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  • Writer's picturegcpsych

Soldiers On The Spectrum

Updated: Jul 22, 2018

A lot of what typifies the minds of military personnel (because of their training) is remarkably similar to what we understand about the minds of people with Asperger's.

Much goes into the preparation of our armed forces men and women. Their intense training is designed to make them more efficient, more effective, less susceptible to 'break-down'. But it might also result in a restructuring of the way some things are processed in the brain.


This term has been replaced by the term "autism spectrum disorders" (ASD), and simply describes a wide range of differences in thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

So why do I say this? I've been working with members (past and present) of Australia's Defence Forces for 15 years, and a small number of those probably ARE on the ASD spectrum (just as in the civilian population). But what I've noticed is that the similarities between the two are quite strong. In one case, we call it "training" . . . and in the other, a "disorder". In both cases, we're talking about a departure from what we think of as "normal".

What is the purpose of military training?

We've all seen the movies and heard the stories. Military training (or "boot camp") is rough and tough and scary! And it produces highly-skilled and effective individuals who don't respond to fear, conflict or threatening situations in the way that a civilian would. It's designed to keep soldiers alive, missions succeeding, and countries safe. And . . . it's not really designed to create happy or relaxed human beings. Over many decades, it has become an extremely well-structured, well-understood and well-practiced training program.

And whilst the reality of basic training might not be perfectly represented in Hollywood dramatisations, the ideal is the same. Recruits must complete their training with a different understanding of discipline, courage, responsibility, work-ethics, determination and mental toughness (as well as a hundred other factors) than the one they had at sign-up. It's for their own survival, for the good of their unit, and for the effectiveness of the armed forces.

So where does ASD fit in? Consider these personality traits:

•Straightforward communication style •Capacity for intense task-focus •Adept at repetitive activities •Thrive on routine and structure •Ability to ignore physical discomfort •Unswayed by others’ emotional states •Passionate, committed and loyal •Pragmatic, capable and determined.

Which population would you say these traits represent? Soldiers? People on the ASD spectrum? It's actually both! And this list is only a small part of the overall picture. There are also strong similarities with respect to conscientiousness, attention to detail, a sense of moral justice (or "code"), trustworthiness, and many others. Among those many similar traits, however, are some that pose more of a challenge.

People on the ASD spectrum often find they have difficulty being heard or understood, and that they tend to clash with others. They may find it difficult to fit in, and often feel "different" or isolated. Their rather direct (some would say "blunt") communication style can be off-putting to some people, and their apparent disregard for other's social discomfort might seem cold or insensitive. They often seem to have more of a "task-focus" than a "person-focus", and will pay more attention to getting the job done (right, or on time) than to the people around them. And these are EXACTLY the kinds of complaints and issues that I hear from military personnel and their spouses in my practice.

So . . . what now?

"I've recently discharged from the Army, and I'm finding it hard getting along in the civilian workforce. On top of that, I'm always arguing with my partner or the kids. I feel on edge all the time. Maybe I should go back to the Army?!"

It doesn't have to be this way. Often times, these problems are the result of putting a military mindset and work in a civilian world. And it can be tempting to want to change the civilian world (becomes sometimes it makes no sense!). But what's really needed is awareness, understanding, a recognition of what needs to change . . . and some time and effort. It took a while (and a considerable degree of hard work) to become an effective military machine. It will take a while to learn how to become a relaxed family member once again.

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