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By Mr J.G

When one considers diversity in the New Zealand Defence Force, most immediately turn to the push to recruit underrepresented groups. Women (outside some select trades), Pasifika New Zealanders and Asian New Zealanders remain underrepresented in the organisation versus their share of the population[1], as do Māori in Officer ranks[2].

The reasons for this push rest on a simple proposition. Diverse groups produce diverse perspectives, which, when properly considered, can lead to better decision making and “improve operational effectiveness”[3]. in her PhD Thesis, Retired Captain Dr Ellen Nelson noted that “Diverse organisations have a larger talent pool, which brings diverse perspectives; allowing for better informed decisions to be made and avoiding the tunnel vision that homogenous decision-making groups may experience”[4].  

Consequently, the NZDF now employs a range of policies aimed at making the organisation a safer, better, and more rewarding place to work for previously underrepresented groups. This includes Māori, female, ethnic minority, Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender servicepeople[5].

However, one group remains unmentioned. Despite a population wide prevalence of around 0.5 – 1.5%, high functioning autism is yet to warrant a mention in any NZDF policy. For an organisation seeking to capitalise on the benefits of diverse thinking, this seems an oversight. 

Autism is a condition characterised by higher systemising abilities, difficulties with social interaction and communication, all absorbing interests, and repetitive behaviours. Genetic in its origin, people with autism have brains that simply work differently to those of the general population – in some ways to their advantage, and to others, their detriment. Diagnosed in males four times as much as it is in females, one of the most prominent theories of autism is that it is a condition of the “extreme male brain”. That is to say, that people with autism have brains that are more extreme versions of the typical male brain. This ultimately explains why people with autism tend to score even higher than the normal population on tests in which males tend to score higher in general. For instance, this includes those which involve systemising, recognising patterns and understanding logical natural and technical systems (such as the weather or computers). Conversely, they consistently score worse when it comes to communication and picking up on social cues, something which female brains tends to do better at[6].

Most people with autism also experience significant comorbidities, such as seizures, psychiatric disorders, or intellectual disabilities. However, a small subset, of around 25%, do not. These people are generally described as having high functioning autism (though the term has attracted some controversy). Despite experiencing some deficits in social interaction, this group mostly has above average intelligence, and can generally live independently[7]. ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was formerly used to describe a large proportion of this group (namely those without language delays). However, ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ has since been redefined and brought under the broader definition of autism[8].

The autistic mind is quite literally wired differently to the neurotypical (or ‘normal) mind, often in ways that can be incredibly positive. For any organisation seeking diverse perspectives, the presence of people with autism can provide an absolute guarantee of it. 

Rebel thinkers

Isaac Newton, Mozart, Elon Musk, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Alan Turing, Nicola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, William Yeats, Satoshi Tajiri, Stanley Kubrick, Greta Thunberg, Tim Burton[9, 10, 11].

These individuals are all notable for making huge contributions to their respective fields, if not utterly transforming them. They did this because all of them brought unconventional thinking styles and approaches to them. 

The place where this unconventional style came from is the trait they all share. That is, high functioning autism, which all are either confirmed or strongly suspected to possess. 

Hyper focus, obsessive interests and hyperrationality, these are some characteristics born of autism which for these individuals, have proved a blessing. In particular, it has enabled these individuals to learn and memorise vast swathes of information very quickly, show an increased attention to detail, and an enhanced ability to not just logically solve problems, but also to draw logical connections between seemingly unrelated ideas[12, 13].

In a military setting, these characteristics could offer a huge advantage. While people with autism are often chastised for their lack of adherence to social rules, this can in many cases, offer benefits to the organisation. Possessing impaired abilities to discern others’ thoughts, emotions, and unspoken intentions, those with autism are often blessed with both an unwavering adherence to logical principle and are unlikely to account for social or emotional factors in their decision-making process[ 14, 15, 16].

