three phases, beginning with the selection process. Students undergo tests and interviews ensuring they have the right skills to successfully analyze images, and can adjust to the army’s rigid structure. Of dozens of applications this year, 12 candidates made the cut.
In the second phase, the health profession department at Ono Academic College hosts the satellite image analysis course at its campus in central Israel. Students meet frequently with therapists helping them learn to adjust to new trials and stresses from responsibility of work itself. The program helps them to figure out how to take the bus home from the army base in addition to other valuable life skills.
During this phase, applicants continue professional training and therapy sessions on an army base in Tel Aviv. Those enlisting have the option to opt out after the end of each year or complete the required term of service. In Israel, compulsory service for men is three years and for women is two. Unit 9900 is coed; Ro’im Rachok has had only one female soldier to date.
In the intelligence fields, military service is a pathway to jobs in Israel’s booming tech sector. Some research suggests autistic individuals outperform neurologically typical children and adults in a wide range of perception tasks such as spotting patterns in a distracting environment. This was noted by Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal and was written in a 2011 column in Nature magazine. Mottron added that most autistic individuals “outperform in auditory tasks, (such as discriminating sound pitches), detecting visual structures and mentally manipulating complex three dimensional shapes.”
As in many other countries, as more information is learned, reported cases of autism have increased greatly in Israel. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of Israelies on the autistic spectrum increased fivefold with 1,000 new diagnoses per year, according to a survey released by the country’s Social Affairs Ministry.
Unfortunately, autism carries a heavy stigma in Israel, and autistic children are frequently suspended from schools for misbehavior. The Knesset Education Committee found that with no specific educational guidelines for autistic students, some teachers requested they receive stronger medication before being allowed into classes.
To reduce this stigma, Efrat Selanikyo, an occupational therapist at Ono, says she and her colleagues help create a support system, implementing strict and clear guidelines for the training part of the Ro’im Rachok program. A sense of discipline is integrated along with a preparation for reality when things change for them. Selanikyo updates parents on their children’s progress throughout the length of the program.
Organizers of Ro’im Rachok are working on plans to expand beyond Unit 9900. Future applicants will have the opportunity to train for additional intelligence units of the IDF. Roles including quality assurance, programming and information will be included. As the program continues, individuals with autism will be integrated into mainstream Israeli society.
Selanikyo further believes that as these individuals continue in civilian work, an enormous influence is created. Ro’im Rachok and “seeing into the future” will take on a meaningful application for those on the autistic spectrum, offering a vital contribution to society while being gainfully employed. Social stigma will change as neighbors see someone on the autistic spectrum coming home on Friday in uniform.
Neta Geffen is an autistic young man who has given support and hope for the future of Ro’im Rachok. As a child he struggled with his diagnosis and his parents struggled to find the right framework for him. His mother was told when he was four years old that he would never be accepted intot he Israeli army due to his status on the spectrum.
With special visual capabilities, attention to detail and a desire to serve his country and be a party of the community, Geffen was accepted into the army. His parents were overjoyed and actually saw him walking taller once in uniform. He has been supported and honored for his contribution along with other autistic soldiers and will be able to utilize his capabilities in civilian life once he leaves the IDF.
Today, Ro’im Rachok soldiers are no different than mainstream soldiers. In many unique ways they contribute to the safety and protection of Israel, just like their peers. Identifying aerial and satellite images, qualifying data and providing this to the commanding officers are only part of the detailed assignments for autistic individuals which are most impressive. The program is an opportunity to dispel many stereotypes and myths about those living on the spectrum, and FIDF is helping these soldiers continue to thrive.
To learn more about the Ro’im Rachok program and soldiers on the autistic spectrum, visit www.ono.ac.il/en/academics/social-agenda/roim-rachok.
FIDF GALA DINNER
The San Diego Chapter of FIDF will hold their annual gala at the Manchester Hyatt, celebrating IDF soldiers on November 5. Ingenuity meets valor with the heart of Israel at this special occasion. The battlefield becomes more technologically advanced as the IDF continues to cultivate their soldiers, and FIDF is there to support them.
In attendance will be the mother of an autistic son/soldier, describing their story of excellence and his contribution in the IDF for Israel. Also highlighted will be stories of bravery from those working behind the scenes, allowing Israel not just to survive but also shine as a start-up nation.
“This is an exceptional opportunity for the public,” Judy Clayton, development associate for FIDF San Diego said. “We hope you will join in celebrating this special and unique evening.”
For more information, including tickets for the FIDF Gala dinner, visit www.fidfsd.org.