Raising Awareness of Neurodiversity in the Military
A passenger-filled sedan rolls violently against a dirt median, abruptly halts on its roof and blocks oncoming traffic on the interstate. Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz’s duty to protect and serve kicks in.
Due to his application of military training and a unique diagnosis, Norwitz safely extracts the occupants of the vehicle, leading them away from the wreckage and redirected the flow of traffic.
Norwitz, 5th Combat Communications Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of Operations Planning, attributes this act to his military training and neurodiversity. “I’m on the [autism] spectrum and that makes me good at being a strategic thinker, and contributes to my innovation,” he said. “This is the stuff that makes us great, but it is something we need reinforcement on.”
Norwitz said his neurodiversity allows him to objectively react during situations. He said because of his ability to remove emotion from a situation, he is able to see a clear series of targets, tasks and creative solutions whenever an issue arises. This ability led him to learn to accept his diagnosis. According to the U.S. Air Force Medical Standards Directory, Autism Spectrum Disorder is not disqualifying for continued military service unless it is currently–or has a history of–compromising military duty or training.
Norwitz has seen improvements in his professional development and feels empowered to reduce the negative stigma surrounding autism. He adds that remaining resilient while overcoming his neurodiversity in the workplace has been no easy feat.
“There have been a lot of things throughout my military career that I struggle with,” Norwitz said. “I struggle with forming intersocial bonds. I felt like an outsider and didn’t know why.” This can have an impact on one’s mental health because these social bonds form an integral part of not only your social career but also your professional career, he added.
Norwitz believes he is not alone in his sentiments, and said unit cohesion and interacting with others who have similar neurodiversity challenges have contributed to reducing his feeling of isolation throughout his 19-year military tenure.
“Knowing I have a peer group that not only shares the same challenges that I do, but are people that I can instantly connect with helps soften the impact of the idea that I do struggle socially,” he said. “I’ve come to realize that I am actually more inclined to be successful at social interaction with people who are operating at the same frequency as me.”
Norwitz said one goal he has been working diligently to achieve is to raise more awareness through advocacy towards the increasing support for military members dealing with ASD. Part of his initiative is encouraging education amongst cohorts, supervisors, peers and the general public on the complexities of the autism spectrum.
He believes learning how to better accommodate, relay messages and adapt to the growing demographic of neurodiversity presence in the military may allow for more efficient cohesion and connectivity amongst all members and personnel within the armed forces.
As part of this initiative, Norwitz has engaged with the Secretary of the Air Force’s Disability Action Team.
There are currently seven Department of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Groups to include: the Black/African American Employment Strategy Team; the Disability Action Team; the Hispanic Empowerment and Action Team; the Indigenous Nations Equality Team; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team; the Pacific Islander/Asian American Community Team and the Women’s Initiatives Team.
Norwitz said he is hopeful for the continued advocacy for neurodiversity in the military.
“All of my efforts have been met with nothing but support from the external community, supervisors, coworkers and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion,” he said. “This has been incredibly healing for me, but I have a responsibility to make sure that same acknowledgment and acceptance reaches everyone else in uniform.”
Source: U.S. Air Force
Photo Caption: Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz, 5th Combat Communications Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of Operations Planning, poses for a photo at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force via Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz