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Monday, June 19, 2023

Autism and the Army

Courtney Weinbaum at the Modern War Institute:
Autistic soldiers, and soldiers with other neurodivergent diagnoses, are already serving on active duty, in many cases in secret—hiding their diagnoses from the Army—and I know this because they called to tell me. My team at the RAND Corporation published the first study ever conducted in the United States about neurodiversity and national security, and as word spread that we were conducting this research, my phone started ringing. Based on my conversations, this is what I think the autistic and neurodivergent soldiers in your unit want you to know.

They are intelligence officers, cyber operations officers, company commanders, and in other jobs. They likely entered the military before they were diagnosed, and they went outside the military health system—and dug into their own pockets—to get assessed during adulthood. Or they are waiting until after retirement to seek official diagnoses, though they already have a deep sense of what the results will be. They fear losing the careers they love if their diagnoses were to become known, they described being bullied in the past by classmates or coworkers because of their conditions, and they described the mental cost and exhaustion of hiding their symptoms to pass as “normal” at work.

While neurodivergent diagnoses are not automatically disqualifying from Army service, any new recruit who reveals a diagnosis jumps through hoops to serve. Some described having to prove that their diagnoses do not impede their ability to serve, which puts the burden on an eighteen-year-old to prove a negative for which the Army has no assessment criteria.


Our research found peer-reviewed studies reporting that neurodivergent people outperform neurotypical people at recognizing patterns in a distracted environment, on intelligence tests using nonverbal testing methods, and at achieving states of hyperfocus. The one study we found about ethics and neurodivergence found that autistic research subjects were more likely to behave ethically even when it was at a personal cost than neurotypical subjects. If this research holds true, then the implications for people with security clearances is enormous.

Israel, the UK, and Australia already have autism programs in their national security organizations. Multibillion-dollar companies EY and Google proactively recruit neurodivergent candidates, because of the value both companies have reaped from these cadres of employees.