On Sunday, April 2nd 2017 on the international Autism Awareness Day, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Today is the international Autism Awareness Day. I would like to share with you my impression of the moving meeting that I had in the Knesset, with Corporal Stav Salomon, a young soldier with autism, who was recruited to the IDF in the “Special in Uniform” program, and serves in the Air Force base in Palmachim. I am proud of Stav for choosing to serve in the IDF, and I thank all the project partners: The IDF, the “Yad Layeled Hameyuchad” association, and the JNF USA.”
Israel, like many developed countries, has experienced a continuous uptick in autism cases over the past decade and a half. The number of Israelis on the autism spectrum increased fivefold. Over 8,000 individuals in Israel have been diagnosed with autism. Statistics show that the numbers will constantly grow. 1 out of 100 babies is diagnosed with Autism. Over 250 infants in Israel are diagnosed annually.
Unfortunately, parents report that their child’s autistic behavior, combined with social stigma and isolation, make their lives more challenging. Autism has some unique characteristics that have created an almost perfect storm of shame and rejection. People with autism look like everyone else, but may behave very differently than expected.
At that moment, you feel the stigma that societies around the globe attach to autism. In different ways and to different degrees, people in many countries view autism as a source of disappointment, annoyance, shame or worse. But stigma is born of culture, so it may look different depending on where you live.
Partly as a means of reducing this stigma in Israel, “Special in Uniform” together with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society. The IDF is known as the “people’s army” because it goes well beyond military duty to ensure Israel’s security, and playing an important social role. It is a melting pot that brings together all sectors of Israeli society.
Our core belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential. “Special in Uniform” focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant in order to help him/her find a job within the IDF that is a perfect fit for their skills and, at the same time, helping keep Israel safe and secure.
We point to our soldiers as examples of what young people on the spectrum of autism are capable of when they have the appropriate support systems. And when implementing strict and clear guidelines for the training phase of the program.
“Special in Uniform” is a powerful voice to change the stigma, raising awareness by positive actions, and by sharing success stories. And I only wish other countries will adopt our model of inclusion.
So, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posts a personal message for his more than 2 million Facebook followers on the International Autism Awareness Day, in addition to raising awareness, it also gives people the opportunity to see the face of someone with autism so that they carry that with them in their day-to-day life.