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Is Autism Allowed in the Military Service? Separating Fact from Fiction

Is autism allowed in the military? Explore facts, regulations, and stories, debunking myths about autism service.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
June 6, 2024
8 min read
min read

Autism in the Military

The topic of autism in relation to military service can be a complex one to navigate. It involves not only specific military regulations but also a broader understanding and approach to autism and neurodiversity.

Military Regulations on Autism

The U.S. Department of Defense considers having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) a “disqualifying condition” for joining the military. This stance has led to many candidates being turned away due to their diagnosis [1]. The U.S. Military has strict regulations regarding the admission of individuals diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions. For example, individuals diagnosed with ASD are barred entirely, while those with ADHD are only permitted to serve if they meet certain criteria, such as not being prescribed medication in the previous 24 months.

These regulations are based on the U.S. military's assessment of the unique demands and challenges faced by military personnel. As a result, individuals with autism are generally deemed medically unfit for service, leading to a ban on their enlistment.

Condition Eligibility for Military Service
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Disqualified
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Allowed if not prescribed medication in the previous 24 months

Individualized Approach to Autism

Despite the existing regulations, it's important to remember that autism is a spectrum disorder, and each individual with autism is unique. This means that while some individuals with autism may struggle with certain aspects of military service, others may excel in particular areas. For instance, some individuals with high functioning autism have been known to thrive in the Navy Submarine Service.

While the military has high standards for its personnel and doesn't anticipate lowering them significantly, even in the event of a draft, there is ongoing discussion and debate about the role of neurodiversity in the military landscape.

Understanding 'is autism allowed in the military' requires an understanding of military regulations and the complexities of autism. While current rules may exclude many individuals with autism from serving, it's important to continue exploring how to accommodate and celebrate neurodiversity within and beyond the military context.

Personal Experiences

Exploring personal experiences concerning autism in the military helps shed light on the real-life implications of policies and regulations. It offers insight into the opportunities and challenges service members with autism face.

Maj. Daniel Kiser's Story

Maj. Daniel Kiser's experience in the military serves as an inspiring example of how individuals with autism can thrive in the armed services. Despite receiving an autism diagnosis after nearly ten years of service with the U.S. Air Force, Kiser continued his duty with the support from his superiors. He believes his autism has actually been an asset in his role, particularly in communicating threats effectively. This case underscores the potential of individuals with autism to contribute meaningfully to the military.

Challenges Faced by Recruits

However, the journey is not always smooth for recruits with autism. Some military members have found it necessary to hide their autism diagnosis to avoid being medically discharged. This has led to instances where recruits were discharged shortly after starting basic training due to their undisclosed autism. These situations highlight the challenges faced by individuals with autism in the armed services.

Moreover, the military invests significant resources to attract quality recruits and transform them into disciplined and skilled military personnel. According to the NCBI Bookshelf, among youths ages 17 to 24, only about 29 percent meet all the core eligibility requirements to enlist without a waiver. This statistic underscores the rigorous selection process and the challenges that potential recruits, including those with autism, may face.

Despite these challenges, there are success stories like that of Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz, who successfully navigated crises due to his military training and ASD diagnosis. As highlighted by the U.S. Air Force Medical Standards Directory, ASD is not disqualifying for continued military service unless it compromises military duty or training.

Navigating the military with autism is certainly not without its challenges. But as personal experiences like Maj. Daniel Kiser's show, it is also not without its unique opportunities and triumphs.

Waivers and Considerations

Understanding the dynamics of autism and military service requires a close look at the waiver process for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the concerns surrounding medical discharge.

Waiver Process for ASD

The U.S. Department of Defense considers having ASD to be a “disqualifying condition” to join the military, leading to many candidates being turned away due to their diagnosis. However, the military is beginning to take a more individualized approach to autism in the waiver process.

In recent years, about 1,800 applicants with ASD went through the waiver process, with approximately 500 applicants being approved for a waiver with a history of ASD. This indicates a shift in understanding and policy, albeit a slow one.

Applicants with a history of autism must provide detailed medical records for evaluation. The decision regarding acceptance or rejection of an individual with a history of autism in the military is made on a case-by-case basis, with each branch having its own distinct criteria.

In some cases, the Army and Navy may grant medical waivers to individuals with a history of autism, allowing them to join the military. However, these waivers are rare and contingent upon the specific circumstances of the individual.

Branch Estimated Number of ASD Waivers Granted
Army 300
Navy 200
Air Force 0
Marines 0

Medical Discharge Concerns

While some individuals with ASD may be able to join the military through the waiver process, there are concerns about the potential for medical discharge. The military has strict regulations regarding the retention of individuals diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions.

These concerns are not unfounded. If an individual with ASD is unable to meet the physical, mental, or performance standards of the military, they may be medically discharged. This can have significant consequences for the individual, affecting their future career prospects and access to veterans' benefits.

In light of these concerns, it's crucial that potential recruits with ASD and their families fully understand the implications of military service. Clear communication with recruitment officers, thorough medical evaluations, and careful consideration are all essential steps in this process.

Advocating for Inclusion

In recent years, there has been an ongoing conversation about autism and military service. While the U.S. Military has traditionally maintained strict regulations regarding the admission of individuals diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions, advocates and experts are pushing for a more nuanced approach.

