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?

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7 thoughts on “The Imitation Game: Alan Turing’s Autism

  1. No, people do *not* need to see this film in order to understand more about autism, or about Alan Turing. In fact, it’s totally irresponsible to diagnose anyone from a filmed biography. Films necessarily concentrate on what can be portrayed visually, even if they have to exaggerate and even make up events or behaviors in order to do that. Film biographies are *fiction* and often have very little relationship to the reality of a person’s life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, I did say, “if.”

      There are a few things to say about biopics. One is that they are indeed fictionalized. They have to make up some of the dialogue, if not all of it. Does that mean it’s not an accurate portrayal of the person’s life? Like any great story, it is and it isn’t. It’s true, even if the facts aren’t right. If it weren’t true, biographers and those who knew him would be the first to complain.

      Second, the filmmakers said they were concentrating on the likelihood he was on the spectrum. I’m on the spectrum, and the portrayal of someone on the spectrum rung true to me.

      Three, I’ve been diagnosed. I would say that it’s about as responsible to diagnose someone based on their biography (or autobiography) as an interview of the person. The information is the same. But in this case, like I said, the filmmakers said they were portraying him as being on the spectrum, so it’s not much of a “diagnosis” on my part.

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      1. I actually watched a behind the scenes or interview (I cannot remember) and also have read the biography. There is wide acknowledgement that Turing might have been on the spectrum, yes. It was the conscious decision of the directors to not focus on this during the film. I will say it is quite unique for someone to be able to look at a challenge and the possibility of applying an out of the box solution. And I loved it.

        Liked by 1 person

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