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Most armies ignore autistic people. Israel is calling them up.

Students of Ro'im Rachok's electronics classRo’im Rachok students at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono. The IDF blurred some parts of the image, citing the need to obscure classified information.

Israel Defense Forces/ Insider

Inside the program encouraging autistic volunteers to join
the Israel Defense Forces.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Each day, Sgt. I. scours the internet to find elusive intelligence that could help Israel fight its enemies.

He is a web specialist for an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, focused on open-source research that informs high-level decision-making and can even reach the prime minister’s desk.

He is also autistic. 

Sgt. I., like some 150 others, isn’t in the IDF by chance. He signed up to serve through Ro’im Rachok, a first-of-its-kind program that places autistic people in the military to utilize their valuable skills.

Speaking to Insider from inside HaKirya, the sprawling headquarters of the IDF, he said he was able to cope with long, exhausting intelligence work better than many others and that he was most productive when given to-do lists.

He couldn’t elaborate on the specifics of what he does. The IDF and Ro’im Rachok members spoke on the condition that Insider use initials or only their first names, citing the secrecy of their work.

A typical IDF open-source project might involve trawling social media and obscure sites for intel on everything from the effect of sanctions on the Iranian economy to the size of Hezbollah’s arsenal.

An IDF minder sat in the meeting room throughout, ready to intervene if Sgt. I. accidentally divulged anything classified.

On occasion, Sgt. I. said, his daily work routine is interrupted by “stimming” — a behavior often associated with autism that can involve repeating words, sounds, or movements to cope with stress.

Sgt. I. tends to flap his hands when he’s excited or overwhelmed. “It’s an urge, like blinking,” he said.

He’d always been taught in special-education settings, so he wasn’t self-conscious about doing this before he joined the IDF and started working in an office alongside neurotypical soldiers. “So, yes, I’ve had to adapt,” he said. 

Many autistic teenagers are exempt from military service

Sgt. I. is a graduate of Ro’im Rachok — an innovative Israeli program founded in 2013 to match young adults on the autism spectrum with military professions that need manpower.

Unlike most Jewish Israelis who are conscripted to join the army, usually at 18, many autistic teenagers are exempt.

Ro’im Rachok, however, allows them to sign up as volunteers. 

Speaking to Insider from his office at the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Tal Vardi, a Mossad veteran who helped found the program, said he wanted to make something clear: It’s not an act of charity.

“Nobody wants somebody to do them a favor,” Vardi said, describing the program as mutually beneficial for the IDF, people with autism, and their families. 

Ro'im Rachok's Tal VardiTal Vardi, the cofounder of Ro’im Rachok, in front of a banner for the program.

Israel Defense Forces/ Insider

Autistic volunteers are assigned to units where they are deemed to have a comparative advantage — usually military intelligence. 

Though military intelligence and analysis are vital to every modern army, Israel places a particularly high value on it, Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, told Insider.

Countries like Israel that “feel that they’re under existential threat” put a premium on intelligence-gathering, he said, so skilled recruits are highly coveted.

In return for volunteering, recruits with autism are offered the skills and connections that could help ease them into an independent future working in civilian professions.

“The idea is to put together real needs with real capabilities to create this win-win,” Vardi said. 

Military divisions in the UK, the US, and Singapore, as well as civilian industries in Israel, have shown interest in developing the model, he added.

So far, more than 300 soldiers have been recruited from the program to the IDF and serve across 27 different units.

Unit 9900 is the ‘eye of the country’

The first unit to recruit from the program was the classified Unit 9900 — a prestigious visual-intelligence outfit.

Unit 9900’s Maj. R. was approached a decade ago about including graduates of Ro’im Rachok’s aerial-photo-analysis course.

He said he agreed even though he didn’t really know what autism was at the time. His unit, he said, needed strong photo analyzers to support its secretive work.

Maj. R. described his unit as “the eye of the country.” Unit 9900 collects, analyzes, and interprets visual intelligence and provides it to commanders on the field and other security forces.  

These images can come from satellite images, drone footage, and reconnaissance flights over areas like the Gaza Strip and Syria, The Jerusalem Post reported.

An IDF spokesperson told Insider that the unit played a part in Operation Breaking Dawn — the Israeli name for the Gaza-Israel clashes in August 2022.

During this three-day operation, 49 Palestinians in Gaza were killed, at least 22 of whom were civilians, and around 360 Palestinians injured, per the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Israeli authorities said that 70 Israelis were injured by mortars and rockets launched by Palestinian militants.

The IDF spokesperson said Unit 9900 “helped protect civilians” and provided operational support in the clashes. Amnesty International described the operation as unleashing “fresh trauma and destruction” on Palestinians.

Smoke billows from Israeli airstrike in GazaSmoke billows from an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on August 7, 2022.

Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Maj. R. said he noticed early on that many autistic soldiers seemed to have a natural aptitude for aerial-photo analysis.

