Soldiers with autism give army rare view into intel, and disorder

The IDF’s Unit 9900, faced with the Sisyphean task of deciphering satellite images, has begun employing volunteer soldiers on the autism spectrum who have proven adept at decoding the pictures. For the two ex-Mossad agents who started the program, it’s a ‘win-win’ situation

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Soldiers and officers from the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's Unit 9900, which has integrated soldiers with autism into its aerial photography interpretation unit (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Soldiers and officers from the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's Unit 9900, which has integrated soldiers with autism into its aerial photography interpretation unit (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The idea was born on the lawn. Some two dozen middle-aged men seated in a semicircle had come in February 2011 to comfort Dror and Yehudit Rotenberg, who had lost their son, Staff Sgt. Nadav Rotenberg, a month prior just outside Gaza. The men all knew each other well – they had served together with Dror in the Paratrooper Brigade recon unit in the seventies – but hadn’t seen each other in decades.

Rather than rehash old war stories, they went around the circle and talked about their lives. Some of them were working the same jobs in the same kibbutz they had always lived in. One was a professor. One was prospecting for oil in Siberia. And one was living in the US. He said he had two sons, 16 and 14; the older one was deaf and both were born with autism. He described the difficulty of realizing, when his child was two, that the boy was on the autistic spectrum and would never be like his peers. He said that as his sons approached adulthood, one of the most daunting challenges the family faced was the narrow and bleak horizon for high school graduates with autism. While their peers left for college or the army, the teens on the spectrum returned home. He called the phenomenon “bloody 21,” his former officer, T, recalled.

T, his blue eyes shaded by sandy eyebrows, shared a close bond with the father, who had, back in 1974, been his radio operator. The two had not seen each since. But T, who was teaching yoga classes and guiding solo trips out into the desert — newly retired after more than 20 years in the field as a Mossad officer — was immediately struck by the man’s predicament. He said he realized then and there that working with autistic young adults was his calling.

“Everything I had done up to this point prepared me for this,” T said, describing, among other things, the ability to tackle a complex issue, to swiftly separate the wheat from the chaff, and to focus intently on the critical elements. “I learnt that when something is really, really important then there is nothing that can stop you from doing it. And the trick is just to figure out what is really, really important.”

In this case, it was the integration of high-functioning autistic teens and young adults into one of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate’s more crucial functions: aerial photography interpretation.

Israel's Ofek-10 satellite takes off from Palmachim air base in central Israel on April 9, 2014. (photo credit: Israel Ministry of Defense and Israel Aerospace Industries)
Israel’s Ofek-10 satellite takes off from Palmachim air base in central Israel on April 9, 2014. (photo credit: Israel Ministry of Defense and Israel Aerospace Industries)

The army has at its disposal, among other aerial reconnaissance vehicles, five military satellites orbiting the globe. The surveillance satellites deliver 3D images, at night and through any sort of cloud cover, to Tel Aviv in real time. Military intelligence’s Unit 9900 is in charge of interpreting the images. The work can be Sisyphean. It requires long hours of concentration and constant attention to detail.

The unit, like others in military intelligence, has the pick of the draft, selecting, from among the top tier of students, those with the necessary spatial intelligence and visual perception for the task. The commander of the unit, though, told T that he suffered from a dearth of decipherers. The soldiers he got, generally from the best schools and with the best grades, wanted to move on quickly and take command positions. “I live in a constant lack of manpower,” T recalled him saying.

Software that might replace the human decipherer, he added, was nowhere on the horizon.

For T and another Mossad alumna, L, a mother to an autistic young adult who came from the technology side of the secret service, the predicament in Unit 9900 presented “a win-win situation.”

Looking far

In early 2012, as T was looking into the relative strengths of those diagnosed with autism, he received a call from Tamir Pardo, the newly appointed head of the Mossad. “He said: ‘I hear there’s a guy called T dealing with this issue, is that you?” T recalled. “‘Listen, I’m devoted to this. If you need any help at all, turn to me.'”

A few weeks later, T asked Pardo if he could lend him “a few of the folks from the technology side of the game.”

Days later, L called. She had joined the Mossad after her service in the army’s elite Talpiot program and, as a physicist, had risen up the technology chain of command. But like many no-longer-young parents she worried about her autistic son: would he ever be able to live independently and would he have a profession to support himself.

Approaching retirement age, she said that while she was familiar with some of the skills common among autistic people “from the perspective of a mother,” Pardo was the one to suggest to her that perhaps autistic people would have a knack for interpreting visual images, especially satellite photos.

