Geraldine Dawson, the director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, says that beginning early in life, autistic children may compensate for lagging social development by developing stronger-than-average 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.”
Those finer details are the nuts and bolts of the elite Unit 9900, whose soldiers act as eyes on the ground for highly sensitive operations, analyzing complex images delivered in real time from military satellites around the world.
But for many of the unit’s autistic soldiers, the more daunting challenge is learning to communicate and socialize with their peers.
E.—who, like many of the autistic soldiers in the unit, is considered “high functioning” and attended special-education program within a mainstream high school—says his adolescence was characterized by a general sense of “floating around,” both socially and academically. He had a hard time listening in class, though he performed well on tests. His sense of isolation was exacerbated by the special aide who accompanied him during the school day.
“It’s not fun at that age to have someone always watching over you, when you just want to hang out with the guys,” he said. But his biggest setback came in 12th grade, when he received an exemption letter from the army. In Israel, military service is compulsory for all 18-year-olds following high school, though exemptions are issued on a number of grounds, including residence abroad, religious reasons, or physical or mental disability. In 2008, the country ended the practice of issuing blanket exemption notices for autistic Israelis and instead began accepting them on a case-by-case basis, typically for secretarial roles or voluntary civil-service positions in hospitals and schools. None of these options interested E., who had decided he would enlist only if he could have a more typical experience.
But later that year, his school was visited by representatives from Ro’im Rachok (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”), a program that helps students with autism prepare for enlistment in the IDF. When they mentioned the two previous cohorts of autistic Israelis who had successfully served as image analysts, E. recalls, he became convinced that he could find a meaningful position as a soldier.
The pre-army course consists of three phases, beginning with a rigorous selection process: Students undergo tests and interviews to ensure that they have the skills to successfully analyze images, that they can adjust to the army’s rigid structure, and that they pose no risk to themselves or to their operations. Of the dozens of applicants this year, 12 candidates made the cut. (They can also choose to withdraw if the process proves too onerous.)