Some of the most amazing people throughout history have been autistic. In this article we are looking at Alan Turing, a mathematician who helped to win the Second World War by decrypting encoded messages sent by the Nazis through a machine known as Enigma. His story is told in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.
Many autistic people have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most individuals. Because of the lack of autism awareness and the historical problems of consistent diagnosis as well as those of acceptance many very talented people don’t get he chance to shine as others do not recognise their genius. Whether or not they mean to people can be prejudiced against autistic people because of the social traits that they may display.
Last week we spoke about a TV show called The Good Doctor and if you have ever watched the show you will see the difficulties faced by the main character Shaun Murphy. In the show Shauns’ genius had been recognised by a top surgeon who had known him from the age of 14 and had mentored him throughout his teenage years, encouraging him to go to medical school from where he graduated with honours. This was just the start of his trouble though, because getting others to understand that Shaun is brilliant and should be employed by the hospital was tremendously difficult.
The show highlights so many problems that autistic people and their families face. If we as families and healthcare professionals can work out what an autistic person is interested and talented in, then channel it in the right direction, society will be greatly enriched by autistic people being able to integrate successfully, be accepted and allowed to flourish.
In The Imitation Game we see how against all odds and despite barriers put up by even his own colleagues who didn’t understand his condition or embrace his brilliance, Alan Turing’s single mindedness won through to change the course of British history and indeed the history of the world.
If The Imitation Game is accurate in it’s portrayal of Alan Turing, and we believe that it is, then he certainly demonstrated many autistic traits such as he uses language in a very direct, un-nuanced, literal fashion. And he takes what everyone says as though they were using language the same way. Thus, when the announcement that “We’re going to go get lunch” is made, he takes it as an announcement that everyone else is going to go get lunch; what he fails to recognize is that the announcement is an invitation. And he fails at such recognition of the kinds of language games people play throughout the film.
Turing also had a tendency to appear arrogant and different to others. This is a common complaint against people on the spectrum. But as you watch the film, you come to realise that Turing is anything but arrogant. He is certain, but that certainty is well earned. He is direct in his speech, but that is a combination of the way he uses language and his lack of understanding that such directness comes across as rude. In his experience, people don’t understand what he’s talking about, so he doesn’t see any point in wasting his and their time explaining himself. To someone on the spectrum, this is being courteous. He doesn’t understand that people won’t just take his word, though, and need the explanation even if they don’t understand it, if they are to provide him with the support he needs.
Turing’s simultaneous desire to work alone and to not be alone is something people with autism experience. It is a strange tension that most cannot understand. ‘I want to be left alone to do my work, except when I don’t want to be left alone. Interruptions upset me (but not as much as they used to), so I tended to drive people away when I was working. But then they tended to stay away, which is not necessarily what I wanted’. The same was true of Turing.
Finally, there was Turing’s rational calculation of allowing people to die so the Nazis wouldn’t know Enigma had been cracked, and his argument for the development of statistics to determine when to use the information they had, to prevent the Nazis from ever learning the British had cracked the code. Everyone in the room was ready to send in the cavalry to save the people who were going to be killed. That’s the most human reaction of all. But if they had done that, they would have lost all the work they did, the Nazis would have known Enigma was cracked, and the British couldn’t have used it to shorten the war and win it. Turing could see all of that because the way his mind worked allowed him to bypass those emotions and reach the most rational conclusion. Many people on the spectrum are capable for making such calculations.
There are plenty of other little things in his behaviours that make it clear Turing was on the spectrum. But we will also note that one of the most intelligent people in the world, the man who invented the computer, who theorised on artificial intelligence and came up with the Turing Test, who was a brilliant mathematician, was clearly on the spectrum. The man who may have won World War II for the Allies and saved the lives of millions of people was someone most of those he saved would have shunned as “weird.”
One would probably be amazed at the number of such “weird” people have revolutionized the world. And the primary beneficiaries would (and perhaps have) treated those people as Turing was typically treated throughout his life. People need to see The Imitation Game precisely for this reason. They need to experience the world through an Alan Turing, so they can empathize with those of them who are considered “weird” and unappreciated and shunned for it. They just want to do their work. And they don’t want to have to justify themselves and their work to everyone in the process. The latter may be impossible, but can they at least, at last, get some understanding regarding who they are?
Attitudes clearly need to change and this will only occur as our society becomes more autism aware, tolerant and accepting of autistic people and their eccentricities.