While generally a disability in social settings, this can be a huge advantage in settings that require rational evaluation and decision making. In a study in 2016, researchers at Kings’ College London observed both neurotypical (normal) and autistic participants abilities to make economically rational decisions. They found that the neurotypical cohort, while highly socially aware, were incredibly susceptible to emotionally driven analysis and framing effects. Conversely, their autistic peers, while possessing a general lack of social intelligence, were far less likely to use their intuition or emotion when making decisions. Instead, they relied much more on only the logically relevant factors (the data) to guide their analysis– ultimately leading to better decision making[17].

By not considering emotional responses, those with autism are unlikely to be influenced by emotional or social factors in their analytical and decision-making processes – instead they are only likely to focus on what is logical[18]. This may well be the very reason why so many people with autism have made scientific breakthroughs in the highly logic driven fields of science, mathematics, and information technology.  

The Military Application

As the technology gap in military power widens, those armies without conventional power, both state and non-state, are increasingly forced to rely on unconventional means. In the past few weeks, the possibilities of that became clear, as the Taliban, a seemingly rag tag rebel group equipped with primarily with Soviet era weaponry and Toyota Hiluxes, seized the nation of Afghanistan. Despite facing the much larger and better trained and equipped Afghan National Army, they faced practically no resistance, illustrating the fundamental weaknesses of conventional forces to unconventional tactics. 

As the Taliban celebrate their victory, our potential rivals will be closely studying the conflict and the lessons it offers for any future wars against both ourselves and our allies. US military might was once seen as invincible. However, the fact that it, the NATO alliance, and its partners, including New Zealand and Australia, have proven incapable of defeating a seemingly rag-tag insurgency despite having 20 years to do so, has quickly shattered that notion. 

When the next war comes around, strategists and politicians alike will be seeking to avoid a repeat of the Afghan nightmare. This will rely on how well new strategies are devised to defeat those actors who will now employ the Taliban playbook. Ultimately, this requires new and equally creative thinking that is neither strictly bound nor a mere derivative of that we employed in the past. 

So, could autism provide the solution to that problem? In 2021, Vice Admiral Nick Hine, Deputy Chief of the (British) Royal Navy announced he that 10 years ago, he had received a diagnosis of autism, a hugely significant achievement given the inherent social skills necessary to get to that rank in what is ultimately, a deeply social institution (as militaries always are). At his announcement, Vice Admiral Hine stated his autism had made him a better officer and encouraged those with autism to join the British Military. He stated that the only way the UK could compete with better funded and technologically superior adversaries was through “thinking differently” and hiring those with autism[19]. 

So, could autism provide the military advantage that will allow us to win wars of the future? The answer is yes, and there’s plenty of case studies from the Second World War to support it. Alan Turing, the famous cryptographer who broke the Nazi Enigma code, Enoch Powell, one of only two men to go from Private to Brigadier over the course of the war, and Field Marshall Montgomery, of El Alamein fame, all displayed characteristics that later researchers and professionals now recognise as characteristics of autism – characteristics that were key to them making the remarkable contributions that they did. 

Dr Alan Turing, OBE

Best known to the world for being played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Imitation Game, Alan Turing’s autism has been extensively studied. With only 1 friend at school, Turing made few attempts to socialise with either his peers or his academic superiors – a common quality of those with autism. He likewise had clumsy motor skills, with poor handwriting and a tendency to drop things. Further, he possessed a high-pitched voice and an almost religious adherence to his routine of always eating an apple before bed. For much of his life, it was these parts of Turing’s autism saw him alienate and isolate himself from his peers[20]. 

However, for Turing, this isolation instead seemed a source of strength, allowing him to focus on his obsessions. In particular, those were mathematics, computing and cryptography. Here, Turing’s superior powers of logical analysis and deduction, as well as his divergent and yet highly logical thinking style, common to those with autism, gave him an edge[21]. Prior to the Second World War, while studying at Cambridge, Turing laid much of the theoretical foundations for the field of computer science. 

When the second world war broke out, it was these achievements in that emergent field that saw Turing recruited to the British Government Code and Cypher school at Bletchley Park. Here, Turing was tasked with breaking the key Nazi code, the Enigma.  Here, he got the chance to put his pre-war theories to the test[22]. 

