Six years ago, three former MOSSAD agents launched an experimental program in the Israeli army for recruiting young people with autism spectrum disorders to military service, relying on their unique abilities - “superpowers”, in the words of one of the soldiers. What is the name of this grand military project? Roim Rachok, translated from Hebrew - "Looking into the future." And this future will bring neurodiversity to not only the military, but also to the peaceful labor force.
Israel, the beginning of June. Sirens roar, explosions illuminate the sky. The protests began here long before US President Donald Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as the capital of the Israeli state, despite the outrage of the Palestinian side. However, it was precisely this step that caused the most violent clashes in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of protesters hurl a “security wall” (a barrier 703 km long and 8 meters high separating Israel from the west bank of the Jordan River) with Molotov stones and Israeli soldiers. Burned kites fly over the wall, dry fields fall down and set fire to the southern border of Israel.
At the same time, 70 kilometers to the north, in the center of Tel Aviv, on the territory of the military base “Kiriya”, life is in full swing. Since the founding of the state, in 1948, it has been the main military base of the Israel Defense Forces, or the IDF. It also houses the General Staff. On the top floor of a well-guarded building, in an office located at the end of a narrow corridor, six young intelligence officers are closely watching the monitors at the aerial footage of the country's borders. They analyze the incoming information, peering into thousands of satellite images replacing each other, looking for the slightest signs of enemy activity: they are looking for stocks of explosives left at the foot of the hill, or a pile of sand, which means they are digging a tunnel nearby. One missing piece can cost many lives.
Nine hours a day (and in the event of a conflict aggravating even more), these six people remain focused and able to analyze complex information, without rest or interruptions.
That is why, according to Commander Eitan (the names of the heroes are changed), "they are the best soldiers in the unit." These are participants of the innovative military program Roim Rachok, which in Hebrew means “Looking into the Future”. The group consists of young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Launched in 2012 by three former Israeli intelligence agents Mossad, this program has two goals: to prepare highly qualified analysts for the army and to provide young people with ASD the opportunity to do military service. Roim Rachok has been looking for capable young men and women with ASD throughout the country who, under other circumstances, have not been able to serve in the army, have been teaching them social and professional skills for three months. It then integrates into a unit known as the 9900, which also includes regular military personnel.
Young people remain in demand after military service, which gives them knowledge and invaluable work experience: they are willingly recruited by such technological giants as, for example, Intel.
The number of children with autism is increasing year by year. According to a recent study conducted in 2014, one of 59 children in America suffers from autism spectrum disorder. This is 15% more than in 2012, and 150% more than in 2000.
According to the University of Drexel, among young people with non-physical disorders, autists have the highest unemployment rate. Nearly half of people with autism between the ages of 20 and 30 have never engaged in paid activities. For young Israelis with autism, the problem is exacerbated by the inability to do military service. Moreover, more than one generation of citizens of the country perceives the army as a kind of rite of initiation into adulthood.
Liora Sali, a physicist by training, served in Mossad, where she led a team of information technology specialists. When her son was three years old, she noticed a child with communication problems. Soon the boy was diagnosed with autism.
Sali was not ready to give up her dream - she wanted her child to go to the army one day, like his peers. She knew that her son had an extraordinary ability to focus attention and that such ability could be useful in military service. In 2011, she persuaded her colleagues to put together a research team in order to study the special qualities of autists who are potentially capable of attracting the military, and open the way for the IDF to young people with ASD.
Roim Rachok is a model of how autists can be integrated not only into the Israeli army, but also into public life after service.
Candidates selected for the program must cope with their daily needs and be able to manage their time at a basic level. About 100 people submit applications to Roim Rachok every year, about 80 of them come in.
Many of them did not have the opportunity for self-development, either at school or at home. Usually the problem of children with ASD is that they obviously do not want anything and do not expect it. Gil, one of those who applied to participate in the program, recalls how after being diagnosed in elementary school he was transferred to a special class, which made him depressed. “It seemed to me that they put me in a cage,” he says. “I wanted to be the same as everyone.” But he was not just the same as everyone. Gil is one of those 10% autists who have supernormal abilities. The young man has a photographic memory, he easily learned a textbook on the history of Japan, he has a talent for jiu-jitsu. He shows the video on his phone: Gil masterfully plays the third part of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonatas. In order to learn this, the young man had enough two months: he just watched the teacher play and memorized the movements of his fingers.
The passion to learn new features makes many Roim Rachok students.
In addition to visual analysis, recruits are taught informational, the purpose of which is to collect intelligence online. Under the conditions of the information war, analysts are indispensable, which will monitor any kind of information on the network, from fake news on Facebook to propaganda videos on YouTube. This is an ideal task for program participants who can spend hours on the computer, processing huge amounts of information and not losing concentration. This quality is the best suited for work in the quality control department of large IT corporations, and for software testing.
Yet, of the hundreds of volunteers who got into the IDF, about 86% were able to overcome all the difficulties. This is a high figure, which was achieved thanks to the efforts of Roim Rachok. The program not only prepares servicemen with ASD for military service, but also provides each with the necessary assistance. Once a week, recruits communicate with a physiotherapist and psychotherapist for emotional relief.
Meanwhile, Roim Rachok continues to recruit more and more young people in Israel. Now the program is designed for three groups of recruits per year. Volunteers are waiting for the day when they can wear a military uniform - just like their parents did.