People with autism navigate roadblocks to serving in the military

Applicants and military members push for review of eligibility standards.

For people on the autism spectrum, finding their place in the American military can be an arduous process. The U.S. Department of Defense considers having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be a “disqualifying condition” to join the military. Many candidates are turned away because of their diagnosis.

“I, more or less, had my dream taken away from me,” said Tory Ridgeway, a third-year student with autism at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studying aerospace engineering.

Ridgeway, son of a Navy aviation engineer, received a Navy-ROTC scholarship at 18 years old, in exchange for his service in the Navy after graduation. A Navy-approved doctor found his autism to be “mild” and “fully controlled.”

However, a month after his acceptance, Ridgeway was told that his ROTC scholarship was on hold, in part due to his autism.

“It didn't feel like I lost funding for college,” Ridgeway said. “It felt like I had lost a part of myself and who I was.”

Ryan Horsley (left) said his son, Garrison Horsley (right) was medically discharged from the Army due to his autism.
Ryan Horsley

While waiting for his appeal decision, Ridgeway reported to New Student Indoctrination (NSI), known as boot camp. His colonel wrote a letter, reviewed by ABC News, recommending Ridgeway for ROTC and commissioned office in the Navy, stating that his “ability to listen to and comprehend instructions and quickly adapt to new activities was on par with his peers.”

Despite the recommendation, Ridgeway decided to withdraw from ROTC after months of waiting for a medical waiver, with no assurances he would be cleared to join the Navy.

“So much of who I was, based around the Navy, about being just like my dad, and that was no longer possible,” Ridgeway said.

Navy spokesperson Mack Jamieson told ABC News that they do not address a scholarship recipient’s ineligibility and that Ridgeway can still pursue enlistment and a medical waiver. Additionally, the Navy claims Ridgeway’s medical waiver appeal was denied during NSI, and that Ridgeway was offered to leave NSI at that point. Ridgeway’s family denies both claims.

An estimated 2% of adults qualify for an autism diagnosis. While roughly 26% of children with autism are profoundly impacted, often intellectually disabled, some experts argue that the remaining 74% should not be disqualified from joining the military just for being autistic.

Major Daniel Kiser received his autism diagnosis after nearly 10 years of serving with the U.S. Air Force. He is now helping review the eligibility standards for autism used by the military.
ABC News

“National security problems are some of the hardest problems we have in this country,” said Cortney Weinbaum, Sr., national security researcher at RAND Corporation. “It makes no sense to not want all brain types working on it.”

Having authored one of the few studies attempting to assess the military’s handling of neurodivergence, Weinbaum found a community of military members hiding their symptoms to avoid being medically discharged.

Hiding an autism diagnosis can have extreme consequences. Garrison Horsley, despite his autism, was cleared to enlist in the Army and started basic training. But according to his father, Ryan Horsley, he was “locked up” by his drill sergeant and given a medical discharge from the Army within days.

Horsley found out that Garrison’s recruiter allegedly told Garrison not to disclose his autism diagnosis. According to U.S. Army Recruiting Command spokeswoman, Madison Bonzo, the Army “conducted a thorough investigation on the allegations of recruiter misconduct related to the enlistment of Mr. Garrison Horsley… Mr. Horsley’s recruiter no longer serves with the U.S. Army.”

“We don't want this to happen with anyone else,” said Ryan Horsley. “People with autism are amazing people, maybe they have a place in the military.”

Stephanie Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy at the Department of Defense, says the military is beginning to take a more individualized approach to autism in the waiver process, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of the diagnosis.

Major Daniel Kiser (right) speaks with ABC News' John Donvan (left) about his experience navigating the military with autism.
ABC News

“With ASD in particular, we've seen about 1,800 applicants come through the process with that diagnosis,” said Miller. “And we've seen about 500 applicants actually approved for a waiver with a history of ASD.”

Miller admits that the waiver process can be opaque and lengthy.

“We do not necessarily put out a lot of information about the waiver process itself, because every review is individualized and depends on those individual circumstances,” Miller told “Nightline.” “But we do believe that we need to do more to make the waiver process understood and known.”

For some military members on active duty, being diagnosed with autism does not mean the end of their service. Maj. Daniel Kiser received an autism diagnosis from an off-base medical provider after nearly 10 years of serving with the U.S. Air Force, having served multiple tours in the Middle East.

Kiser says he got support from his higher ups to continue in his role as an instructor in the Air Force Special Operations Command. He believes his autism has, in some ways, helped him in his role.

“I have the ability to communicate the magnitude of threats in a way that's easy to understand,” said Kiser. “I can aesthetically store and visually recall information, and then can break that information down to a way where everybody else can understand it.”

Kiser started working with the Air Force’s newly formed barrier analysis group on their disability action team, helping those on the autism spectrum navigate challenges and advocate for themselves. He is now helping review the eligibility standards for autism used by the military.

“What we are seeing is last century's policy informing decisions that don't mesh well with our modern understanding of autism spectrum disorder,” said Kiser.

Tory Ridgeway, a third-year student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said his Navy-ROTC scholarship was put on hold partially due to his autism.
ABC News

After withdrawing from ROTC, Tory Ridgeway had to pursue his passion for planes by thinking outside of the box. He is now about to start an internship with defense contractor Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company.

“I finally rewrote my identity as someone who is smart and loves planes more than anything else, rather than somebody who needs to be in a uniform,” said Ridgeway.

He also has been sharing his personal story with his local chapter of the Easterseals Community and Disability Services.

“I want them to see me and think, 'my kid has autism and so does he,'” Ridgeway said. “If I can just make one parent hopeful for their kid again, I will have done my job.”

ABC News' Lauren Lantry and Elizabeth Perkin contributed to this report.