At Bletchley Park, Turing, thanks to his logical capacity and divergent thinking style, characteristic traits of those with high functioning autism, made enormous contributions to the war effort. In 1939, Turing designed the British Bombe machine (a forerunner to the computer, and which was depicted in the Imitation Game) that decrypted the Enigma code.  This was followed by Turing’s development of further statistical procedures that in turn, led to the development of the world’s first computer, the Colossus, which could break the codes in ever shorter periods of time[23].  

After the war ended, Turing’s homosexuality, which was then illegal in the United Kingdom, saw him charged and convicted. This conviction rested Turing’s own voluntary admission to a police officer, where he showed a degree of frankness and truthfulness also highly characteristic of those with autism.  Following the conviction, Turing lost his security clearance and so his job, and agreed to undergo chemical castration. Soon after, he was found dead, the cause suspected to be suicide[24]. 

While Turing is remembered more for his struggles with homosexuality, it is because of his autism that he was able to contribute as he did to the war effort. Despite lacking the social capacities of his peers, his obsessive nature, divergent thinking and rational approach to analysis, gifts of his autism, enabled the British to crack military cyphers in timeframes the Germans thought impossible. 

Brigadier Enoch Powell, MBE

A hugely controversial politician in the 1960s and 70s, Enoch Powell is best known for his “Rivers of Blood” speech on Immigration in 1967, one that ultimately kneecapped his chances of ever becoming British Prime Minister. However, prior to his foray into politics, Enoch Powell had a little known, and yet no less remarkable military career – starting a Private at the Second World War’s beginning, and ending it a Brigadier[25]. Like Turing, the abilities that allowed him to rise to that rank were some that were enhanced by his autism. 

Born in 1912, Powell was an isolated and yet precocious child. Despite, in contrast to Turing, enjoying the company of his school peers, Powell, like so many autistic children, had few friends. In particular, his aloofness, lack of warmth, obsession with his work and the intensity of both his character and expressions, including a distinct stare and lack of smiling, was off putting to those around him, and left him rather isolated. While Powell might have defied explanation to his peers, all these characteristics quite easily make sense when one realises they are traits of autism[26].

At University, Powell was a recluse, and woke up at 5am each day to begin study, habits for which he designated himself “a learning machine”[27] and indeed, earned top grades at university. To his peers however, he earned a far less endearing label; “The Hermit of Trinity” (college at Cambridge)[28]. Indeed, Powell often pondered what his peers, who were nearly as good at him at Classics, but much more social, had, that he didn’t have. After leaving Cambridge, Powell became the youngest full professor in the British Empire at the age of just 25[29].

In his early life, autism proved to be Powell’s strength as much as his great weakness. However, it is during the Second World War where we see its relevance to the military. Despite working in Australia when the War broke out and eligible to join the Australian military, Powell’s determination to die for the empire saw him rush to England so he could get in the fight early. After enlisting as a Private in the Infantry, and being quickly promoted to Lance Corporal, Powell attended an Officer Cadet course and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps[30].

Placed into the position of secretary of the joint intelligence committee, Powell’s devotion to work saw him excel. Waking at 4am every morning to digest radio reports and intelligence data, Powell’s autism, and his consequent ability to logically analyse German General Erwin Rommel’s likely next moves, proved crucial in the Battle of El Alamein[31].

According to another Officer, Powell; “who spent most of the war in Africa or places even hotter, invariably wore a shirt with collar and tie, long drill trousers and boots, a tailored drill jacket with brass buttons and regimental badges… He said that wearing his full-dress uniform kept up his morale and it certainly did not make him feel the heat more than other people” – a routine that would in no way be out of place to those with autism. He likewise noted that Powell “seemed to have no sense of guilt or of danger”, also common characteristics of those with the condition[32].

To others, Powell was frustrating. On one occasion, a fellow officer accused him of being “the most bloody-minded officer in the Middle East”.  To this, Powell responded by saying that his bloody mindedness was not borne of stubbornness or a desire to create difficulties, but a straightforward belief that he was right, and that he was determined to prove it by way of logic and empiricism[33].  

