POLL: Do you believe that Alan Turing was autistic?

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POLL: Do you believe that Alan Turing was autistic?
Yes 29%  29%  [ 10 ]
Likely 32%  32%  [ 11 ]
Maybe 24%  24%  [ 8 ]
Not Likely 9%  9%  [ 3 ]
No 6%  6%  [ 2 ]
Total votes : 34

AspieUtah
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22 Jun 2016, 7:00 pm

Computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and theoretical biologist Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, PhD, FRS, was born on June 23, 1912. He would have been 104 years of age today, so happy birthday, Alan! He helped lead the work in the United Kingdom to decode the German Reich’s Enigma code before and during World War II. He was gay and, some suggest, autistic, as well.

Mathematician Andrew Hodges, PhD, described many of Alan’s unusual behaviors in 1983 within his landmark book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. Based primarily on the book, the award-winning film, The Imitation Game, was released in 2014 and portrayed several of the same behaviors that the book did. Many people, including me, believe that, if the book and film were accurate, Alan exhibited many traditionally autistic behaviors, characteristics and comorbids. Recently, I have researched much of the available information about the matter.

The film’s makers, including its lead actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly as well as its writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum, seemed to me, however, to have eschewed the idea of Alan being autistic (as if that, while he could and should be portrayed as a gay man, he couldn’t and shouldn’t be portrayed as autistic, too). Moore even suggested that the portrayal of Alan (whatever else it was) wasn’t autistic because “...certainly, that was a word that didn’t exist during his lifetime...” (a claim which was as inaccurate as it would have been unlikely to negate the very existence of autism during and after the war), and that the numerous hints of autistic behaviors within the film were merely because Alan was “...the outsider’s outsider...” in a world where secrecy meant safety.[1] If so, are spies known to exhibit such behaviors to a degree where it is difficult to distinguish them from autistic people? I doubt it.

In my opinion, some of the film’s cast and crew were unprepared or unwilling to discuss Alan’s behaviors factually. Cumberbatch’s resentment of the idea that Alan’s behaviors might have been because of his likely autism was described in 2014 within the Metro news report “TIFF: Benedict Cumberbatch is sick of people calling his characters autistic” wherein he stated that “I don’t think he was on the spectrum. I think a lot of people are very lazy with that.” He added that “I think it's a really dangerous thing to toy with that[.]”[2] In response, other commentators including Stella Waterhouse and Reuben Baron described how Alan and the film’s portrayal of him seemed steeped in many autistic behaviors, characteristics and comorbids that could easily earn any other individual a diagnosis today.[3, 4] I believe that autism is either a legitimate (though, sometimes unrecognized) condition throughout human history, particularly since the 1940s when Hans Asperger, Dr. med. univ., and Leo Kanner, Dr. med. univ., were in fevered research about the matter … or it isn’t.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for Alan’s likely autism have been the personal descriptions about him by his brother, John Ferrier Turing, their mother, Ethel Sara Stoney Turing, and their family friend and writer, Lyn Irvine Newman, as well as a few of his nieces and nephews. They knew and described Alan in ways which suggest that he was autistic at a time when they wouldn’t likely have understood the diagnostic influence of their words. This simple fact makes their fair descriptions valuable to us.

John wrote an essay about Alan in the 1960s and 1970s which was included in the 2012 centenary edition of their mother’s 1959 memoir about her son, Alan M. Turing. In it, John described how Alan lived “...in some strange world of his own, full of nervous tensions of which we lesser mortals know nothing.” Without much specificity, John suggested that Alan’s behaviors strayed from social norms when he wrote that “[m]y mother implies that his many eccentricities, divagations from normal behaviour and the rest were some kind of emanation of his genius. I do not think so at all. In my view, these things were the result of his insecurity as a child, not only in those early days at the Wards, but later on as his mother nagged and badgered him. This, however, is all theory which I am content to leave to the psychologists.” John’s statements were also adapted and published in 2012 within the commentary “My Brother, the Genius” in The Atlantic.[5] It is notable that John blamed their mother for Alan’s behaviors by using descriptions which had been used for years by Dr. Kanner in popularizing the idea that childhood autism was caused in part by distant parents, particularly mothers. I believe that, by borrowing Kanner’s words, John admits practically (and, maybe, unwittingly) that he considered certain of Alan’s behaviors were comparable to the contemporaneous description of Kanner autism.