Diverse Brain Types in Military

Cortney Weinbaum, a national security researcher at RAND Corporation, is one such advocate. She argues that the remaining 74% of individuals with autism who are not profoundly impacted should not be disqualified from joining the military. Her stance emphasizes the need for diverse brain types to work on national security issues.

Weinbaum's argument finds support in the successful service of individuals like Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz. Norwitz, who was diagnosed with ASD, successfully navigated crises due to his military training, reinforcing the idea that an ASD diagnosis does not necessarily compromise military duty or training [2].

Need for Policy Changes

Despite these arguments, the U.S. military generally deems individuals with autism as medically unfit for service, resulting in a ban on their enlistment. The Department of Defense has established this stance based on their assessment of the unique demands and challenges faced by military personnel [3].

However, this blanket approach can be seen as overly restrictive, as it fails to consider the individual capabilities and strengths of each potential recruit with autism. As such, there is a growing call for policy changes that would allow for a more individualized assessment of fitness for service.

Such changes would align with the broader societal shift towards recognizing and embracing neurodiversity. They would also allow the military to benefit from the unique perspectives and skills that individuals with autism can bring to the table, particularly in areas such as problem-solving and attention to detail.

In conclusion, while progress is being made in advocating for the inclusion of individuals with autism in the military, there is still much work to be done. Changing existing policies and attitudes will not be an overnight process, but with continued advocacy and awareness, a more inclusive and diverse military force could become a reality.

Neurodiversity Programs

As the question, "is autism allowed in the military" continues to be explored, it's worth noting the growing recognition of neurodiversity in military settings. Several programs are beginning to pave the way for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to serve in the military, providing them with unique opportunities and experiences.

Roim Rachok Program

One of the leading neurodiversity programs in the military is the Roim Rachok program, launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This program is specifically designed for adults with ASD who wish to serve in the military and subsequently integrate into the job market. The program includes professional and work training, followed by an assignment to an IDF unit for hands-on experience.

Roim Rachok serves as a model for the potential inclusion of individuals with ASD in military settings. It demonstrates that with the right support and training, individuals with ASD can make meaningful contributions to the military and gain valuable professional experience.

Inclusive Military Initiatives

While information regarding inclusive programs for neurodivergent Service members within the U.S. Military is limited, the success of programs like Roim Rachok provides a strong foundation for U.S. Military policymakers to consider creating similar initiatives.

The creation of inclusive military programs could open up new opportunities for individuals with ASD, allowing them to serve their country while also gaining important life and professional skills. It could also pave the way for greater acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity within the military, helping to break down barriers and challenge misconceptions about ASD.

As the military continues to evolve and adapt, the consideration of neurodiversity programs could represent a significant step forward in creating a more inclusive and diverse force. The success of programs like Roim Rachok shows that with the right support and training, individuals with ASD can thrive in the military and make valuable contributions to their country.

Draft and Recruitment

In the context of military service, it's crucial to understand the standards and regulations regarding the recruitment of neurodivergent individuals, particularly those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Historical Perspectives

Historically, the U.S. Military has maintained strict regulations regarding the admission of individuals diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions. For instance, individuals diagnosed with ASD have been entirely barred, while those with ADHD are only permitted to serve if they meet certain criteria, such as not being prescribed medication in the previous 24 months [2].

However, some individuals with ASD have managed to carve out successful military careers. An example of this is the case of Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz from the U.S. Air Force who successfully navigated crises due to his military training and ASD diagnosis. The U.S. Air Force Medical Standards Directory states that ASD is not disqualifying for continued military service unless it compromises military duty or training.

Current Military Standards

In the current context, the U.S. Military's standards for recruitment of individuals with ASD remain stringent. However, there is a global precedent for inclusion. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), for instance, has a program called Roim Rachok, geared towards adults with ASD who wish to serve in the military and integrate into the job market. The program includes professional and work training, followed by an assignment to an IDF unit for additional experience [2].

While information on inclusive programs for neurodivergent Service members within the U.S. Military is not readily available, the existence of programs like Roim Rachok in the IDF provides a foundation for U.S. Military policymakers to consider creating inclusive programs [2].

The prevalence of neurodivergence among Service members in the U.S. Military may not be readily available, but considering that an estimated 15-20% of the world's population will experience neurodiversity in some way, it is likely that Service members will experience neurodiversity at similar rates [2].

In conclusion, while the current military standards for individuals with ASD are stringent, there are instances and programs that suggest a gradual shift towards a more inclusive approach. The key will be for policymakers to consider the benefits of neurodiversity and adapt their recruitment strategies accordingly.

References

[1]: https://abcnews.go.com/US/people-autism-navigate-roadblocks-serving-military/story?id=109748037

[2]: https://militaryreach.auburn.edu/ffNeurodiversityAmongServiceMembers.jsp

[3]: https://www.astraaba.com/blog/can-you-join-the-military-with-autism

[4]: https://www.quora.com/What-law-in-the-US-disallows-for-people-with-autism-to-join-the-military-When-was-it-passed-and-who-passed-it

[5]: https://www.quora.com/Do-autistic-people-get-drafted-in-case-of-war-And-if-so-do-they-fight-or-do-something-else

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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