Leading the Battle Against the Stigma of Autism

Having gained personal experience of countering people’s perception of autism, last week IDF (Zahal) representatives came together with Latin American military attachés to discuss a critical topic: The integration of individuals on the autism spectrum in the army.

The IDF (Zahal) is one of the only militaries in the world that successfully integrates soldiers on the autism spectrum. When it comes to integrating people with disabilities into the IDF (Zahal), “we open more and more doors,” says Lt. Col. Rosenfeld, Commander of the Online Recruitment Bureau.

Leading the Battle Against the Stigma of Autism

Lt. Col. Rosenfeld explaining the processes of recruitment.

Roim Rachok: “Watching the Horizon” Program for Autistic Soldiers

The initiative to empower autistic soldiers began with T., a combat veteran in the IDF (Zahal) who was determined to help an old friend from the army whose two sons have autism. The problem, according to T., is that individuals with autism often face challenges later in life as adults. He explains that whereas “most young people go to college or the military, young people on the autism spectrum stay home,” and have a smaller variety of future prospects. With this reality in mind, T. set out to create a program that would integrate people on the autism spectrum into the military.

Leading the Battle Against the Stigma of Autism

T. sharing his journey to create an IDF (Zahal) program for autistic soldiers.

T. presented his idea to the IDF (Zahal) and thus the incredible vision became a reality in 2013 when, with the help of the Ono Academic College, the IDF (Zahal) launched a revolutionary course with 12 participants. Throughout the program, the students proved their excellence and determination, and even managed to complete their coursework in less time than expected.

Roim Rachok (“Watching the Horizon”), is the first program in the world that trains people on the autism spectrum to interpret and decode satellite images. This allows them to put their unique analytical skills, memory, and meticulousness to practice.

Living with Autism: The Stories of Pvt. N. and Pvt. E.

The success of “Watching the Horizon” is unprecedented. Lt. Colonel Rinat Yedidya, Head of the Clinical Branch in the Mental Health Department, emphasizes that the program had a significant impact not only on soldiers with autism, but on their commanders as well.

Captain S., an officer in Unit 9900 of the Intelligence Corps, has several autistic soldiers under her command. She shared with the panel that working with them has been one of the most meaningful experiences in her life. “In my seven years of service, this has been the best job, and these are the best soldiers I’ve ever had,” Captain S. revealed.

At the conference, the Latin American attachés listened with rapt attention to two remarkable speakers, Pvt. E. and Pvt. N., who are diagnosed with autism. They are both graduates of “Watching the Horizon,” and serve together in Unit 9900.

Opening up to the audience, Pvt. E. recollected that in high school he struggled to focus and motivate himself. Despite his learning disabilities, one of his teachers had great faith in him. She told him about “Watching the Horizon,” and encouraged him to join. During the course, Pvt. E. felt at last that he was listening, learning and taking interest in a subject. ‘‘For the first time, I felt in my heart that I have found my true destiny. Wearing my uniform makes me feel like I am giving back to the country that has given me so much.”

Pvt. N. said that his father was a Lieutenant Colonel, and that it was his dream to follow in his footsteps and enlist in the IDF (Zahal). Thanks to “Watching the Horizon,” Pvt. N. was able to overcome the social anxiety he experienced in high school, and develop close friends and a sense of community in the IDF (Zahal). ”Now that I’m part of the IDF (Zahal) I feel that I can reach my full potential.”

Leading the Battle Against the Stigma of Autism

Privates E. and N.

 What’s Next?

Given the success of “Watching the Horizon,” the IDF (Zahal) will continue to expand the range of opportunities it offers to soldiers on the autism spectrum, as well as other volunteers with unique needs. In addition to helping soldiers with autism integrate into the military, “Watching the Horizon” is looking to offer its graduates consultation on post-army life – such as study and work opportunities.

“We are very fortunate that via the IDF (Zahal), more people with disabilities can serve and use their experiences as a springboard for civilian life,” T. concluded.

Source