The Army’s relationship with autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other cognitive diagnoses that are collectively called neurodivergent is . . . complicated.
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.
Service members with ADHD—across military services—described having to give up the prescription medications that have helped them for years because use of prescription drugs would make them not deployable. Some people with ADHD ironically described that in a deployed environment a person with ADHD would be least likely to need their medications, because the deployed environment would likely provide all the stimulation their brain needs. This nonmedical theory—which has never been studied—suggests the prohibition against medicating is actually counterproductive to the military because it prevents the recruitment of persons who may demonstrate hyperfocus in a war zone, simply because outside of a war zone the management of their condition requires a non-lifesaving medication.
Olympic gold medal–winning gymnast Simone Biles has spoken publicly about needing daily prescription medications to manage her ADHD, and Sports Illustrated has published stories about autistic elite athletes. As a child, Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins was diagnosed with autism. And billionaire inventor and CEO Elon Musk—regardless of what you might think of him personally—has climbed to enormous success with autism. Clearly, these diagnoses do not preclude athletic excellence, superb communication, or technological innovation.
The CEO of a defense contracting firm said that his autistic workforce tags geospatial imagery with high precision rates and low error rates. He bragged that his autistic employees could look at a blurry satellite image with foliage in the way and tell the difference between a Russian MiG aircraft, a Ukrainian MiG, and a Russian MiG painted like a Ukrainian MiG.
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.
Our research found that “within the U.S. population, an estimated 5–20 percent of people are dyslexic, 9.4 percent of children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and more than 2 percent of the U.S. population is autistic.” Another study indicated that nearly two-thirds of American children who are diagnosed with ADHD are on prescription medications. Despite the recruitment challenges it is currently facing, the Army continues to make personnel decisions based on last century’s understanding of these diagnoses.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, generally only children who exhibited the most severe symptoms were diagnosed with these conditions. Today, in the 2020s, doctors and researchers describe these diagnoses as “spectrums,” and practitioners have more sophisticated assessment methods for diagnosing people who previously—in my childhood—would have been labeled as “normal.” This opens up a world of interventions and services for people who might otherwise have suffered in silence. As research continues to advance, practitioners are realizing how vastly different the symptoms present for girls and women than for boys and men, and how cultural differences across races and ethnicities lead symptoms to present widely differently across populations, even within the United States.
All of these advancements have resulted in people who in the past might have only barely graduated from high school now achieving advanced education degrees and living highly productive lives. (Economic barriers to interventions remain, which is a topic for a different article.) When such candidates reach an Army recruiting station, with its vague policies and inconsistent practices on this issue, they might already have a high school diploma, a college degree, or even an advanced degree.
Yet neurodivergent military and civilian officials across the national security enterprise—beyond just the Army—described living in the closet, comparing themselves to the LGBTQ community during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. They described a forced choice—either hiding their diagnoses and paying the mental costs of doing so or revealing their diagnoses and risking discrimination, bias, and even the possibility of military discharge. They described careers that they love too much to risk losing by disclosing a diagnosis.
The Department of the Army and the Department of Defense have no single policy that, if changed, would completely reverse this paradigm. Rather, this paradigm exists because a series of policies, practices, and biases have settled in place over decades. You, dear reader, could start to change that.
First, get yourself smarter about neurodivergence. Read articles and books, listen to podcasts and TED talks, and begin to notice how your community might be accommodating or unaccommodating to neurodiversity. Learn how to create psychological safety in your unit, even if you are not the unit’s leader. Learn about expressing vulnerability in order to create environments where others feel welcome to be vulnerable too. Do not confront people about your suspicion that they might have a diagnosis; maybe they do and they are not ready to talk with you about it or maybe they have never been assessed before and would be offended by the implication. If you are a leader in a large organization, consider starting a neurodivergence affinity group where employees can network, support, and mentor each other without having to disclose diagnoses.
While conducting the RAND study, I imagined how I might hide my nearsighted vision from my employer, if only perfect vision was allowed at work. I could do it, if I had to. I would struggle to get through the day without glasses, and I would probably come home with a terrible headache from straining my eyes. Each day I would wake up and do it all over again. If the Army were to treat neurodivergence as a spectrum, like it treats vision, then service members might not have to hide. Perhaps the Army would provide service members with accommodations (similar to issuing eyeglasses), and perhaps the loosening of stigma associated with these diagnoses would improve recruitment, and the Army might reap the benefits of neurodiversity.
Cortney Weinbaum is a senior national security researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan, RAND Corporation. 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.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Kayla Benson, US Army