In Sara’s memoir about Alan, she wrote that in dress and habits, “...he tended to be slovenly. His hair was usually too long, with an overhanging lock which he would toss back with a jerk of his head.”[6]

Lyn wrote the forward of Sara’s memoir in which she stated that “[w]ith ninety-nine people out of a hundred Alan protected himself by his off-hand manners and his long silences – silences finally torn up by the shrill stammer and the crowing laugh which told upon the nerves even of his friends. He had a strange way of not meeting the eye, of sidling out of the door with a brusque and off-hand word of thanks. His oddly contoured head, handsome and even imposing, suddenly from another angle, or in a different mood, became unprepossessing. He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best blue tweed suit. An alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark, powerful head, with a chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass. They sometimes passed unnoticed at first; he had a way of keeping them to himself, and there was also so much that was curious and interesting about his appearance to distract the attention. But once he had looked directly and earnestly at his companion, in the confidence of friendly talk, his eyes could never again be missed. Such candour and comprehension looked from them, something so civilized that one hardly dared to breathe. Being so far beyond words and acts, that glance seemed also beyond humanity.”[7]

Alan’s niece, Shuna Turing Hunt, stated in 2009 within the BBC News Watts what... news report “Turing relatives recall ‘Uncle Alan’” that “[d]uring the war, because of his inside information, he became convinced that we were about to be invaded … so he buried the family silver near Bletchley Park and it’s still there, because he forgot where he’d buried it.... He was the stereotypical boffin. He used to chain his mug to the radiator at Bletchley Park so that no one ran off with it.” She remarked also that Alan had later given his Teddy Bear to her. “It was called Porgy. He bought it for himself when he was an adult, and it used to sit in the chair when he was at Cambridge. He used to practice his lectures in front of Porgy.”[8]

Another of Alan’s nieces, Inagh Turing Payne, stated in 2013 within the Daily Mail news report “Life story: Why code-breaker Alan Turing was cast aside by postwar Britain” that he was “...always a bit unkempt and scruffy. He wore an old sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows, and if he’d been cycling his trousers would be tied with string. He had a pronounced stammer and a whinnying laugh, which drove some people so mad they would go out of the room.” Inagh described how her mother had told her “...that shortly after they were married she and Daddy held a cocktail party. Alan was invited but after a few minutes he announced, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like this!’ and stormed out[.]” Inagh added that “[u]sually, Alan would visit my grandmother, who lived nearby, and Granny would invite myself and Shuna, my younger sister, over. Alan could be distracted, thinking his great thoughts, but he never talked down to us.”[9]

Some of Alan’s coworkers and friends including electronic engineer Donald Bayley; Joan Clarke Murray, MBE, double-first wrangler in mathematics, Robin Gandy, PhD, I.J. Good, PhD, Norman Routledge, PhD and Shaun Wylie, PhD, described his behaviors, however anecdotally, in 1992 within the BBC Two Television Horizon broadcast of the documentary episode “The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing[,]” as well.[10]

Another of Alan’s Bletchley Park coworkers, Olive Bailey, stated in 2015 within the CBC News report “Olive Bailey, B.C. woman who helped crack Nazi codes in WWII” about her work to decode the Enigma code that “‘[h]e was inclined to talk in bursts, like you imagine that type of person would.’ […] She said her enduring recollection of Turing is of a man so many misunderstood. ‘You see, he would chain his coffee mug to the radiator. And everyone got the idea, that’s odd.’ Pointing to a mess of wartime notes and documents on her table, Bailey said, ‘Now look at this table and see if you wanted to find a cup of coffee. You wouldn’t have been able to find it, so Alan chained it to the radiator. And, of course, he did that and everyone thought he was bonkers or something.’”[11]

And, another of Alan’s coworkers, Sarah Norton Baring, stated in 1999 within a PBS Television Nova documentary episode “Decoding Nazi Secrets” that “[h]e was very shy of women, particularly girls. I don’t think he’d met any girls before. I did once offer him a cup of tea, and he shrank back as if he was going to be shot. And, he used to -- bless his heart -- walk down to the canteen in a curious sideways motion with his head down. But, he was such a star, we all thought he was the best wonderful thing.”[12]

