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29 Nov 2022

Neurodiversity Among Service Members in the U.S. Military

The term “neurodiversity” is often used in the context of neurological and/or developmental differences (e.g., autism spectrum disorder [ASD], attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], dyslexia). It refers to the unique ways that human beings think, learn, and operate (Baumer & Frueh, 2021). Research has shown that many people diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions are likely to have higher-than-average skills in areas such as pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics (Austin & Pisano, 2017). Individuals with these specific skills and abilities are well-suited for a variety of professional paths, including military service.

Within the United States (U.S.) Military, there are a variety of programs and services available for military families with neurodivergent dependents. These include the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) and Early Intervention Services. (However, while researching these programs, we were unable to find information on resources for neurodivergent Service members.) This piece will discuss neurodivergence among U.S. Service members; how another country, Israel, practices inclusion within their service; and a call to action moving forward.

Neurodivergence Among U.S. Service Members

Though we did not complete a comprehensive literature search, data on the prevalence of neurodivergence among Service members were not readily available in an online search using the terms “neurodivergent Service members” and “neurodivergence in the U.S. Military.” But keeping in mind that an estimated 15-20% of the world's population will experience neurodiversity in some way (National Cancer Institute, 2022), it is likely that our Service members will experience neurodiversity at similar rates. We were left with the burning question…Why isn’t there data publicly available on the prevalence of neurodiversity in the U.S. Military?

Our search revealed that the U.S. Military has strict regulations regarding the admission of individuals diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions. For example, those with ADHD are only permitted to serve if they meet certain criteria (e.g., they haven’t been prescribed medication in the previous 24 months), while individuals with diagnosed ASD are barred entirely (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness [OUSD(P&R)], 2018). Although there is an option for people diagnosed with ASD to be granted a medical waiver, these are considered on a case-by-case basis (OUSD(P&R), 2018), and we were unable to discover additional information about this process.

That being said, there are opportunities for neurodivergent Service members, as well as existing cases of Service members with these diagnoses in the U.S. Military. A piece published by the U.S. Air Force (Davis, 2021) highlighted Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz, who attributed his ability to navigate crises successfully to both his military training and his ASD diagnosis. The article states, “According to the U.S. Air Force Medical Standards Directory, ASD is not disqualifying for continued military service unless it is currently – or has a history of – compromising military duty or training” (Davis, 2021). Although this information seems to contradict the Department of Defense (DoD) manual on medical standards for military service (OUSD(P&R), 2018), the article does prove that there are Service members with ASD who use their unique skills and abilities to keep us safe.

Inclusion Within the Israel Defense Forces

Although we couldn’t readily find information on inclusive programs for neurodivergent Service members within the U.S. Military, we did find an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) program called Roim Rachok. The program is geared toward adults with ASD who wish to serve in the military and/or integrate into the job market (Kushner, 2019). Roim Rachok allows Service members to participate in three months of professional and work training. This is followed by an assignment to an IDF unit for additional experience, after which recruits can volunteer with the IDF (Kushner, 2019). Programs like Roim Rachok are a good foundation for U.S. Military policymakers to begin thinking of ways to create inclusive programs within the U.S. Military.

A Call To Action

Although we came up empty-handed in our search for information on neurodivergent Service members, the lack of knowledge doesn’t necessarily suggest a problem. Rather, it’s an opportunity for improvement. Having identified military medical standards’ lack of consistency, we now have a greater understanding of the challenges that neurodivergent community members face from our armed forces. So, where do we go from here?

To start, it’s okay to ask questions of those who have shared their neurodivergent status, to gain awareness and understanding of these underrepresented groups. You might ask, “What has your experience been like?” or “What is something I can do to help make things easier for you?” You can also increase accessibility and inclusion within your community by advocating for inclusive language policies at your town hall or in the organizations with which you are involved (e.g., church communities, volunteer groups). Service members and their families can reach out to their superiors for information on diversity and inclusion training; they can also connect with branch-specific family readiness groups to see how those groups approach diversity and inclusion. By doing so, we can extend the strength of our forces ¬– and our nation – past the neurotypical frame of mind.

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