Is Autism Allowed in the Military? Short Answer is No.

Explore if autism is allowed in the military, the challenges, benefits, and the journey towards inclusion.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
May 28, 2024

Is Autism Allowed in the Military? Short Answer is No.

Understanding Autism in the Military

Navigating the path of military service can be a complex journey, especially for individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). To comprehend the relationship between the military and autism, it is necessary to first understand what ASD is and how the military perceives it.

Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects communication, behavior, and social interaction. The symptoms and severity of ASD can vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may lead independent lives and possess unique skills and talents that are of value in various fields.

Military's Perspective on Autism

In the context of the military, ASD is considered a "disqualifying condition" by the U.S. Department of Defense. This means that individuals diagnosed with autism are often turned away from military service due to their diagnosis. This policy has been the subject of controversy and debate, as it excludes a group of individuals who may possess unique abilities that could potentially benefit the military.

One such example is Tory Ridgeway, a teen who had to forgo his dream of a military future in the U.S. Navy due to these exclusionary policies. His story is a testament to the struggles and disappointments that individuals with autism face when they aspire to serve their country.

Despite these challenges, there have been efforts to accommodate individuals with autism in the military. According to Stephanie Miller from the Department of Defense, about 1,800 applicants with ASD have undergone the waiver process, with approximately 500 of them receiving approval based on their history of ASD [1].

Furthermore, some experts argue that individuals with autism can bring unique insights and skills to the military. Researcher Cortney Weinbaum at RAND Corporation suggests that national security challenges require a variety of brain types to work on them and excluding individuals with autism does not make sense.

Organizations like Operation Autism are also providing much-needed support to military families with children diagnosed with autism. They offer resources, information, and services tailored to their unique needs.

In summary, while the current military perspective on autism tends to be exclusionary, there are efforts underway to recognize and accommodate the unique skills and abilities that individuals with autism can bring to the armed forces. The road to inclusion might be challenging, but every step taken is a step closer to breaking stereotypes and empowering dreams.

Challenges Faced by Individuals with Autism

Individuals with autism face unique challenges in various aspects of their lives, one of which is their aspiration to serve in the military. This section explores the difficulties encountered by these individuals when they try to join the military, focusing on the military's stance on autism and personal stories that bring these issues to life.

Disqualifying Condition in the Military

Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense considers autism spectrum disorder (ASD) a "disqualifying condition" for joining the military. This policy presents a significant barrier to individuals with autism who dream of serving their country, causing many candidates to be turned away due to their diagnosis.

Despite these restrictions, there are processes in place that allow individuals with certain medical conditions to pursue enlistment. One such process is the medical waiver, which provides an opportunity for candidates with disqualifying conditions to be reconsidered. However, obtaining such a waiver can be a challenging and often unsuccessful endeavor, as illustrated by the personal stories discussed in the next section.

Personal Stories and Experiences

Tory Ridgeway, a teen with a "mild" and "fully controlled" form of autism, had his dream of joining the Navy thwarted due to his diagnosis. Despite being a Navy-ROTC scholarship recipient, Ridgeway's scholarship was put on hold because of his autism. He appealed for a medical waiver to pursue his military dreams during New Student Indoctrination (NSI), but his appeal was unfortunately denied.

In addition to the challenges individuals with autism face when attempting to join the military, families of children with autism also encounter difficulties when preparing for Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves. The need for routine, anticipated changes, and potential disruptive behaviors inherent in autism can make these moves particularly challenging.

These personal stories and experiences highlight the significant obstacles faced by individuals with autism who aspire to serve in the military. They underscore the need for more inclusive policies and supportive measures to help these individuals realize their dreams of serving their country.

Navigating the Military with Autism

Navigating a career in the military can be a complex process for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, it's not impossible. Certain provisions and support mechanisms are in place to facilitate their journey.

The Waiver Process

Despite ASD being considered a "disqualifying condition" by the U.S. Department of Defense, individuals with autism can still pursue enlistment via a medical waiver process. The waiver process is designed to evaluate the individual's ability to perform military duties despite their diagnosis.

The waiver process can be opaque and lengthy, but it's not without success. According to Stephanie Miller from the Department of Defense, out of approximately 1,800 applicants with an autism diagnosis who have gone through the waiver process, about 500 applicants have been approved based on their history of ASD [1].

Number of Applicants Applicants Approved
1,800 500

Despite the challenges, the waiver process provides an opportunity for individuals with autism who are passionate about serving in the military to demonstrate their capabilities and potential.

Support for Military Members with Autism

While ASD is a disqualifying condition for aspiring military members, it's worth noting that active duty military members who receive an autism diagnosis can continue their service while receiving support [1].

One such example is Maj. Daniel Kiser, who received an autism diagnosis after nearly 10 years of service with the U.S. Air Force. Despite his diagnosis, Kiser continued in his role as an instructor in the Air Force Special Operations Command and even assists in reviewing the eligibility standards for autism used by the military.

This demonstrates that individuals with autism can make valuable contributions to the military when given the right support and opportunities. The key lies in understanding and harnessing the unique strengths and abilities of individuals with ASD, and ensuring they receive the necessary support to navigate their military careers.