Alan’s nephew and recent biographer, Sir John Dermot Turing, has maintained much of Alan’s legacy in his public speaking, writing and publishing. In one such written description, Sir Dermot stated in 2015 within the London Evening Standard news report “Sir John Dermot Turing: The Imitation Game tells the full story of my codebreaking uncle” that “The Imitation Game brings Alan to life in a rather different way -- Benedict Cumberbatch and the team behind it managed not just to remind us about all his innovations and their magnitude: they also succeeded in making Alan a living, breathing, feeling human being who was complicated, strange, brilliant, caring and staunch in his belief that he would live life as he chose to. He was not afraid to challenge conventions, nor did he shy away from his identity as a homosexual.”[13] Sir Dermot added more to Alan’s story in 2015 when he wrote Prof: Alan Turing Decoded. The book was the first biography about Alan to include previously secret documents which had been publicly released in 2012 by the U.K. National Archives, and other sources. As a result, the book also describes many of Alan’s behaviors.[14]

Sir Dermot stated in 2016 within a Talks at Google presentation that “...the impression you get from talking to the people who worked with [Alan] at Bletchley Park [and] people who worked with him in Manchester, you know, I mean -- yeah -- you wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to have him at your sherry party. Indeed, my father didn’t want him at a sherry party; badly dressed, rude to the other guests, fish out of water, very uncomfortable in that kind of social setting, would have thought working here [Google] would have been absolutely great ‘cause, you know, you are all talking about [audience laughs] -- none of you have ever been to a sherry party in your lives and, and, what’s more, you’d all be talking about the stuff you all enjoy talking about together -- so, you know, it’s kinda … you just put people in the right environment.”[15]

In our understanding of Alan’s behaviors, he has been included in the written commentaries and retrospective diagnoses of some of the world’s leading authorities on autism today including Tony Attwood, PhD, John Brock, PhD, S. Barry Cooper, PhD, Ioan James, PhD, FRS, and Henry O’Connell, MD, and Michael Fitzgerald, MD, that suggest that Alan was likely autistic because his behaviors match the diagnostic criteria for autism.[16, 17, 18, 19, 20]

Finally, while not serving as compelling evidence of Alan’s likely autism, at least one tour guide at Bletchley Park, Linden Stead, was telling visitors in 2012 that Alan “...probably suffered from Asperger syndrome which is a high-end form of autism. Although it was never officially diagnosed, his behavior tended to indicate that that may well have been a problem for him. […] He always used to come to work in a suit and tie. But, it was often said that his suits and dry cleaners had never been introduced to each other. He suffered from hay fever, but, instead of taking medication, and staying indoors in the spring and summer, he used to ride around on this clapped out bicycle with a gas mask on. And, his bike was so bad that the chain kept falling of it. But, Turing -- being Turing -- worked out that, if he counted the number of revolutions of the wheels, he would get to a point where, if he back-peddled, the chain wouldn’t fall off. I think probably only Turing could figure that one out. […] But, as far as his bike was concerned, and various other things, he was almost paranoid about getting things stolen. Somebody once said to him, ‘why don’t you get your bike fixed?’ He said, ‘why should I; who’s going to steal that wreck?’ And, it even came down to his tea mug. Because what he did was, he chained it to the radiator just to make sure it didn’t disappear. When he walked from here -- from his office -- over to the canteen for his meals, he always used to walk with his head down. He didn’t like making eye contact with people. Because, he thought, if they did, they would draw him into conversation. And, Turing never really liked conversing with people who he thought were intellectually inferior to himself.”[21] Technology journalist, John Leyden, stated in 2012 within The Register news report “Inside Turing: Computer boffinry to cuffing cups to radiators” that “[y]ears later, when the lake adjacent to Bletchley Park was drained in a search for Enigma machines, workers found several cups and mugs that had been thrown into the lake by [Alan’s deputy head Hugh] Alexander during his morning walks, presumably somewhat absentmindedly when he was in a bad mood. So although odd, there was probably good reason for Turing’s worries over mug security.”[22]

So, in my opinion, the preponderance of evidence suggests strongly that Alan exhibited many autistic behaviors, characteristics and comorbids … even if they weren’t recognized as such by psychological clinicians in the United Kingdom at the time. If only his work had decoded an Enigma message from Dr. Asperger which described the eventually eponymous neurological condition, Alan might have learned as much about his own behaviors as he did about the German Reich’s military plans.

