TEL AVIV (JTA) — Sitting in front of a computer at the center of Israel’s largest army base, a soldier stares at the screen, moving pixel by pixel over a satellite photograph, picking out details and finding patterns.
A few years ago N.S., who has autism, thought the Israel Defense Forces wouldn’t take him. N.S., who like other soldiers could not give his name due to IDF protocol, spent his childhood in mainstream classroom settings, where he had focused on studying film and Arabic, but expected to miss out on being drafted — a mandatory rite of passage for most Israeli 18-year-olds.
Now, more than a year into his army service, N.S. is a colonel who spends eight hours a day doing what few other soldiers can: using his exceptional attention to detail and intense focus to analyze visual data ahead of missions. Soldiers with autism can excel at this work because they are often adept at detecting patterns and maintaining focus for long periods of time.
“It gave me the opportunity to go into the army in a significant position where I feel that I’m contributing,” he said. “I’m really swamped. I’m a perfectionist. I want everything to be perfect.”
N.S. is among some 50 soldiers and trainees in Roim Rachok, Hebrew for Seeing Far, a program aimed at drafting the one in 100 Israeli children diagnosed with autism, according to statistics from the Israeli Society for Autistic Chidren. Based in the IDF’s Intelligence Unit 9900, which maps and analyzes visual data, the soldiers of Roim Rachok decipher aerial reconnaissance photos to provide information to soldiers ahead of combat missions. Other tracks train candidates to be army electricians, who deal with devices like night vision goggles, or optics technicians, who work with binoculars.
“There’s an agenda to show people on the spectrum have abilities and can do things,” said T.V., a former Defense Ministry official who co-founded Roim Rachok in 2012. “A big part [of the work] is to notice changes and a certain routine repetition.”
Autism diagnoses are rising in Israel. According to the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, about 10 times more Israeli children have autism as do adults. In the past, T.V. said, these children at 18 would enter the IDF and be given menial, frustrating jobs.
Participants in Roim Rachok attend a three-month course