It turns out that it isn’t that simple. There are those who can glimpse the skyline of Rome from a passing helicopter and then recreate it perfectly on paper, and others who are able to see the irrational number of pi as something more like an image rather than an endless sequence and commit tens of thousands of consecutive numerals to memory with relative ease. These are savants, and they are exceedingly rare.

Dr. Yoram Bonneh, a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa’s Department of Human Biology, has led several research studies, including one later funded by the Defense Ministry, into the visual perception of people on the autistic spectrum.

He has found that they often have “a different” rather than categorically better visual perception, he said in a phone interview. They seemed to approach complex visual images “objectively,” he said, unburdened by “concepts of how things are supposed to be.”

Often people interpret what they see, he added, following a narrative that their brains have devised, but the majority of those with autism tended to focus “on the raw data.” He suggested looking at it like a chessboard. Those invested in the game, focused on the strategy and plotting moves and the repercussions of those moves, “are blinded” to the details of the board, he said. Those looking at the board more objectively were more likely to notice a slight aberration in the alignment of the pieces or a stain on one of the pawns.

For Unit 9900 this was more than enough. The commander of the classified unit, aware of some of the research in the field, said he would be glad to cooperate, and not for reasons of social awareness or the garnering of good karma.

Soldiers from Unit 9900 at work (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Soldiers from Unit 9900 at work (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The plan was as follows: secure funding, find an academic home, find the appropriate applicants; build a program with the army that teaches the applicants the necessary deciphering skills, at first in a comfortable civilian setting, and then within the unit; equip the volunteers/soldiers with the tools to enable them to integrate not only into the tumult of a military unit but, later, into the wider workforce as well; and ensure that both the initial training and, later, the service, is accompanied by a cadre of trained therapists and socially minded officers.

T met with Professor Dudi Schwartz, the rector of the Ono Academic College. He chose it because it was in the center of the country and it had a well-regarded department of health professions, which included occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physiotherapy. Over a cup of coffee and without signing a single paper, they reached an agreement whereby T would put up half the funds and the college would provide the other half. When, several months later, T’s US-based partner, his old radio operator, stepped back from his financial commitment, the college agreed to foot the entire bill until other contributors could be found.

A steering committee staffed with Education Ministry professionals helped locate suitable applicants. The army secured all of the authorization necessary to teach the initial course — using army computers on a civilian campus — and appointed Lt. M, a reserves officer, to command the 12 civilian recruits.

Rotem Rosen, the program’s occupational therapist, described the therapeutic side of the course, which was designed by Efrat Selanikyo, the professional director of Roim Rachok (Looking Far). Rosen, speaking from unit’s main office, said that one point of focus was on daily activities, such as catching a string of buses and commuting to military intelligence headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The father of one of the soldiers serving today, a former F-16 fighter pilot, said he followed his son, without his knowledge, in his car during his first days commuting to the course, and that he helped him out on the first day when the bus transfer did not work according to plan, but that since then his son’s independence has improved immeasurably.

Additionally, the staff worked on communication and social skills. The military, they knew, even in the famously lax IDF, stresses hierarchy, and the volunteers, all of whom had been exempted from the draft before the genesis of the project, would need help understanding how to approach an officer. “Generally the focus is more on the result and less on the manner,” she said, noting that even when an individual has thought carefully about what he would like to convey, there cam be difficulty organizing the thought and then expressing it in an optimal, or rank-appropriate, manner.

Some of the Roim Rachok program soldiers at the base (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Some of the Roim Rachok program soldiers at the base (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

She worked with the first group of 12 volunteers while at the Ono Academic College and then moved with them, in October 2013, to the unit.

The transition was not immediately smooth. Once the volunteers completed the first classified course, within the army unit, they were given the choice of leaving the army or becoming soldiers. If they chose to join up – a process that the commander of the program in the unit, Lt. Batchen, described as the most emotional sight she had seen in “the 23 years of my life” – they were given some additional training and then dispersed among the operational desks, which are split according to region and country. Their work there is individual, each soldier assigned to his or her own screen, but the service itself is fully integrated, regular draftees and soldiers with autism serving side by side. The otherness of these new recruits can be, for soldiers who are almost all still in their teens, “very, very scary,” she said, noting that with the first group of soldiers, “the social situation was very complex in the beginning.”

With time the differences melted into familiarity and, in most cases, affection, said Lt. Batchen, who deferred her acceptance to the Technion Israel Institute of Technology by two years in order to command the program.

She said that she has worked consistently with the officers, too, in acclimatizing them to the soldiers from the Roim Rachok program. There are, for example, those who are extremely sensitive to the flicker of certain lights or to, say, the drone of an air conditioning unit; others require periodic calisthenics in order to remain at ease by working off steam in the unit’s halls.