Later posted to the Burma theatre of the war, Powell’s overformal dress, overly specific use of language and strange manner (again, traits of autism) saw him occasionally suspected of being a spy. Like everywhere else he went, Powell alienated some of his peers, one of whom had taken so much of a dislike to Powell that he told a subordinate to “kindly restrain him if he was tempted to bash Powell’s brains out”[34].

Nonetheless, despite his social ineptitude, Powell’s incredible analytical capability, a gift of his autism remained strong, and he was later promoted to full colonel and then Brigadier, at which rank he served as Director of Military Intelligence in India at the age of only 32 (a rise from private to Brigadier in only 6 years). Here, Powell single handedly prepared a 470-page intelligence report detailing plans for postwar India. As always, his unwavering adherence to principle wore strong, and when his friend, an Indian officer was refused entry into the club where he was staying on the basis that he was not white, Powell promptly ordered that his things be removed so he could go and stay to wherever his friend was[35].

Powell, unlike Turing, did his wartime service in uniform, and so serves as one the best examples to support the case that autism should not be a barrier to service and advancement. Made the youngest brigadier in the entirety of the British Empire, Powell’s rapid rise is one that could only occur in wartime, where there was a pressing need to get talented individuals into positions where they could use those talents. Likewise, it is because of his autism that Powell possessed both the hyper focus, obsessive nature and analytical capacity needed to perform his wartime role to the level in which he did. 

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL 

The most famous of the three, Field Marshal Montgomery is described by the British War Museum as both unbeatable and unbearable[36]. Most known as the Commander of Commonwealth (including New Zealand) forces in North Africa, Montgomery has been lionised for securing victory at the Battle of El Alamein and so winning that campaign. In doing so, he defeated the man well regarded as World War Two Germany’s best general, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

Raised by a loveless mother, Montgomery spent his childhood being constantly beaten by a parent who had no tolerance for his oddities. Indeed, one of her favorite phrases was “go out and find Bernard is doing and tell him to stop it. Like many people with autism, Montgomery’s commitment to principle saw him holding a lifelong grudge against his mother. This even stretched to him refusing to let his own children have anything to do with her and him not attending her funeral years later[37].

Looking at Montgomery’s school reports, the indications of autism are readily apparent.  Montgomery was described as having “no charm at all”, being “mischievous by nature and individualist by character”, “self-sufficient, intolerant of authority”, “overlaid by eccentricity”, “single-minded” and yet industrious in those topics that interested him. Misunderstood, prepared to challenge authority and yet incredibly focused on topics that were of interest to him, Montgomery’s experience of childhood would seem innately familiar to virtually everyone with autism who was misunderstood at school[38].

On arriving as an Officer Cadet at Sandhurst, Montgomery’s determination to prove he was right, and so end up in arguments with his classmates or superiors, saw him almost expelled. Yet he graduated as an Infantry Officer, and after showing conspicuous gallantry in World War One, Montgomery was decorated for leading bayonet charges while severely wounded. Staying on in the Army after the war, Montgomery determined he would take “no part in social life”[39]. Indeed, his first known attempt at wooing a woman, almost 8 years after the war, illustrates the social ineptitude that his autism brought, and that would become famous later on. In proposing to a Woman 20 years his junior, Montgomery’s approach included drawing diagrams of how he would deploy his tanks and infantry in a future war. While she respected his ambition and single-mindedness, she declined his proposal of marriage[40].

As an experienced regular force officer at the onset of the rapid expansion of the army brought about by the Second World War, Montgomery was promoted to high command, where his social ineptitude continued. Described as being unable to open up to contemporaries or so much as communicate with those of his own status, Montgomery showed himself unable to understand how others might respond emotionally or how others might view his own behaviour. In many circumstances, both then as today, this could have easily resulted in his career being cut short. However, these same supposed deficits from his autism also left him, not unlike Powell, with “an Iron will and determination, (and a) complete self-confidence of the righteousness of his cause and his own abilities to attain it”, which set him apart from his peers[41].

