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Airman advocates for neurodiversity in military

  • Published
  • By Tre Davis
  • 688th Cyberspace Wing

A passenger-filled sedan rolled violently against a dirt median, abruptly halted on its roof and blocked oncoming traffic on the interstate. Master Sgt. Shale Norwitz’s duty to protect and serve took precedence.

Due to his application of military training and a unique diagnosis, Norwitz safely extracted the occupants of the vehicle, led victims away from the wreckage and redirected the flow of traffic.

Norwitz, 5th Combat Communications Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of Operations Planning, attributed his heroic acts 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,” Norwitz 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 stigmas surrounding autism.

“The final step is to accept [being autistic],” Norwitz said. “That is how we rise [from negative stereotypes]. If we can learn and educate ourselves, we can elevate to a position of acceptance.”

Norwitz said remaining resilient while overcoming his neurodiversity in the workplace is 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, Norwitz 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,” Norwitz 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’s spouse, Amanda, is one of the members in his support network who contributes to his optimistic outlook.

Norwitz and Amanda's son was also diagnosed with ASD.

Amanda has been consistently proactive regarding her son’s diagnosis with autism and dedicates her time to educating herself on ASD and its effects on others. Through her research, Amanda has learned to better accommodate her son and has discovered insight to help others better coexist with people on the spectrum.

“I don’t take things too personal … I look at the context,” Amanda said. “A lot of people with ASD don’t hold the same social constructs. People with ASD tend to be quite literal - take out the emotion and ask yourself is it factual”.

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.

Norwitz 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.

“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires all federal agencies to conduct barrier analysis per the EEOC’s Management Directive 715,” said Dr. Rachel Castellon, command diversity and inclusion officer for Air Combat Command headquarters. “The purpose is to identify the root causes of disparities in equal opportunities, and federal agencies are encouraged to carefully review and take actions on policies, procedures and practices that can lead to those disparities.”

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.

Castellon said the U.S. Air Force is always looking for volunteers to join the various working groups.

“Contact Secretary of the Air Force Office of Diversity and Inclusion Workflow to join and help us build a more inclusive Air Force,” Castellon added.

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,” Norwitz 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.”