People with autism in the Israeli intelligence: the case of Unit 9900

Unit 9900 of the IDF, the Israel Defence Force, is the section dedicated to visual intelligence. The satellite captures images that should be analysed to determine risks and suspicious movements in a certain area.

It has been a few years since Unit 9900 recruited young men and women with autism. This job requires extraordinary – and uncommon – capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which lend themselves well to the highly specialised task of aerial analysis. According to a study from the University of Cambridge, those skills often come with autism.

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.

Autistic IDF recruits are trained with a year-long program, with the aid of psychologists, that enable them with skills they can eventually reuse successfully at the end of the program, for example in the many tech startup in the country.

For eight hours a day, E. (the name is not displayed for privacy concerns), 21 and autistic, sits in front of multiple computer screens, scanning high-resolution satellite images for suspicious objects or movements. He describes The Atlantic his job as relaxing, “like a hobby.” As a decoder of Israel’s complex and often heavily civilian battlegrounds, he has been critical in preventing the loss of life of soldiers on the ground in several different situations, his officers say.

This initiative benefits many. On one hand, it reduces the perception of diversity and the stigma autism still carries, at the same time increasing the possibilities of social inclusion and reducing the risk at the edge of the “bloody 21”, the age at which almost all government-funded programs for autistic Israelis (like subsidised transportation and assisted-living services) are cut off. On the other hand, their work brings a high social value, considering that their peculiar set of above-average skills are able to save lives as well.

Social inclusion generates shared value, creates opportunities and enhances interactions. And if it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the same goes for diversity.

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