Sep 17 , 2020

Young man with autism cracks codes in top-secret IDF cyber unit

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Credit: Rivka Zand

Itai Kaufman, 24, who received an automatic military exemption after being diagnosed with ASD. But he was determined to serve.

Some autistic persons show exceptional talents despite general functional and social disability. Along with the difficulties, autism can invoke remarkable abilities, including phenomenal memory, math skills, three-dimensional thinking, musical and artistic aptitude, honesty, and the ability to focus intensely on an interest. Many individuals with autism also exhibit “splinter skills” or “islets of ability,” which means they possess inordinate talent in specifics area of interest. About 1 in 10 individuals with autism possess specific skills in which they excel far beyond the average population.

For as long as he can remember, Itai knew that he was different from his peers, special, highly-intelligent and capable, but still different. Sometime in middle school, he heard a lecture about ASD and mused, ‘Hey! That sounds just like me!’ Yet it still took another five long years, until he was 18, before he received an official diagnosis. Needless to say, he received an automatic military exemption instead of the coveted call-up order.

“Unlike many who are ecstatic to be exempt, I was devastated,” relates Itai. “I very much wanted to join the army. I felt a strong sense of commitment to the courageous Israeli soldiers who’d protected me throughout the years, and I was determined to realize my dream and give back to our country.” A family friend, who serves as an IAF pilot, referred him to Special in Uniform. This revolutionary program of the Israel Defense Forces in conjunction with JNF-USA incorporates young people with autism and mild physical and mental disabilities into Israel’s military, offering them training and skills that empower them to integrate long-term into society and the workforce. The program accentuates the unique talents of each participant and places him or her into an appropriate setting within the IDF. Breaking down societal barriers and fostering widespread acceptance of social diversity, Special in Uniform focuses on the ability, not disability, of each individual, and encourages independence, inclusion and full integration into society.

“In the past, whenever I found myself among a large crowd, I would sit on the side, longing for someone to approach and talk to me,” Itai reminisces. Yet his very first encounter with his fellow Special in Uniform recruits taught him that circumstances had changed. “For the very first time in my life, I was meeting kids just like me—kids on the spectrum. Knowing that we were all in the same boat gave me the courage to approach them, and today, I’m friends with all of them.”

“I was a bit skeptical about the whole program in the beginning. Only when I saw Itai on base, fully integrated, using his skills, flourishing in the army, and respected by others, did I begin to appreciate the significance of Special in Uniform,” Yizhar Kaufman, Itai’s dad, admits.

A computer whiz with incredible stamina and superior problem-solving skills, Itai was recruited into a specialized IDF cyber department and awarded high-security clearance for this purpose. He garners immense satisfaction from solving complex problems that mystify regular people and, despite his disability, his phenomenal achievements have earned him the admiration and respect of his superiors. He relates that “Just yesterday, after I was already home, I got a call from the base asking me to help them solve a particular problem that was so urgent, it couldn’t wait until morning.”

“Special in Uniform is an incredible program that imbues teens with autism and other disabilities with confidence. In the past, Itai suffered from very low self-esteem, but here they gave him confidence, uplifting him and facilitating him in every realm of life, from personal to vocational. They taught him vital life skills that he lacked, like hygiene, communication and acceptable social interactions, and the strict framework and supervision has led him to attain outstanding feats,” his dad continues.

Special in Uniform’s three-year volunteer training program culminates with graduating youths receiving their soldier’s IDs and being placed in military bases across Israel where they cull from the knowledge and skills that they acquired to perform important jobs on base, forget their disabilities and focus instead on their versatile abilities and talents. At Special in Uniform, youngsters with low self-worth mature into independent, confident young men and women who believe in themselves and their abilities. Throughout their years of military service, they acquire important social and life skills that empower them to meld seamlessly into society and, later, the workforce.

“I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t know how to stop,” Itai confesses. “I knew that once I chose to join the army, I was in it all the way; there was no way that I was going to give up.” After three years spent volunteering in the army, he is now a full-fledged soldier, and exceedingly proud of it. Obviously, Itai’s role in the army, like every significant role, comes with its fair share of challenges. Yet Special in Uniform’s professional faculty is there for him every step of the way, escorting him throughout his years of service and keeping in constant touch with him and his superiors.

Following his success in deciphering codes and solving intricate problems that others in the top-secret cyber military department can’t dream of solving, Itai recently received an award for military excellence from the army for his remarkable contributions to the country.

“It was the best day of my life,” he expresses. “There’s nothing harder for me than feeling unproductive, and I know that if I stare at a problem long enough, I’ll understand it and be able to solve it.”

Not only is Itai making a difference to the nation’s security, but he’s also making a major difference in the personal lives of many young people with ASD or other mild disabilities, serving as a paragon of one who surmounted the odds, defied fate, and achieved what everyone said was impossible.

“There are hundreds of kids like me, kids ‘on the spectrum’ who were told throughout their lives ‘You can’t do it’ or at best, ‘You can’t do it as well as others.’ My message to all of them is that you’re the only ones who can decide if you can or can’t. And when you decide that you can, go for it and realize your dreams!”

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