Alan died on June 7, 1954, from cyanide poisoning; just 16 days before his 42nd birthday.

NOTES

1. Red Carpet News TV. “Was Alan Turing Autistic - The Imitation Game Premiere Interviews.” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. October 8, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jP8Pq9Ma-UY .

2. Ehrbar, Ned. “TIFF: Benedict Cumberbatch is sick of people calling his characters autistic.” Metro. New York: Metro International. September 7, 2014. http://www.metro.us/entertainment/tiff- ... BOTRdxFl6k .

3. Waterhouse, Stella. “The biggest secret of all… Asperger’s at the Oscars?” Autism Daily Newscast. February 20, 2015. http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/bigg ... waterhouse .

4. Baron, Reuben. “‘The Imitation Game’: An Autistic Perspective.” theLFB. Boston: theLFB. January 1, 2015. http://www.the-lfb.com/2015/01/01/the-i ... erspective .

5. Turing, John. “My Brother, the Genius.” The Atlantic. Washington: Atlantic Media. June 22, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/a ... ius/258886 .

6. Cooper, S. Barry. “De-coding the Turing family.” The Guardian. London: Guardian Media Group. April 17, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-north ... rry-cooper .

7. Irvine, Lyn. “Forward to the First Edition.” Alan M. Turing. Page xix. Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons. 1959. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1107524229 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyn_Irvine .

8. Watts, Susan. “Turing relatives recall ‘Uncle Alan.’” Watts what.... BBC News. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. September 4, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/su ... uncle.html .

9. Harding, Louette. “Life story: Why code-breaker Alan Turing was cast aside by postwar Britain.” Mail Online. London: Daily Mail and General Trust. November 16, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/art ... itain.html .

10. Christopher Sykes. “The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing - Part 1 of 2 Meet the real Joan Clarke!” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. August 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyusnGbBSHE . “The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing - Part 2 of 2 Meet the real Joan Clarke!!” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. August 2, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LHFzNMgWzw .

11. “Olive Bailey, B.C. woman who helped crack Nazi codes in WWII.” CBC News. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. January 14, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-c ... -1.2900631 .

12. History Of Wars. “PBS Decoding Nazi Secrets Documentary.” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. November 27, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9o4MZ8JbaA .

13. Turing, Sir John Dermot. “Sir John Dermot Turing: The Imitation Game tells the full story of my codebreaking uncle.” London Evening Standard. London: Daily Mail and General Trust. February 9, 2015. http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comme ... 33536.html .

14. Turing, Dermot. Prof: Alan Turing Decoded. Stroud, England: The History Press Ltd. September 15, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=QhxmCgAAQBAJ .

15. Talks at Google. “Dermot Turing: ‘Prof: Alan Turing Decoded’ | Talks at Google.” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. February 5, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG67UFZ-WyE .

16. Attwood, Tony. “The Autism Epidemic: Real or Imagined.” Autism Asperger’s Digest. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons Inc. November/December 2000. http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/index.php ... r-imagined .

17. Brock, John. “Did Alan Turing have Asperger syndrome?” cracking the enigma. June 26, 2012. http://crackingtheenigma.blogspot.com/2 ... drome.html .

18. Cooper, S. Barry. “Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks.” The Guardian. London: Guardian Media Group. June 20, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-north ... ring-geeks .

19. James, Ioan. Asperger’s Syndrome and High Achievement: Some Very Remarkable People. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2005. https://books.google.com/books?id=SZ-p4GOdJIgC&hl=en .

20. O’Connell, Henry and Michael Fitzgerald “Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s syndrome?” Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine 03/2003; 20(1):28-31. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 2003. https://www.researchgate.net/publicatio ... s_syndrome .

21. PA3DMI. “Bletchley Park Tour [docu in full].” YouTube.com. San Bruno, Calif.: YouTube LLC. April 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuEHcJ7CCzg .

