Jan 30, 2019  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Special Needs,

JDAIM: Israeli man with Asperger's proudly takes on IDF, 'real world'

During February, Jewish Disability Awareness Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and all year round, Jewish National Fund proudly supports efforts to make sure people with special needs and disabilities are fully included in Israeli society.

Hey, everyone. My name is Cori Ashkenazy, and I'm here to tell you my story. It's a unique story, one that I look forward to sharing.

It's the story of my life on the spectrum, my personal journey as a high-functioning individual with Asperger's, and how I was able to deal with my challenges and integrate successfully into the workforce, army, and society, or as they like to say, the "real world."

My journey was fraught with challenges, difficulties and many an obstacle. Yet it was -- and still is -- a journey I believe has the power to inspire others and serve as a model for anyone, from any sector or society, in Israel and around the world.

My story begins on a scorching summer’s day, on August 6, 1992, when I was born to my parents Shlomo and Ravit Ashkenazy in a hospital on Long Island, New York.

Early on in my life, the doctors informed my parents I suffered from a general developmental delay. It was unlikely I would ever acquire the capacity for proper speech, they warned, and recommended that I begin learning sign language at a very young age. I was diagnosed with poor muscle tone, which meant I didn't start walking until I was 2½  or speaking until I was 3. Yet despite extensive evaluations and testing, the doctors couldn't aptly diagnose my condition or define my problems.

Then I experienced a medical miracle. There was a flash of light, and G-d descended with His angels of mercy. My mom started performing regular drills with me to improve my mouth and jaw muscles, and no one could believe it when I actually started to talk! The reactions were a mix of unbridled delight and disbelief, as I shattered the myth that I would have to communicate in sign language for the rest of my life.

People like to joke that since the day I started talking, I haven’t stopped, and before long, my parents and teachers discovered that I have several other unusual proficiencies, as well. One is that I’m blessed with a phenomenal memory that resembles a massive hard drive with an endless capacity for data.

When I was 2½ years old, my family immigrated to Israel. There, I underwent a series of tests and evaluations in a variety of medical and child-development institutes and was finally diagnosed as a highly functioning autistic.

Refusing to back down  

Throughout my life, my family was wonderfully supportive, profoundly committed to helping me develop, mature, and achieve my full potential. It's ironic that I was always the focus of my parents' attention, when I had an elder brother Sean who was talented and successful in every regard. It was tough and often upsetting for Sean that I reaped so much attention and love, yet he learned to accept it.

My family invested boundless energy and means to facilitate and support my development and personal advancement. I regularly met with a speech therapist and physiotherapist, who assigned me daily, wearying drills and activities to strengthen my hypotonic, or weakened, muscles. I attended new enrichment courses and therapies as soon as they were announced -- even horseback-riding therapy -- and as I slowly grew up, I overcame the hypotonia.

I was dizzy with delight when my first draft notice arrived in the mail. Overcome with anticipation, I rose early on the morning that I was scheduled to head to the bakum (recruitment center) with my parents. Little did I dream I was about to suffer the disappointment of my life when the recruiting officer monotonously responded that I was unsuitable for service due to my autism. I received an automatic military exemption along with an insipid explanation that my syndrome would make it hard for me to integrate successfully into the strict military framework of the IDF.

At that moment, a voice sounded in my mind with the famous quote: "The end of the bread is hard, and we eat that too." So determined was I to enlist in the army and serve my country like every other soldier that I announced then and there that I had no intention of surrendering my dream, and that one day, I’d be back at the bakum! 

"You just wait and see!" I declared to the surprised officer.

I refused to back down. Like I'd vowed, I fought tooth and nail, confronting and surmounting countless obstacles until my dream came true and I was inducted into the IDF where I ultimately served on a home front base and the Palmachim Air Force base.

As soon as I was inducted, I underwent a full evaluation at Keshet Institute, where the faculty finally diagnosed my condition properly as very high-functioning Asperger's.

But before all this, I sent off letters to any and every person of influence, including the IDF chief of staff and bakum commander.  When there was nothing left to be done, and after a period of time elapsed, I received the long-awaited call. My high school principal summoned me and informed me with a smile that I had been approved for recruitment into the military in the framework of a special project called Special in Uniform. This project recruits young people with physical and emotional challenges and disabilities into the IDF and escorts them throughout their years of training and military service.

A proud soldier 

I served in uniform for four years, two years as a hoger (noncommissioned officer) and two year as a volunteer. I slept on base and returned home every weekend, a proud soldier.  I fulfilled my role and military duties to the best of my abilities, doing my utmost to serve and benefit my country until it came time to return to civilian life.

My mother was something of my educational officer in the army, always going out of her way to ensure I had everything I needed to enhance my experience on base. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I left my mark on the IDF!

You wouldn’t believe what I did there in the army. I was practically chief of staff on base! I kept everyone on their toes, and sometimes people really did wonder if I was the chief of staff, because at the time, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy and I shared the same last name.

On a personal note, I’ll confess that in spite of numerous challenges and occasional unpleasant treatment that I was forced to endure, the IDF was an amazing source of inspiration and fulfillment, offering me incredible life experiences that I could only gain as a soldier. Similarly, I can state with certainty that I, too, served as a role model to my peers in the army, symbolizing learning, strong values, genuine friendship, cooperation, and perseverance.

I’ll always remember and cherish my experiences in the army -- the fact that I was fortunate to serve alongside regular soldiers in normal military units, submit to the authority and command of junior and senior officers, and accept responsibility for myself and my duties.  All these were contributing factors to an incredible, empowering experience that is sufficient for me to advocate to each and every one of you to go serve four years in the army, as well.  Without a doubt, it will mold and shape your character and future as a healthy person and contributing member of society.

'School for life' 

My military service imbued me with a wide array of knowledge and skills that elevated my self-esteem and successfully prepared me for civilian life. I gained a tremendous amount of confidence in the army, much more than all I gained throughout 15 years of preschool, elementary, and high school education. To me, the army was "school for life," compelling me to confront a wide variety of circumstances and situations, some pleasant and some less so. Beyond all that, it also symbolized an experience of giving and mission on behalf of my country and nation.

After being discharged from the army, I set out on my post-army trip abroad, like all of my friends. I flew to Thailand, spending six glorious weeks there together with my family. Returning to Israel, I scoured the job market and soon landed an excellent job working at Ben Gurion Airport. For the past two years, I've been employed by Tamam, a company supplying kosher airplane meals, and also work partially in the sanitation department. Pretty soon, I’ll be celebrating my third work anniversary. 

This is how I, a man with Asperger's Syndrome, integrated successfully into the real world, a world replete with journeys and challenges, some smooth and some bumpy. I've confronted many an obstacle, yet I surmounted them all with hard work, unflagging determination, and willpower.

My advice to you 

One thing I can tell you is that integrating successfully into the real world and exposing your identity, and certainly going and writing a whole essay on it -- like I'm doing right now -- takes a great deal of courage and belief in yourself.

I sign off with my final words of advice, insights that I've gained throughout my life:
Never, ever give up on yourself! Never let anyone dictate to you what you can or can’t do. Because you can do it all! You can achieve any goal you set for yourself, any dream that makes you feel good.

Do what’s good for you!