Defying stereotypes: Shachak Shriki and another 400 young adults with special needs are today proud volunteers and soldiers in the IDF.

Shriki was diagnosed with autism at the age of 15. At 19, Shriki, of Kiryat Ono, is a proud soldier serving on the IAF Palmachim base. Like many of his Israeli peers, his earliest dreams were about the day when he would graduate high school and enlist in the IDF, serve his country and safeguard his people.

But, growing up, there was something that perpetually set Shachak apart from his peers.

“My parents and I knew for many years that there was something different about me, although we didn’t understand exactly what it was,” recalls Shachak. “When I was finally diagnosed with autism at the age of 15, I said to myself, ‘Hey, that sounds so like me.’”

When he was 17, and most of his classmates received their call-up notices, Shachak received an automatic exemption. "I was exempt from military service, but I wanted very much to enlist,” Shachak recounts. “My Mom always told me: ‘You are not only autistic, you are so many other things and you can do so much.’”

Shachak didn’t only believe his mom; he believed in himself, as well, and he refused to take no for an answer. Despite his diagnosis and the odds against him, there was no doubt in his mind that he would yet fulfill his dream of being a soldier.

Intensive effort, research, and a stroke of fortune led him to encounter Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Ariel Almog, Chairman of the IDF’s pioneering Special in Uniform project which incorporates 400 young men and women with autism range of disabilities into military service in 25 bases across the country. Highly impressed by the young man’s potential, skills, and perseverance, Almog recruited Shachak into Special in Uniform, and since then, Shachak has been volunteering on the Palmachim airbase in the transport unit.

A collaborative effort of Lend A Hand to A Special Child, the IDF, and JNF-USA, Special in Uniform is a program integrating young people with physical and mental disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces, and in turn into Israeli society. It focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant and incorporates him or her into the IDF based on the belief that everyone belongs and has the right to achieve his full potential.

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 and eventually the job market.

Special in Uniform staff assists Shachak and his colleagues in the program to help them cope with the challenges that they face in the course of their service and surmount them. They likewise meet with the programs’ commanders on a regular basis.

For Shachak and his 400 friends in Special in Uniform, World Autism Awareness Day is an expression of public commitment to a world and society that embraces individuals like them with autism and teaches others to relate to them with positivity and warmth.

In a special event hosted to mark World Autism Awareness Day, Israel President Reuven Rivlin, who is a vocal supporter of Special in Uniform, stated: “Estimates place some 25,000 Israelis on what we now know to refer to as the ‘autism spectrum’. This means that every one of us knows someone—an adult or child—who deals with autism. There is also a steady rise in individuals being diagnosed every year. This compels the State of Israel and our society to promote treatment and support for people with autism and their families, from birth until old age.”

“The integration of children and adults with autism in society is an important priority that each and every one of us can facilitate,” continued Rivlin. “We need to go beyond the familiar, to try to meet and appreciate the wonderful people hidden beneath the label ‘autism.’ We need to want to do a little more for them, and certainly not to use the term in a derogatory fashion.”

Lihi Lapid, whose daughter is on the autistic spectrum and serves in the IDF in the framework of Special in Uniform, is an activist for children and adults with autism. Meeting recently with the JNF Taskforce on Disabilities, she expressed, “There are people who fight to listen, and people who fight to be heard even when they have no voice. I am here, trying to explain in words that my daughter lacks, what it means to be autistic.”

On May 16th, a Special in Uniform delegation will be visiting Atlanta to share their story of inclusion in the IDF.