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Autism: The Enigma That Amazingly Saved 14 Million Lives

September 28, 2023

Alan Turing: The man who cracked the ‘unbreakable’ German Enigma Code in World War II.  A gay man convicted of homosexuality in the dark days when it was a crime, but posthumously pardoned by Her Majesty the Queen in 2013.

Autism: The Enigma That Amazingly Saved 14 Million Lives

Until recently, that was about the sum of my knowledge of this brilliant man, but as I watched The Imitation Game, the film that tells Turing’s story, I learned something more, something very unexpected.

As I saw Turing’s character unfold—a socially awkward man; an arrogant, obsessive genius; a ‘loner’ with few friends and even less of a sense of humor; an ‘oddball’—something else became self-evident.

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Autism: The Enigma That Amazingly Saved

14 Million Lives

Within minutes of the film, I was reaching for my mobile, a device whose artificial intelligence Turing himself pioneered, and was searching ‘Did Alan Turing have autism?’ Unsurprisingly, the same question appeared many times in the search results, and with each one the answer was the same: yes.

Of course, Turing lived at a time when autism barely existed as a phenomenon in its own right and was unknown to most of the medical profession, let alone to the rest of the world.  At the outbreak of World War II, Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who studied and described the condition, were still in the throes of carrying out and documenting their research.  It would have been impossible then for Turing to have had a formal diagnosis.  Yet, today’s expert in the field who have studied his life all reach the same conclusion: Alan Turing had Asperger’s syndrome. He had autism.

You cannot, of course, simply hurl a retrospective diagnosis at someone without good grounds or careful research.  In their 2003 paper, Henry O’Connel and Michael Fitzgerald used the ‘Gildberg’ criteria for Asperger’s syndrome—a set of six symptoms that must all be present for a diagnosis to be confirmed—while studying Turing’s biography in order to search for factors that would either confirm or deny any such diagnosis. Turing, they concluded, met all six criteria:

  • Severe impairment in reciprocal social interaction
  • All-absorbing narrow interest
  • Imposition of routines and interests (on self or others)
  • Nonverbal communication problems
  • Speech and language problems
  • Motor clumsiness

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As I read this and the film played on, I had an unexpected and overwhelming feeling of sadness.  Why was it that I had never heard anyone speak of Turing’s probable autism? Why did the film, which clearly portrayed him as having the symptoms of autism, make no mention of it, even in the text summary at the film’s conclusion?

Why should this make me feel sad? Because autism was a vital aspect of his personality, something to be proud of, something to celebrate, something to shout about, not something to be confined to history’s ‘bottom drawer.’

And speaking of history—at the very time that Turing was endeavoring to crack the German Enigma Code, people in Europe with his very condition were amongst the millions being persecuted and murdered by the same regime Turing’s genius ultimately helped to bring down.

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Autism: The Enigma That Amazingly Saved

14 Million Lives

In this respect, Turing could count himself fortunate to have been born on this side of the English Channel. He can also count himself lucky that autism was not then recognized as a condition. If it had been, perhaps the ‘powers that be’ would have tried to ‘cure’ him of that, just as they tried to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, a treatment that had devastating consequences.

Following a year of government authorized ‘treatment,’ Alan Turing committed suicide at the age of 41. Whether it was the former that led to his suicide or whether it was his autism we will never know, but today, it is recognized that one third of people diagnosed with autism also have mental health issues. My own daughter was prescribed anti-depressants at the age of 12 after finally having been officially diagnosed with the condition.

For better or worse, autism made Alan Turing the man he was: a scientific genius, the pioneer of artificial intelligence, the father of computing, just as it makes my daughter the complex, challenging, difficult, frustrating, quirky, funny, wonderful woman she is.

His was an astonishing mind, a mind that cracked the Enigma Code and thereby shortened the war by approximately two years, saving an estimated 14 million lives.  His was an autistic mind.

Why this aspect of such a brilliant man’s life is not acknowledged even today remains an enigma…

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Autism: The Enigma That Amazingly Saved

14 Million Lives

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The copyright acknowledgements for the historical photographs are as follows:
Alan Turing: kpfa.org
Enigma machine: ilord.com
Bletchley Park sign: historybunker.com
Bletchley building: ibtimes.co.uk.

This article was featured in Issue 55 – Celebrating with the People We Love

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