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Autism Acceptance Week: Soldiers on the Spectrum

There are not more than five primary colors…

yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen.

~ Sun Tzu

With the first week of April 2024 being Autism Acceptance Week, this article aims to highlight the presence of autistic soldiers in the army and the benefits of–and challenges in–embracing neuroinclusivity. 

There was a whopping 787% rise1 in the number of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses in the UK between 1998 and 2018.  The condition itself is not on the rise.  It is, instead, increasingly understood, recognised, and then diagnosed.  A key contributor to identifying autism is that every one of the 570,000 educators2 across the 29,000 schools in the country have been asked to take on a mindset that all teachers are a teacher of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).3

Because of the wholesale uptick of knowledge around autism, an awakening has been unfolding.  A highly common theme begins as a parent’s quest to understand their child’s atypical behaviours soon reveals a startling revelation: many of these parents share a unique bond with said child.  Prompted by the child’s seemingly inexplicable behaviours in their early years, and flagged by attentive educators, families embark on an exploration of the condition and onto a seismic path of self-discovery.  This sheds light on thousands of individuals who had long-grappled with unexplained nuances in their own lives; huge numbers4 of UK adults are realising that they, too, are autistic. 

Evolving diagnostic criteria, increased awareness, and improved access to diagnostic services have resulted in a late-diagnosis phenomenon and a sweeping tide of awareness cascading across the country, and indeed around the world.  As individuals grapple with this newfound understanding, society is witnessing a profound shift in perception, empathy, and solidarity among people navigating the complexities of being neurodivergent. 

Soldiers on the Spectrum

While this article focuses specifically on autism for Autism Acceptance Week, there are a plethora of other conditions placing neurominorities among our ranks.5

The next time your Unit is on a CO’s parade, three ranks in a hollow square, look left and right.  It is likely that you will be stood amongst neurominorities, and a small number of those will be diagnosed or undiagnosed autistic soldiers.  Autistic soldiers are serving throughout the organisation and scattered across the ranks.  I know this because I am one.  A request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 also shows us that, as at February 2023, over four hundred MOD personnel were autistic.6 And since researchers estimate that there are more undiagnosed autistic people in the UK than there are diagnosed,7 it goes then that there are many serving soldiers out there grappling with the condition unbeknownst to them.  I write with much conviction: the number of already serving late-diagnosed autistic personnel is certain to rise.

Recognising this inevitable trend, it is important for leaders to:

  • Gain an understanding of the unique experiences and perspectives that autism brings,
  • be sensitive to the challenges that autistic people face, 
  • and foster a culture of complete acceptance in your workplace for people who think and experience the world differently. 

With a wealth of emerging content out there on what autism is, I highly recommend grabbing a brew and doing an online search or AI GPT prompt on common autism myths.  This is a valuable way of encouraging meaningful and progressive discourse in your workplace since myths around autism range from dismissive to dangerous.  For instance, you might like to have a go at starting a conversation around whether or not ‘everybody is somewhere on the spectrum’.  Ask if there is truth in this statement.  Ask why people so readily believe it.  Ask what the real-life implications may be for autistic people if this belief remains as pervasive as it is now.  If you read that statement and instantly dismissed it as a myth, congratulations.  You are more neuroinclusive than 46% of the British population.8

Neuroinclusivity Analogy 1: The Enigma Machine

In an attempt to convey the importance of neuroinclusivity, imagine autism as a vibrant spectrum of mental processes akin to the complexity of the Enigma machine.  Just as the Enigma used intricate mechanisms to encode messages, autistic minds can offer a rich tapestry of thinking styles and problem-solving approaches.  Having autistic individuals on the team is like having a treasure trove of untapped potential.  If we meaningfully employ the unique strengths of people who think differently, we could benefit from a wealth of innovative perspectives and adaptable strategies.

Much like cracking the Enigma code shaped the course of history, bolstering neuroinclusivity would increase the effectiveness of modern fighting forces through increasing agility and progressive ingenuity. 

