At conference of intelligence community professionals, I briefly stood up to describe a study my team was embarking on — the first ever conducted in the United States about neurodiversity and national security. Anyone who wanted to discuss it, I said, could find me later by the coffee table.Two women introduced themselves as autistic senior intelligence officers. One was a leader at her agency; the other a highly seasoned intelligence officer. Both said their wish is for their autistic colleagues to be able to serve out of the closet, “like the LGBTQ community can.”
My team set out to examine whether neurodiversity — the diversity of all cognitive functions — would offer benefits to U.S. national security, as it has for Israel, the UK, and Australia. But we found that archaic U.S. military and federal policies, combined with decades-old understandings about autism spectrum disorder, create an environment where people hide their autism and other cognitive diagnoses.
The official Department of Defense policy is to exclude all autistic candidates from military service — with no exceptions. The reality is much more complicated.
The people we spoke to were often diagnosed after they joined the military. They described going outside of the military health system to pursue a diagnosis in secret during adulthood. A widely held perception among the service members we spoke to is that their 10 or 20 years of successful military promotions could be erased if an autism diagnosis becomes known — even though that condition would have existed since early childhood.
Cortney Weinbaum is a senior national security researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan, Rand Corp. She is the author of the study “Neurodiversity and National Security: How to Tackle National Security Challenges with a Wider Range of Cognitive Talents.” She is a former intelligence officer.