22. Leyden, John. “Inside Turing: Computer boffinry to cuffing cups to radiators.” The Register. London: Situation Publishing. April 27, 2012. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/04/27 ... _computer/ .


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BabbityRabbity
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22 Jun 2016, 7:48 pm

I have no idea if he did or not, but your write up was fascinating and now I want to watch the movie. I had heard of him but didn't know much about him before, and you have intrigued me to learn more!



AspieUtah
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22 Jun 2016, 7:51 pm

BabbityRabbity wrote:
I have no idea if he did or not, but your write up was fascinating and now I want to watch the movie. I had heard of him but didn't know much about him before, and you have intrigued me to learn more!

Thank you! The film is fantastic. The book on which the film was based is even more fantastic, but, I admit I didn't understand some of its mathematical parts.


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22 Jun 2016, 7:56 pm

I have no idea who he was but he shares a birthday with sonic the hedgehogs anniversary


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AspieUtah
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22 Jun 2016, 8:02 pm

ZombieBrideXD wrote:
I have no idea who he was but he shares a birthday with sonic the hedgehogs anniversary

Really? That's amazing!


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22 Jun 2016, 8:20 pm

I found that Mr. Turing, as portrayed in the movie, exhibited quite a few autistic (mostly Aspergian) behaviors.

Obviously, I did not know him in real life--but AspieUtah's description makes it seem as if he was somewhere on the Spectrum.



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22 Jun 2016, 8:23 pm

If this makes sense: I don't believe he was autistic, and I don't believe he wasn't.

I am not in favor of trying to posthumously diagnose people.


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22 Jun 2016, 8:25 pm

kraftiekortie wrote:
...AspieUtah's description makes it seem as if he was somewhere on the Spectrum.

I just herded some of the kittens. :wink:


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22 Jun 2016, 8:29 pm

What's really unfortunate was how he was harassed because he was gay....and after the excellent service he rendered to Great Britain!



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22 Jun 2016, 8:38 pm

AJisHere wrote:
...I am not in favor of trying to posthumously diagnose people.

I am so glad somebody mentioned this idea! Because I thought the same thing while researching the evidence. Normally, I would agree with you, but if young children (say, 5 to 12 years of age) can't sometimes be expected to describe their own behaviors, characteristics and comorbids accurately in an assessment for autism, diagnosticians usually ask parents, grandparents, older siblings and even educators to describe what they have observed in the assessed child's daily life. Through those descriptions, diagnosticians can make diagnoses-by-proxy, in a manner of speaking. This happens every day.

In Turing's case, he was never diagnosed as autistic. But, we still have an abundance of first-person evidence about him by way of personal descriptions from his family members, family friends and coworkers who knew him well. Of course, most of them didn't know what they were suggesting in their descriptions, but it was about as accurate as we could hope for apart from interviewing Turing himself. Restrospective diagnoses use the same thresholds of evidence that exist with living individuals, so, if they are based on the same kinds of information and observation by close family members and friends, I don't see a problem in the retrospective diagnoses offered by the diagnosticians described in the OP.


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22 Jun 2016, 8:39 pm

kraftiekortie wrote:
What's really unfortunate was how he was harassed because he was gay....and after the excellent service he rendered to Great Britain!

Yep. It makes my opinion of Winston Churchill dim considerable.


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22 Jun 2016, 8:49 pm

It's a pity.....because Churchill's resolve under fire is one of the main reasons why England emerged victorious in the aftermath of the Blitz.



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22 Jun 2016, 9:27 pm

You make a fair point, AspieUtah. I suppose if I grant you that, the question then becomes "why?".


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22 Jun 2016, 9:35 pm

AJisHere wrote:
You make a fair point, AspieUtah. I suppose if I grant you that, the question then becomes "why?".

I would like to quote George Mallory in 1924: "Because it's there." But, that would be a clumsy comparison. I dunno; maybe I would like to see more historical figures like Alan Turing being accurately diagnosed because, if such figures were autistic, we would honor them and stretch our imagination of the possibilities of autism.


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22 Jun 2016, 9:44 pm

I guess I can see the need for that, but then it may be more useful to seek out examples where we can get a more definitive answer than "maybe". In truth, we can't accurately diagnose these people. The most we can get is educated guesses, if even that.


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