Benefits of Having Autism in the Military

Despite the stereotypes and challenges associated with autism, individuals with this diagnosis can offer unique benefits to the military. The strengths and abilities associated with autism can substantially contribute to the military's operations, diversity, and overall efficiency.

Unique Strengths and Abilities

People with autism often possess unique strengths and abilities that the military values and seeks. Some of these attributes include attention to detail, pattern recognition, analytical thinking, focus, and persistence. These qualities are integral to many functions within the complex organization of the military.

One of the main strengths of individuals with autism is their ability to observe and analyze patterns. This skill can be particularly useful in roles that require data analysis, code breaking, and strategic planning. Furthermore, their high level of focus and persistence can be beneficial in tasks that require a high level of precision and consistency.

It's noteworthy that while about 26% of children with autism are profoundly impacted, often intellectually disabled, the remaining 74% should not be disqualified from joining the military solely because they are on the autism spectrum [1].

Contributions to the Military

The inclusion of individuals with autism in the military not only benefits the individuals themselves by providing meaningful employment opportunities, but also contributes to the organization's diversity, efficiency, and innovative problem-solving capacity.

Cortney Weinbaum, a researcher at RAND Corporation, highlights that national security challenges require various brain types to work on them, suggesting that disqualifying individuals with autism from the military does not make sense.

Moreover, the military is actively working to provide support for individuals with autism who are serving. This includes providing accommodations for sensory processing issues, social skills training, additional structure or predictability in daily routines, and access to medical and mental health services.

In conclusion, individuals with autism can make significant contributions to the military. Recognizing and valuing their unique strengths and abilities is a positive step towards a more inclusive and diverse military. This, in turn, can lead to increased efficiency, better decision-making, and more innovative problem-solving strategies.

Advocating for Inclusion

In the path of advocating for increased inclusivity, understanding and addressing the misconceptions surrounding autism is crucial. Equally important is the role of providing adequate support and accommodations for individuals with autism in the military.

Addressing Misconceptions

A prevalent misconception is that individuals with autism can't serve in the military, which is not entirely accurate. While the U.S. Department of Defense does consider having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be a “disqualifying condition”, there are instances where individuals with autism are serving in the military with support and accommodations.

For example, Maj. Daniel Kiser, who received an autism diagnosis after nearly 10 years of service with the U.S. Air Force, continued his role as an instructor in the Air Force Special Operations Command. He also assists in reviewing the eligibility standards for autism used by the military. Stories like Maj. Kiser's help break down misconceptions and showcase the potential of individuals with autism in the military.

Providing Support and Accommodations

The military is actively working on providing support for individuals with autism who are serving. This includes accommodations for sensory processing issues, social skills training, additional structure or predictability in daily routines, and access to medical and mental health services.

Inclusion also involves recognizing the unique strengths and talents that individuals with autism can bring to military service. For instance, they can be highly detail-oriented, have innovative problem-solving skills, and contribute to diversity and inclusion within the organization. They also provide meaningful employment opportunities and can increase efficiency.

However, it's important to note that inclusion isn't about a blanket approach. The military must carefully assess each individual's abilities and challenges, considering not only the autism diagnosis but also any co-occurring conditions or challenges they may have [3].

In advocating for inclusion, it's crucial to balance the rights and dreams of individuals with autism, while ensuring that the necessary support, understanding, and accommodations are in place. This will go a long way in breaking stereotypes and creating a more inclusive military environment.

Moving Forward

As society progresses, so do our perspectives and understanding of autism and its potential impact on various sectors, including the military. This progress paves the way for numerous opportunities for individuals with autism and allows for a more inclusive future.

Opportunities for Individuals with Autism

The military is increasingly recognizing the unique strengths and abilities that individuals with autism bring to the table. These include attention to detail, pattern recognition, and analytical thinking, all of which are highly valued in the military. Moreover, individuals with autism are often highly focused and persistent, qualities that align well with the demands of military service [3].

In addition to providing a unique set of skills, individuals with autism can contribute to the diversity and inclusion within the military, offering innovative problem-solving skills, meaningful employment opportunities, and increased efficiency. Thus, enlisting individuals with autism not only benefits the individuals themselves but also enriches the military as a whole [3].

Future Outlook for Inclusion

The military is making strides towards a more inclusive environment for individuals with autism. They are actively working to provide the necessary support, including accommodations for sensory processing issues, social skills training, additional structure or predictability in daily routines, and access to medical and mental health services.

However, it is crucial that the military continues to carefully assess each individual's abilities and challenges before enlisting them. This assessment should not only consider the individual's autism diagnosis but also any co-occurring conditions or challenges they may have.

Stepping into the future, it is encouraging to see more recognition of the potential and capabilities of individuals with autism in the military. As highlighted by researcher Cortney Weinbaum at RAND Corporation, national security challenges require various brain types to work on them, suggesting that disqualifying individuals with autism does not make sense.

With continued advocacy and education, the question of "is autism allowed in the military" may soon become obsolete, replaced instead with a discussion about how individuals with autism can best serve and contribute to the military. As society moves forward, it is our responsibility to foster an environment of inclusion and acceptance, where individuals with autism are not only allowed but also empowered to reach their full potential.

References

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

[2]: https://operationautism.org/

[3]: https://carebotaba.com/military-recruits-autism/