Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing's Autism

If The Imitation Game is an accurate portrayal of Alan Turing, there is little question that Turing was autistic. It is difficult to lay out all of the evidence from the film, because practically everything Turing does in the film screams to the audience, "I have autism!" But I will note a few specifics.

Consider Turing and language. 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 to people to be incredibly arrogant. This is a common complaint against people on the spectrum. But as you watch the film, you come to realize 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, that's courtesy. 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 Germans 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 Germans from ever learning the English 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 Germans would have known Enigma was cracked, and the English 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. People on the spectrum are (in)famous for making such calculations.

There are plenty of other little things in his behaviors that make it clear Turing was on the spectrum. But I will also note that one of the most intelligent people in the world, the man who invented the computer, who theorized 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 us who are "weird" and unappreciated and shunned for it. We just want to do our work. And we don't want to have to justify ourselves and our work to everyone in the process. The latter may be impossible, but can we at least, at last, get some understanding regarding who we are?


  1. Troy,
    Thank you for your post. I am a teacher (special ed), and my favorite students are those on any part of the spectrum. I struggle that we are working so hard to "cure" Autism instead of understanding Autism. Since when is thinking differently a bad thing? But, my greatest struggle is with students on the "low end" of the spectrum. It seems to me that these kids are not disabled, we just haven't figured out how to communicate with each other. I could absolutely be wrong (statistics say I am), but... After years of working with a student I'm convinced has a higher IQ than cognitive tests state, and failing to communicate with him, I'm starting to think I need someone with Autism to help me break the communication barrier. I am very curious to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you for taking the time.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I'm with you that we need understanding and that it's really a different kind of thinking -- maybe even mind -- created by different underlying neural structures. I would also tend to agree with you that someone on the spectrum could be the key to helping you. I have substitute taught for special education, and after only half a day of interacting with the autistic children, the aide was asking me how on earth I was getting the autistic children to listen, sit still, and not have meltdowns. It's easy, if you are interacting with a fellow member of one's neurotribe. They make sense to me.