Success on the Spectrum: Nurturing Neurodiversity on Team GEOINT

The U.S. military and Intelligence Community (IC) can’t afford to exclude any pool of talent from its recruiting efforts—including those with autism

In Israel, where conscription is compulsory, military service is a rite of passage. Like his peers, young Israeli Neta Geffen, therefore, dreamed of joining the army upon finishing high school. There was just one problem: Geffen is autistic.

When Geffen was diagnosed with autism as a child, his parents were warned that he would never be accepted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) because of his status on the spectrum. In 2008, however, IDF lifted its long-held ban on autistic service members, who theretofore had received automatic exemptions along with those who are excused on religious, physical, or legal grounds.

Geffen was part of the program’s inaugural class. “It’s a great honor, but also a great responsibility,” he said of his service during a 5-minute video about Ro’im Rachok.

That video was the opening act of “Differences Adding Dimension: Neurodiversity in ‘Team GEOINT,’” a 45-minute panel discussion about neurodiverse talent in the GEOINT community that took place Monday morning on the main stage at GEOINT 2023 in St. Louis. Moderated by Brigitte Custer, vice president for space and intelligence at CGI Federal, it featured Ro’im Rachok co-founder and CEO Tal Vardi, along with three other distinguished panelists: former National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Letitia Long, chair of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); Vietta Williams, director of human development at NGA; and Jami Rodgers, director of the Procurement Strategic Operations Division at NASA.

During their time on stage, panelists echoed the statements of Ranan Hartman, founder and CEO of Ono Academic College, which helped establish Ro’im Rachok over a decade ago. “This is not a project of charity,” he said during the session’s opening video. “This is a project of excellence.”

Long, in particular, emphasized that point during her remarks on stage. Given the scale and scope of threats to America, she said, the U.S. military and Intelligence Community (IC) can’t afford to exclude any pool of talent from its recruiting efforts—including those with autism, who now represent approximately one in every 36 children born in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.

“There is no shortage of national security challenges,” Long said. “Why would we exclude a portion of our folks who can be a contributing part of our workplace? We need everyone.”

It’s not just about bodies. Importantly, it’s about capabilities.

“Everyone is different. They experience and interact with their surroundings differently,” Long continued. “There is no one, right way of thinking or learning or behaving. And those differences shouldn’t be seen as deficits. Oftentimes, they’re superpowers.”

In order to leverage those superpowers, the federal government and others in the GEOINT community must not only rethink their recruitment and management practices, but also reengineer them, panelists said. Consider what it takes to onboard someone into the IC. The hiring process includes job interviews, security clearances, and polygraphs, all of which are biased toward neurotypical individuals. Because of their unique social and cognitive behaviors, people on the spectrum often fail to clear those conventional hiring hurdles.

According to Williams and Rodgers, both NGA and NASA are doing their part to create inclusive hiring practices that welcome neurodiverse talent into their organizations. NGA, for example, recently completed a pilot program based on Ro’im Rachok. NASA, meanwhile, has NASA’s Neurodiversity Network (N3), which provides a pathway to NASA participation and employment for neurodiverse learners.

“Whether it’s space exploration, aeronautics, or cutting-edge technologies, we have a very broad portfolio that spans the globe and the universe. And when we’re building our teams, we need broad teams that take in all types of different thinkers,” Rodgers said of NASA. “Folks on the spectrum bring unique capabilities. A lot of NASA’s mission is first-of-its-kind, so we can’t think of things the same way all the time. We need new thinkers and new ideas.”

What NASA needs, every government, military, and commercial organization also needs, according to Rodgers, whose remarks included a call to action for all of Team GEOINT.

“My big ask is not to advocate for folks in underrepresented communities, but to think of some way you can take action—audacious action—to support some of the various programs you’ve heard about today,” he concluded. “My question is: If not now, when?”


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