Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day Tribute: Recognizing Veterans with Differences

November 11 is the day we usually honor United States Veterans. However, today is the day marked on the calendar as the observance day for U.S. Veterans. (So if you live in the U.S., don't bother checking your mailboxes.)

Although I recognize the sacrifice of all military personnel, this post is dedicated to the men and women with ASD who have served in the military. We, as a society, are just starting to get better at recognizing the signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) including Asperger's Syndrome. There are a lot of people out there (most likely born before the 1990s) who have always known that they are different, but do not know they have Asperger's Syndrome or high functioning autism.

In the past, many of these people were described as weird, odd, geeky or nerdy, but were not suspected of having a neurological difference. This makes me wonder how many people with Asperger's Syndrome (Aspies) or High Functioning Autism have served in the military. I'm sure that while some people with unidentified ASD were sent home during basic training as being adaptable to military life, others did quite well and thrived because of the rigid structure of military life. (Not all Aspies do well with rigid structure, but for others a strict schedule is most welcome.) Some of the "quirks " of Aspies often include having a specialized knowledge or skill. Many people with Asperger's Syndrome or autism are actually quite bright and have gifts that could benefit the military.

It may have been a good thing that our society has not had a good record of identifying ASD, which has really only been acknowledged since the 1940s. "Infantile Autism" was described by Leo Kanner in 1943. Hans Asperger wrote the paper describing what is now labeled "Asperger's Sydrome" in 1944. Nowadays, it is getting easier to spot an Aspie or someone with autism, although there are still segments of the population who are still clueless about ASD.

Why might it have been a good thing that our society has not been able to recognize Asperger's Syndrome? Because, having the label might have meant that qualified individuals who would have done quite well in the military would have been discouraged from joining the military by parents, mentors and maybe even recruiters (unlikely now because recruitment is down because of the war with Iraq).

By now, those of you who are up-to-date with autism-related news, may be thinking of Jared Guinther, the boy (described as having moderate to low functioning autism) who was recruited into the army in 2006. To the relief of his parents he will not be labeled a U.S. Army Veteran in five or so years. To those of you unfamiliar with the story, Jared signed up with a recruiter after being lured with a hefty sign-up bonus and a college scholarship. He passed a test in an Army Recruiter's office and was soon pegged to be a cavalry scout, which has been described as one of the most dangerous jobs in the armies.

His concerned parents (who feared their would die in Iraq) took Jared's story to the media and wrote their local congressman. As a result of his parents' efforts and a focus put on unethical recruitment methods, Jared was released from his military contract. I do not blame the parents. I would not want to let my own impaired son go to Iraq and in some ways I am grateful that my young patriot has a huge medical file that may disqualify him from service. My guy has known the Pledge of Allegiance since the age of four and most of the words for The Star Spangled Banner since the age of seven so I believe it to be quite possible that military life might tempt him someday.

However, although I think it's probably a good thing that Guinther will not be serving in Iraq, I do know that people with ASD can surprise us sometimes. Who, really, can accurately predict how anyone will do in battle? There have been plenty of soldiers without ASD who have frozen up in battle, died, or have been inadvertently responsible for the death of a comrade. People with ASD are all different, so the ability to serve in the military should be reviewed on a case by case basis. They should not be automatically be disqualified from the military based on the respective label. It's hard enough for some people with ASD to get jobs as it is. For those of you still concerned: Remember that if a person is truly incompetent, it is likely that the individual will fail basic training and be sent home.

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