By: Karl Wittig, P.E.
British mathematician Alan Turing, who devised a method of breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, revolutionized the field of cryptography, conceived the computer as we know it today, and literally invented the academic discipline of computer science, is the subject of the 2014 film The Imitation Game. Despite his essential contributions to the allied victory against Nazi Germany, his country repaid him with a prosecution for homosexuality that led to his suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. All of this is very well portrayed in the film, which will no doubt greatly increase awareness about a man whose accomplishments remained highly classified by the British government for many years after the war and as such were unknown to the general public. His contributions to computing were also not widely known to those outside the field, even though to this day a computer is referred to as a Turing machine in the academic specialty of computing theory, and a test for artificial intelligence in a computer is known as the Turing test.
Although his fame has increased over the years, with books such as Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges (upon which the film is based) and a number of documentaries (most recently Codebreaker in 2012), and he has been embraced as a hero by the gay community, it is rarely known that he is on the short list of historical figures about whom there is a strong consensus, among autism experts, of having been on the spectrum (along with inventor Nikola Tesla and pianist Glenn Gould). As such, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw a number of unmistakable autistic traits exhibited in the film. Turing was portrayed, appropriately, by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is otherwise known for his role in the PBS series Sherlock as an Aspie-like modern-day version of the famous detective. Although no explicit mention was made of autism (which was not yet known at the time the film takes place in), a number of behaviors that we in the AS community will immediately recognize were very well depicted. I was particularly struck by the childhood scene where the young Turing, while eating a meal, insisted on strictly separating the peas and carrots on his plate because “they must not be allowed to touch”. He is also shown being bullied by his classmates, displaying social awkwardness in his later youth, and demonstrating very poor social skills (possibly to the point of exaggeration) throughout much of the film. Our community should seize upon the success of this film as an opportunity (one of the best since Rain Man in 1988) to increase public awareness about the autism spectrum in general, about the contributions made to society by so many on it, and about a historically significant figure to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude and who was most probably autistic.
One discrepancy that I noticed in the film is that the Manchester police is depicted as aggressively investigating Turing’s clandestine homosexual encounters, when in fact he is known to have been more open about his sexual orientation than he should have been, not realizing the danger he was putting himself in. As such, he is actually believed to have voluntarily admitted, to the policeman investigating a robbery that he reported, that he had the encounter for which he was subsequently arrested and prosecuted. This is the kind of thing that Aspies have long been known to often do, in many cases to their detriment.
What is most disturbing to me, however, is that while the gay community has taken every opportunity to claim and celebrate Alan Turing (as well it should), our own AS community has done virtually nothing in this regard. Once again, I see the film as an opportunity to correct this oversight. In 2012, I had the opportunity to attend the New York premiere screening of the documentary Codebreaker. The film was introduced by a speaker from a local gay rights organization who reminded us that, whenever we enjoy the benefits of the modern computer age, we should all remember to “thank a gay”. In the conversation between the filmmakers and the audience that followed the screening, I pointed out that Turing was widely believed by experts to have been on the autism spectrum, and asked if this was ever examined during the making of the film. I learned that they had indeed been aware of this and even considered addressing it in the documentary, but decided not to do so because there was no real proof of Turing’s autism and as such it was too controversial. This to me was very disappointing, although I cannot really fault the filmmakers for their decision under the circumstances.
I would like to see an initiative, on the part of prominent autism experts and scholars, to conduct a historical investigation of the life, particularly the early childhood, of Alan Turing and attempt to find the most convincing possible evidence that he actually was on the autism spectrum. This would give our community the justification that we need to properly embrace him as one of ours (although we would do well to not emulate his social skills!). Furthermore, few people would ever suggest that Turing’s sexual orientation in any way either hindered or helped him accomplish what he did. If he in fact was on the spectrum, however, the well-known ability of Aspies to single-mindedly focus on a specialized interest and our tendency to disregard social considerations would certainly have helped him in his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, from which humanity so greatly benefitted.
While there is no question that Turing died a martyr for gay rights, I believe that the case can be made to consider him a martyr for neurodiversity as well. Whenever we use our computers, study computer science (as more than a few Aspies, including myself, have done), contemplate the prospects of artificial intelligence, or simply enjoy living in a world free from the tyranny of Nazism, we should all remember to THANK AN ASPIE! An excerpt of this article appeared in On The Spectrum, the publication of the Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism (AHA) Association.
The Imitation Game received eight Academy Awards nominations for 2014, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, along with five Golden Globes, nine BAFTA (British Academy Awards), and three Screen Actors Guild nominations. At the 87th Oscars in 2015, it won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Screenwriter Graham Moore, who gave what was considered the most powerful and moving speech of the evening, told of his suicide attempt at age 16 because he “felt weird and different and like he did not belong”. While he was not specific about the nature of his difference, it turns out that Moore had struggled with depression in his youth. This led him to identify with Turing and write the screenplay. He also encouraged young people to “stay weird and stay different”. These are feelings that most Aspies have had at one time or another, if not throughout their whole lives. A video of Graham Moore’s acceptance speech can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbNJq90t0Wk.
A New York Times review of the film can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/28/movies/the-imitation-game-stars-benedict-cumberbatch.html. A more controversial article in The New York Review of Books, which is very critical of the film’s historical inaccuracies (including his naïve openness about his gay lifestyle), can be found at http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2014/12/19/poor-imitation-alan-turing/.