His neurotypical soldiers easily got distracted, he said, whereas the autistic soldiers seemed able to hyperfocus on the tasks at hand.

Research from the Wellcome Trust indicates that many people with autism have a “higher perceptual capacity” and show an increased ability to focus their attention on certain tasks. 

“Most of them aren’t interested in their surroundings. They don’t want to talk to their friends, they want to sit and work,” Maj. R. said. “They are very focused on what they are doing.”

Intensive training

Although Ro’im Rachok’s first training course was in photo analysis, it now offers courses in data tagging, GIS mapping, and electronics. 

Each course sets up students to serve in specific IDF units, but at this stage, they participate in the training courses as civilians.

Insider was granted rare access to the electronics course of Ro’im Rachok’s intensive training program, which lasts up to four months at Ono Academic College.


Ro'im Rachok studentsRo’im Rachok students sit in a circle during a class at Ono Academic College. The IDF blurred some parts of the image, citing the need to obscure classified information.

Israel Defense Forces/ Insider

It’s November, and students of the Ro’im Rachok electronics course are approaching the final month of their training.

Sitting in a circle, surrounded by computers and maps of Israel, the students are reflecting on why they signed up for the training program, which, if completed successfully, will allow them to become full-fledged members of the IDF. 

There’s unanimous agreement that employability plays a big part. Even though it’s technically illegal for an employer to ask directly about military experience, in practice, it does matter.

“If not for the army, it would be very difficult to make a future, get a job, make rent, buy an apartment,” says Natir, an 18-year-old from Holon, as his classmates nod.

Roni, a 19-year-old from Rishon LeZion, raises her hand to speak. “I’m joining the IDF to have better chances in the future,” she says.

It’s not only the addition to her résumé that will make her more employable, she adds, but also the skills she and her classmates develop along the way. “It makes a lot of people more confident in what we’re doing and more communicative in language,” she says.

Ro'im Rachok student and commanderA commander speaks with a Ro’im Rachok student at Ono Academic College. The IDF blurred some parts of the image, citing the need to obscure classified information.

Israel Defense Forces/ Insider

Ron, an 18-year-old from Givatayim, says the course has helped him work on his “short fuse” and has been vital to his personal development. 

The skills and unique perspectives that autistic people can bring to the table are advantageous to the army because “we see the world in a different way,” he says, “that offers creative solutions.”

For example, Ron says his intense and highly focused interests, which are common among people with autism, make him a dedicated worker and a quick learner. 

“I know when I’m fixated on something, when something really gets my interest, it’s hard for me to stop thinking about it and enjoying it,” he adds.

I can’t change the army, so I need to face it with them Cmdr. A., Unit 9900

The training program can be challenging for students, said Cmdr. A of Unit 9900.

“At their schools or home, many of them were getting adjustments,” he said. “Here, we’re not making it easier for them. I can’t change the whole army, so I need to face it with them.”

This could involve bracing them for situations they haven’t encountered before, from teaching would-be recruits how to navigate public transportation to preparing them for possible interrogation by enemy forces.

Students in the program work with therapists to help them understand and embrace their autism. Some students were diagnosed with autism when they received a military exemption; others have known for most of their life.

Roughly 10% of students in each course don’t graduate. But the vast majority go on to take part in a four-month-trial period with the IDF before being formally recruited.

Usually, for conscripted soldiers, men are expected to serve for a minimum of 32 months, and women are expected to serve for at least 24 months. But because Ro’im Rachok enlistees are volunteers, they can drop out after a year.

Ro'im Rachok course commanderCmdr. A. looks at a map in Ono Academic College’s classroom.

Israel Defense Forces/ Insider

Pvt. E., an autistic soldier in Unit 9900, has been in the IDF longer than a year and decided to continue. 

He said that he finds his work for the IDF enjoyable, and it’s easier for him than many of his neurotypical colleagues.

“I don’t want to say I’m slightly superior, because that’s condescending, but it sometimes really is annoying when you can clearly see something that others don’t,” he said. 

I’m just another soldier Sgt. I.

Sgt. I., the web specialist in the open-source-research unit, also said he finds specific tasks easier than his neurotypical colleagues, but that’s balanced out by things he struggles with.

“If the average person has things that they’re good at and bad at that, then for a person with autism, it’s more extreme,” he explained.

His strengths, Sgt. I. said, involve following long lists and instructions. “My brain works best when there’s this sort of structure and order,” he said. “No matter how tiring it can be for someone else, like some of my coworkers, I would have an easier time on average.”

However, he said he doesn’t think his skills are exceptional or that he’s a “super genius” — a “dehumanizing” stereotype that “others” autistic people.

“To be honest, I don’t really feel like I have a special skill set that is so incredible that I need to be like some grand asset,” he said. “I’m just another soldier.”

Read the original article on Business Insider