Chen Eden, the program’s emotional therapist, recalled a case in which a Roim Rachok soldier was unable to keep up with the assignments handed down by an officer on an operational desk. She suggested dividing the undertaking into smaller chores, with more proximate deadlines, and said the officer today considers that particular decipherer his best.

Professionally, Lt. Batchen said, there are program graduates who are “among the very best decipherers I have ever seen,” and there are others who “are standard. It’s hard for me to say that the autistic decipherer is the ideal decipherer.”

She said that some are particularly aware of details and that, “taken as a whole, which is difficult, because all of them are different, their motivation and desire means that they sit and work at a pace that not all decipherers could maintain.”

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)

The soldiers themselves seemed very much at ease at the college – where there is a course currently ongoing aimed at integrating a group of 12 boys into Military Intelligence’s software quality assurance and big data information processing departments – and, understandably less so, at the Military Intelligence base, with their commanders in the room.

At the college, the group of boys – autism is far more prevalent in males – opted, by way of a vote, to speak in English to this reporter. Some spoke flawlessly. And it seemed that all spoke with an unusual candor. One, asked about motivation to join the army, said that there were “nine patriots and three opportunists, including me, in the room.”

Interestingly, in a sort of roundtable discussion that touched on the lack of alternatives for young adults diagnosed with high-functioning autism, every single person mentioned the relief of living out of the proverbial closet. “I used to have to try to pass all the time,” said one volunteer. “Here’s it’s different. We’re all autistic.”

Another, like the rest on the far end of the high-functioning side of the spectrum, said he was “so used to passing that I didn’t how this would be.” He found that the group was “more accepting of quirks” than any he had previously been a part of.

At the Military Intelligence base, two soldiers, summoned from their operational desks for a short conversation, were ill at ease. They spoke haltingly but also, it seemed, with candor. One, a resident of Maccabim-Reut near Modiin, said he joined the army “to make my parents happy.”

But the soldier, Cpl. Guy, signed on an extra year, he said, because “I knew they needed me.”

The other soldier, Cpl. Nadav, from Haifa, said he felt appreciated on the operational desk and proud of the fact that he was “able to acquire friends.”

At an evening for parents and teens who are considering the expanding Roim Rachok program, Cpl. Nadav spoke before a packed room. He mentioned that the program had won a prize for its work within Military Intelligence and strongly encouraged the prospective volunteers in the room to apply for the program. The speaking seemed difficult for him and the address was brief, but L said later that the idea of him addressing a roomful of adults when he first joined the program would have been preposterous. “The difference is day and night,” she said.

Cpl. Guy’s father, the former F-16 air force pilot, later offered a personal perspective. He said he and his wife had tried to have kids for more than a decade. They suffered through a series of miscarriages. As a senior IAF officer, the brass agreed to move him to Fort Worth, Texas, for a job with the American General Dynamics company that built the F-16, so that he and his wife could pursue surrogacy, which was illegal in Israel at the time.

On New Year’s Day 1992, the surrogate gave birth to twins. Back home, his air force friends threw them a party. “Very joyous,” he said softly, speaking outside a café near the Latrun monastery in Israel.

Slowly he and his wife understood that something was wrong. The boys would engage in repetitive tasks and avoid looking other people in the eye. The diagnosis – that one twin was largely nonverbal and low functioning and the other, the one who was eventually drafted, toward the other end of the autistic spectrum – “hit us like a hammer blow,” he said.

At age 5, the child that later volunteered for the army taught himself to read and to do arithmetic before he ever spoke. He went to a regular class but didn’t really have any friends. He spent most of his time alone with his computer and hardly had a bond with his brother.

At age 18, when his peers went off to the army, he was still very childish, his father said, unable to decide things for himself or to adequately express what he wants. After an additional year of school, his parents sent him to a center where an array of slightly disabled young adults were taught life skills and readied for simple work. His son didn’t like the program but finished the year out and then returned home. He was still dangling between school and life, the father said, and not yet ready to be sent out into the world.

That’s when L called and told him that the Roim Rachok program was up and running and accepting applications. For him, the opportunity for his son to serve in the army was significant. “All of the years, a parent with a special needs child, even though he knows it can’t be, he wants them to be like his peers. To get married. To have kids. And yes, to serve in the army. That was very important to me,” he said.

The service has advanced his son to the point that the parental dread, rising with each passing year, has appreciably subsided. “You constantly wonder what will be in five,10, 20, 30 years,” he said, “constantly looking for solutions and looking for ways to advance them and secure their future. Because in the end, their lifespan is normal and when we are not here, they still will be, and someone needs to care for them.”

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