Indeed, Montgomery’s iron confidence, combined with his lack of ability to understand others’ non-verbal communication, proved to him a strength. His brother remarked that while dancing with a girl, much more attractive than him, Montgomery was “stiff, unamusing and much more interested in shooting than in such a young girl”[42]. However, by lacking social skills and a social life, Montgomery admitted he was able to commit himself more fully to exploring and analysing his passion – war[43], and it is from that obsession and his analytical mind that he was able to see the key weaknesses in the British forces. Further by missing those social cues, Montgomery was happy to criticise that which he saw as wrong, where others, fearing implicit rules to not question the decisions of their superiors, would not[44].

This first became apparent in the trenches of the First World War, where Montgomery identified and then happily criticised Field Marshal Haig’s willingness to sustain casualties. However, in North Africa in World War Two, he held command high enough to make changes. Sensing that the key weaknesses in the British forces that would lead to defeat lay in their training and logistical capabilities, Montgomery revolutionised these. This ultimately gave them the allies the edge that would see Montgomery win victory at El Alamein and so the North African theatre of the war[45].

Many of Montgomery’s peers considered him painful to work with, a common reason as why as many as 80% of people with autism in the modern day are unemployed[46]. Yet the British high command looked past these seemingly negative aspects of his autism, and recognised Montgomery for his unique abilities – namely, the unconventional style that he brought to the battlefield and its potential to lead to victory. It was precisely because of this, that Montgomery was able to transform the allied forces into something capable of winning the war in North Africa. 

How could it work?

In those Second World War cases, the presence of these figures’ autistic characteristics, provided the allies with an edge over the axis powers. Little understood at the time, the autism of Turing, Powell and Montgomery was in that period simply viewed as eccentricity, antisocial behaviour, or genius. Indeed, it was not until around the 1990s that high functioning autism has been extensively studied. It was indeed only since then that it has become apparent that it was because of these figures’ autism that they were able to make contributions critical to the war effort. 

Yet while autism can offer enormous advantages, its perceived downsides have, in the past few decades, made it a barrier to entry and advancement in many modern militaries. In the United States[47] and United Kingdom[48], autism is considered a disqualifier for military service unless a waiver is granted.

Likewise, for those who do make it into the workforce, autism can present significant challenges. Those with Autism are almost always empathetic[49]. However, difficulties with nonverbal communication mean that most autistic peoples’ outward expressions do not generally conform to general expectations of how they would present their inner thoughts and feelings or show empathy, leading to a commonly held myth that people with autism lack empathy much as psychopaths do[50]. Autistic people’s aversions to eye contact, their modes of interaction and their use of overly specific language can often be misunderstood as signs of them being aloof, condescending and arrogant, while others are often accused of being arrogant, narcissistic or even psychopathic[ 51, 52, 53]. Unconventional approaches to problem solving or misreading slang or unwritten social rules can see them accused of doing things the wrong way or of lacking self-awareness. Likewise, the high commitment to principle and determination to work toward what is logically right can see them dismissed as lacking credibility, argumentative or uncaring of others’ feelings[54].

Indeed, what is probably the greatest struggle of those with high functioning autism, is that their differences are often invisible. Most people can quite clearly identify the autism of Raymond Babbit, played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man. However, those autistic people who present their symptoms in much more subtle ways are in turn often punished by those who expect them to behave ‘normally’. While generally highly capable (high functioning autism itself being often described as a “disorder of high intelligence”), the expectation that autistic people would approach problems and social interactions in a conventional way, can often prove a hindrance. As such, high functioning autistic people, while often having little trouble with performing clearly labelled outputs, find themselves often facing perceptions in the workplace, of more abstract and harder to define deficiencies such as being “a poor cultural fit” or “not a team player”[55].

 Because of this, those with high functioning autism have some of the worst lifetime outcomes for any demographic group, with studies in the US and UK showing them to have unemployment rates of upward of 80%[56, 57].

