The IDF offers people with developmental disorders such as autism an opportunity to serve in the military, giving them a chance to integrate into Israeli society along with everyone else through a program called “Special in Uniform” (SIU). And, as countries around the world mark World Autism Awareness Day Sunday, April 2, the IDF provided an opportunity for one such Soldier on the autism spectrum with “astounding musical talents” to sing with celebrities, and, with others like himself, raise awareness about developmental disorders while proving themselves to be integral, contributing members of society.
By the time he was 2 years old, Amit Smuchi was singing complex songs, complete with lyrics. His astounding musical talents, combined with other behavioral patterns, caused his parents to suspect that something wasn’t quite right with their son. At the age of 9, Amit was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.
Amit made a major breakthrough for people on the spectrum when he came of age and became a lead singer in a military band featuring soldiers with disabilities in the framework of the IDF’s SIU program.
Twenty years ago, Moshe and Dorit Smuchi were ecstatic about the birth of their firstborn son. “Amit was born naturally following a normal pregnancy, and until he was 2 years old, developed according to the book,” recalled Moshe. “But slowly, we began noticing developmental blips and the daycare staff pointed out that he preferred to play alone and would often mumble to himself. He loved watching TV and movies, and he could repeat an entire show verbatim after a single viewing.”
Such total recall is one of the aspects of autism. People on the spectrum tend to have remarkable memories sometimes described as “photographic.”
Moshe and Dorit had no clue where this was all leading them.
“We guessed that something was wrong, and we did everything in our power to support his development. We tried sending him to a range of extracurricular activities, from swimming to horseback riding, from choirs to music lessons, but nothing seemed to help,” they explained.
They noticed that Amit had remarkable musical talents and were determined to help him maximize those strengths. But at the same time, it was difficult for them, as parents, to accept the fact their son was neurodivergent, a term that no one even heard of when Amit was a baby. This was why, they explained, it took until Amit was 9 years old to get him a proper diagnosis.
Eventually, they enrolled him in the Democratic School where Amit was given the tools and stage to develop himself musically. Throughout his years in elementary and high school, Amit was involved in a range of school events and ceremonies, and despite his differences, was popular and well-accepted among his peers.
And as a musician, Amit has shattered societal stigmas and proven both to himself and the world that men and women with disabilities can go far and contribute to society just like everybody else.
“We did everything we could to help Amit feel accepted, like an equal—and he really was. We had no doubt that when he’d graduate, he’d go on to the army together with his class,” added Moshe.
This is why Amit’s entire family was shocked and hurt when he first received an automatic military exemption due to his autism.
“We didn’t want the exemption, and neither did our son, and we were determined to fight it!” said Dorit. “Moshe recalled that he’d once heard of a JNF-USA-sponsored program that integrates young people with disabilities and autism into the IDF. We researched it, and discovered SIU.”
Begun in 2014, Special in Uniform is a Jewish National Fund-USA program that integrates young adults with disabilities into the IDF and, in turn, into Israeli society. Its core belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential.
SIU gives people with disabilities the chance to give back to their country in a role that is fit for their skills. Once they complete their training, they receive their soldier IDs and are placed in military bases across Israel, where they have an amazing opportunity to integrate with fellow soldiers and fulfill meaningful service in the IDF.
The musical program of SIU aims to help these recruits experience the military while expanding their social skills. The goal of the music program is to expose those with autism and other disabilities to an environment where individual differences are celebrated and where no one will be embarrassed.
According to medical research, music stimulates areas of the brain that, in people with disabilities, are weak or damaged. Music builds and strengthens the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain. These areas are tied to speech and language, social skills, reading and reading comprehension.
Studies indicate that when young people with disabilities learn a musical instrument, improvements are seen in attention span, concentration, impulse control, social functioning, self-esteem, self-expression, motivation, and memory. Studies have also shown that children and young adults who have difficulty focusing when “background noise” is present are particularly helped by music.
All of the above issues are experienced by people on the autism spectrum.
During the initial screening process for acceptance, SIU’s staff was impressed by Amit’s rare musical talents, and even before he was officially accepted into the program, they decided to incorporate him into the SIU Band.
“Today, I work in Logistics on the Julis Base (near Ashdod) as part of the Yahalom (diamond) Unit, which is the special unit of the Combat Engineering Corps. This is a dream come true for me, to contribute my part to the IDF and to also use my musical talents to make people happy,” said Amit.
The person behind the SIU Band is a former producer of the IAF military band Ido Dekel, who directs three separate bands, each comprised of 8 musicians with a range of disabilities. The SIU Band has experienced record-breaking success, and many of its performances have gone viral, moving audiences around the world to tears. In the two years since its inception, the musicians have performed in over 350 events and ceremonies in Israel.
The band has performed with some of Israel’s biggest celebrities such as Eden Ben Zaken.
“The Band weaves a professional and emotional blanket of support around the special soldier and imbues him with confidence to appear on stage and utilize his or her musical talents,” said Dekel. “Members of our band who previously felt shy singing at home in their living rooms are now singing confidently before audiences of thousands.”
“With a little more training, Amit’s band will soon be competing with traditional military bands,” said Ido. “These kids are special—and not only because they’re disabled. They’ve got superb talents, and they deserve opportunities to succeed. Time and again, SIU Band reinforces the powerful lesson that they can succeed, and that they’re no different than anyone else. It’s an integral message in accepting social diversity, and it makes the IDF and Israeli society a kinder, more accepting society.”
Since its inception, SIU brought together 950 volunteers with disabilities, approximately 50% of whom were diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, into varying capacities in the IDF. The demand to expand the program is great, and there are hundreds of adolescents on the waiting list vying to be accepted.
Ahead of International Autism Day, Rabbi Mendy Belitzky, CEO of Lend A Hand to A Special Child, noted, “This is the time to convey a message to Israelis and to the world that every child and adult—neuro-typical or neuro-divergent—can accomplish incredible things. Amit is one of 950 young people who received an automatic exemption from military service, but who fought the exemption in order to contribute their strengths and talents to our country. Today, all these kids are serving or volunteering in the IDF in a range of capacities and on bases across Israel, proving that with willpower, you can shatter any stigma and accomplish anything you dream.”
The United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared 2 April as World Autism Awareness Day to highlight the need to help improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.
Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that manifests during early childhood, irrespective of gender, race, or socio-economic status. The term Autism Spectrum refers to a range of characteristics. Appropriate support, accommodation and acceptance of this neurological variation allow those on the Spectrum to enjoy equal opportunity, and full and effective participation in society.
Autism is mainly characterized by its unique social interactions, non-standard ways of learning, keen interests in specific subjects, inclination to routines, challenges in typical communications and particular ways of processing sensory information.
The stigmatization and discrimination associated with neurological differences remain substantial obstacles to diagnosis and therapies, an issue that must be addressed by both public policymakers in developing nations, as well as donor countries.