Neuroinclusivity Analogy 2: Rugby

Consider a rugby team comprised solely of bonafide world class try-scorers, each possessing unmatched speed and agility on the pitch.  While these players may excel at putting points on the board, they would lack the physicality and defensive prowess needed to withstand the challenges posed by a well-rounded opposition.  Against a diverse team with strong forwards, skilled kickers, and robust defenders, the try-scoring specialists would struggle to maintain possession, defend against attacks, and control the pace of the game. 

Similarly, in the armed forces, relying on people with homogeneous skillsets will inevitably leave vulnerabilities in critical areas.  Having a team with a mixture of talents and expertise provides adaptability and an increased likelihood of success across a wide range of scenarios, much like a diversely balanced rugby team performs robustly in all facets of the game. 

Governmental Reviews

Much like the corporate world, the UK government already knows that neurodivergent people can make great employees and leaders alike, as recognised in the Buckland Review of Autism Employment.  Reader, please take a moment to read the executive summary afterwards, you may be surprised at paragraphs three and five in particular.  Neurodiversity also appears in the Haythornthwaite Review, necessarily so if our armed forces are to become a ‘global beacon’9 for attracting, retaining, incentivising, and managing people.  Granted it is only mentioned once in the entire document, but this signals the beginning of the beginning for the MOD. 

You may have noticed the word ‘can’ in the first line of the former paragraph.  This is deliberate because, as it stands, the army does not have the culture, knowledge, policies, network, and structures10 in place to support autistic people in a way that allows us to meet our full potential to the same degree as our non-autistic counterparts.  This is not dissimilar from the civilian autistic experience.

In Closing

Being autistic is a profoundly beautiful way of being human, of this I have no doubt. But knowledge and understanding around its challenges are still in their infancy in the military.  This is not to slate the MOD or the army, even the NHS11 and Education12 sectors grapple with supporting autistic employees so that they can be the best version of themselves; happy, committed, and adding tangible value at all levels of organisations.  In these early days of neuroinclusivity, autistic soldiers are more than likely, metaphorically, fighting in shackles.  It is incumbent on everybody, at all levels, to play their part in accepting and enhancing neuroinclusivity. 


Philip has an interest in the lived experience of service personnel, much of his focus is on ground level leadership, followership, retention, and personnel development. He holds a Masters in Education with a leadership and management specialisation, and an Honours Degree in History.


  1. https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.13505
  2. https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/general/how-many-teachers-are-there-uk-england-scotland-wales-northern-ireland#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20teachers%20in%20the%20UK,Wales%2C%20Scotland%20and%20Northern%20Ireland
  3. https://www.nasuwt.org.uk/static/uploaded/f54d8acb-27b3-4665-abc7bab805803c9d.pdf
  4. Huang Y, Arnold SR, Foley KR, Trollor JN. Diagnosis of autism in adulthood: A scoping review. Autism. 2020 Aug;24(6):1311-1327. doi: 10.1177/1362361320903128. Epub 2020 Feb 28. PMID: 32106698
  5. https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2023-06-30/191956/#:~:text=Candidates%20with%20Specific%20Learning%20Difficulties,selection%2C%20training%20and%20performance%20standards
  6. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/646f8adf4a892b0013746b9c/FOI2023-04083.pdf
  7. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/under-diagnosis-of-autism-in-england-a-population
  8. https://patient.info/news-and-features/debunking-autism-myths
  9. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/648ad6b8b32b9e000ca967c9/Incentivising_people_in_a_new_era_-_a_review_of_UK_Armed_Forces.pdf
  10. Such as career structures, infra, digital, social, and medical support structures to name a few
  11. https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/autistic-man-to-receive-20000-from-nhs-after-refusal-of-job-interview-adjustments/
  12. https://www.theheadteacher.com/attainment-and-assessment/neurodiverse-staff

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