At present, the NZDF is unique in that it does not automatically disqualify or even screen its applicants for autism in the way that many other militaries do. Whether this is an oversight or not is unclear. Theoretically anyone with high functioning autism, and without comorbidities (including intellectual disabilities, depression, anxiety, etc.), and who otherwise meet the fitness, education, citizenship requirements, can enter the NZDF. As such, autism is unlikely to be a problem at recruitment. However, structural barriers exist that could serve to prevent autistic people from rising to those positions where their autism could add special value in the ways that the autism of Turing, Powell and Montgomery could.

On the surface, the largely rules-based system that the NZDF operates under would seem to benefit those with autism. While people with autism face challenges in deciphering unwritten rules, they are often sticklers for written rules which provide clear signposts as to what to do and what not to do[58]. As the NZDF has no shortage of policies for nearly every matter, this could be seen to be beneficial. 

However, weaknesses in those rules (either by them being vague and indistinct or improperly applied) can create challenges. While following clearly laid out rules is easy, the emphasis (common to most militaries) of stamping out individuality in foundational training processes and molding individuals into preconceived ideas of what a serviceperson should act like, makes it more difficult. People with high functioning autism almost inevitably stand out, if only for their total adherence to rules and process, though in a much less obvious ways than someone with a visually obvious difference.

Further, gaining promotion in the NZDF is not entirely based on competency or the delivery of outputs. Rather, in the modern day, it also relies heavily on achieving, in the judgement of their superiors, against more abstract criteria drawn from their level of the leadership development framework. Here, broad, and indistinct criteria from the framework, such as “modelling self-awareness” and “understand culture and group behaviour”, is left to be interpreted by their superiors based on their own understandings of what it means.  As those with autism are often misread, struggle in these areas, and approach problems in unconventional ways, this recently introduced mechanism could serve to prevent autistic personnel from advancing. Ultimately, this could reduce their changes of getting to positions where they could enhance operational effectiveness, even if they are highly capable of doing so. 

Conversely, the abilities of those World War Two figures were assessed less on abstract notions, and on their ability to do their jobs, and deliver their outputs. In the case of Turing, it was breaking German codes. In Powell’s, it was in providing analysis of intelligence, and for Field Marshall Montgomery, it was winning campaigns. Despite all three’s autistic characteristics making them controversial figures to so many around them (all had equal parts supporters and detractors), those characteristics of their autism did not prevent their advancement. The reason for this is straightforward – when placed under the pressure of total war, it becomes a matter of military necessity to get the best people to perform particular roles, a pressure that does not exist in peacetime. Consequently, despite being disliked by many around them, the three aforementioned figures were able to rise on their core abilities alone, to positions which allowed the allies to get the war winning qualities out of them. Conversely, were these figures to join the NZDF today, it could be reasonable to expect that Turing would be fired following his first Personnel and Development Report and that Powell and Montgomery wouldn’t march out of training. This means that if the LDF is to be retained, then any attempt to recruit autistic people into the NZDF and get the benefits of their diverse thinking, requires an adaptive approach – namely one that measures autistic people against their special contributions, rather than their deficits. 

How Israel makes it work

The Israeli Defence Force does exactly that. 

In 2013, two Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) veterans in the Military Intelligence Directorate were struggling with turnover. Whenever they found talented individuals with the necesarry skillsets to fill photographic decipherer roles for aerial intelligence, they quickly wanted to move up and out. Software that might have replaced these human decipherers was nowhere on the horizon. 

While searching for possible sources of talent to fill the roles, someone had a revelation. To that point, Autistic people had been excluded from IDF service, and equally, struggled in the job market, resulting in most being unemployed. Yet many of those people with autism possessed both hyper focus and enhanced abilities of logical analysis – strengths that in the area of visual analysis posed a competitive advantage. According to an Israeli researcher, they often have “a different” rather than categorically better visual perception. They seemed to approach complex visual images “objectively,” he said, unburdened by “concepts of how things are supposed to be.”[59]

These revelations gave rise to the Ro’im Rachok or ‘Looking Ahead’ programme. Thanks to this, people with autism, previously excluded from military service, were now specifically recruited into photographic deciphering roles. Here, their unique thinking styles were not only utilised in suitable roles where they proved an advantage, but these individuals were able to enjoy advancement and promotion based upon their contributions[60].

As such, the programme has been so successful that it has since expanded. While once restricted to photographic deciphering, people with autism are now actively recruited into other military intelligence and signals roles, where, like Powell and Turing before them, these personnel have excelled[61, 62]. Time will tell whether any autistic people recruited through the programme will rise to high command. However, for now, the IDF is perhaps the only military to have a specific programme to recruit and utilise the unique thinking styles of autistic people in uniform. 

What it takes

During the Second World War, autism proved itself to be a secret weapon, unknown even to the allies, that helped tip the war in their favour. As we enter the 2020s, the NZDF is increasingly looking to gain the operational benefits of diverse thinking in a peacetime period that demands budget cuts. To this end, a specific focus on recruit and advancing those with autism for specialised roles offers not just a low-cost guarantee of diverse thinking, but one with a proven military value – albeit one that requires some adaptive practice. In particular, this requires an emphasis on the special value and competitive advantage that people with autism can offer and not their deficits. Likewise, it required placing them on pathways to positions that will give the organisation the benefit of that value.

No data exists to tell how many people with autism are serving in the NZDF. It is not screened for, and so goes undetected. Likewise, it is almost certain that many personnel are serving with autism but have gone undiagnosed, and possibly even punished for a condition they do not know they have. By bringing the condition to light, and then adapting our approach to them, it could become possible to use these individuals in positions that cater to the remarkable strengths that autism can offer.


If you suspect you have autism, the Ritvo Autism Asperger’s Diagnostic Scale-Revised test can offer an indication. In the event you score highly, you may wish to seek a formal diagnosis. The test can be found here.


Disclaimer: The author is a serving Army Officer with a diagnosis of autism. 



  1. Mitchell, Jonathan. “Calls for MORE Ethnic, Gender Diversity in New Zealand Defence Force.” RNZ. RNZ, July 1, 2019.
  2. Scoppio, Grazia. “Embracing Indigenous culture in military organizations: the experience of Māori in the New Zealand military.” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 19, no. 2 (2018).
  3. Pulse Survey, New Zealand Defence Force, 2021.
  4. Nelson, Ellen Joan. “The social well-being of women officers who have left the New Zealand Army:” I haven’t seen any advantages to being female”: a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, School of Management, Massey Business School, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.” PhD diss., Massey University, 2019. Pg. 28.
  5. NZDF, Defence Force Order Number 3, Part 5, Chapter 2: Diversity and Inclusion.
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  11. Muir, Hazel. “Einstein and Newton Showed Signs of Autism.” New Scientist, April 30, 2003. 
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  16. Farmer, George D., Simon Baron-Cohen, and William J. Skylark. “People with autism spectrum conditions make more consistent decisions.” Psychological Science 28, no. 8 (2017): 1067-1076.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19.  Larisa Brown, Defence Editor. “Vice Admiral Nick Hine: ‘to Be Blunt, Autism Made Me a Better Naval Officer’.” News | The Times. The Times, March 12, 2021. 
  20. O’Connell, Henry, and Michael Fitzgerald. “Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s syndrome?.” Irish journal of psychological medicine 20, no. 1 (2003): 28-31. 
  21.  Brock, Jon. “Did Alan Turing Have Asperger Syndrome?” Medium. Dr Jon Brock, June 26, 2019. 
  22.  Hofstadter, Douglas R. Alan Turing: Life and legacy of a great thinker. Edited by Christof Teuscher. Vol. 54. Berlin: Springer, 2004.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Fitzgerald, Michael. “Contributions of Persons with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome to Society.”
  25. Ricks, Thomas E. “Enoch Powell’s Amazing WWII Career.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, March 24, 2015. 
  26. Lyons, Viktoria, and Michael Fitzgerald. Asperger syndrome: A gift or a curse?. Nova Publishers, 2005.
  27. Broadcast. Desert Island Discs: Enoch Powell. BBC, February 24, 1989.
  28. Asperger syndrome: A gift or a curse?
  29.  Desert Island Discs: Enoch Powell.
  30. Heffer, Simon. Like the Roman: the life of Enoch Powell. Faber & Faber, 2014.
  31.  Ibid.
  32. Asperger syndrome: A gift or a curse?.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35.  Enoch Powell’s Amazing WWII Career
  36. “Bernard Law Montgomery: Unbeatable and Unbearable.” National Army Museum. Accessed August 29, 2021. 
  37. Hamilton, Nigel. 1981. Monty The Making of a General. London: Hamilton.
  38. Fitzgerald, Michael. “Did field marshal bernard montgomery (montgomery of alamein) have asperger’s syndrome?.” Indian journal of psychiatry 42, no. 1 (2000): 73.
  39. Lord Taylor. Interview with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery 24 January 1958. Other. Accessed August 29, 2021. 
  40. Monty The Making of a General
  41. Did field marshal bernard montgomery (montgomery of alamein) have asperger’s syndrome?
  42.  Ibid.
  43. Lord Taylor. Interview with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
  44. Weir, David. “Leadership in a desert war: Bernard Montgomery as an unusual leader.” Review of Enterprise and Management Studies (REAMS) 1, no. 1 (2013): 11-22.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Solomon, Calvin. “Autism and Employment: Implications for Employers and Adults with ASD.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders 50, no. 11 (2020).
  47. Rempfer, Kyle. “Recruit Diagnosed with Autism Returns Home, Recruiter Removed from Duty.” Army Times, September 24, 2019.,for%20the%20service’s%20recruiting%20command. 
  48. “Written Parliamentary Question 210642. Steve Rotherman to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Reserves.” UK Parliament, October 15, 2014.
  49. Armstrong, Rebecca. “A Shift in Perspective: Empathy and Autism.” Altogether Autism. Accessed August 29, 2021.
  50. Baron-Cohen, Simon. “The eyes as window to the mind.” (2017): 1-2.
  51. Soraya, Lyanne. “Autism: Being Misunderstood.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, March 30, 2015. 
  52. DeThorne, Laura S. “Revealing the Double Empathy Problem: It’s not that autistic* people lack empathy. Rather, their different neurotypes and experiences may make it harder for nonautisic people to understand them—and vice versa.” (2020): 58-65.
  53. Vaknin, Sam. “Narcissism and Autism.” Annals of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 4, no. 1 (January 27, 2021). 
  54. Lim, Alliyza, Robyn L. Young, and Neil Brewer. “Autistic Adults May Be Erroneously Perceived as Deceptive and Lacking Credibility.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2021): 1-18.
  55. Kopelson, Karen. “” Know thy work and do it”: The rhetorical-pedagogical work of employment and workplace guides for adults with” high-functioning” autism.” College English 77, no. 6 (2015): 553-576.
  56. Pesce, Nicole Lyn. “Most College Grads with Autism Can’t Find Jobs. This Group Is Fixing That.” MarketWatch. MarketWatch, April 2, 2019. 
  57. “Autistic People Still Face Highest Rates of Unemployment of All Disabled Groups.” Autistica, February 19, 2021. 
  58. Rules and Routines.” Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network. Accessed August 29, 2021.,%2C%20communication%2C%20and%20social%20interactions. 
  59. Ginsburg, Mitch, Aaron Boxerman, Amy Spiro, TOI staff, Lazar Berman and TOI staff, Jacob Magid, Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid, et al. “Soldiers with Autism Give Army Rare View into Intel, and Disorder.” The Times of Israel, March 8, 2015. 
  60. Sales, Ben, Aaron Boxerman, Amy Spiro, TOI staff, Lazar Berman and TOI staff, Jacob Magid, Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid, et al. “Soldiers with Autism Take on Key Roles in IDF.” The Times of Israel, December 9, 2015.
  61. Ibid. 
  62. Kushner, David. “Serving on the Spectrum: The Israeli Army’s Roim Rachok Program Is Bigger than the Military.” Esquire, August 21, 2020.