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Does Alan Turing have Aspergers Syndrome?

By: Sarah Kahan, LCSW

Published in The Jewish Press 02/25/15

The recent release of the movie The Imitation Game is about the life of Alan Turing who lived from 1912-1954. He was a British computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, mathematical biologist, and marathon and ultra distance runner. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, providing a formalization of the concepts of "algorithm" and "computation" with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general purpose computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. 

During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School  at Bletchley Park, Britain's code breaking center. For a time he led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Turing's pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic. It has been estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years. Turing proposed marriage to Hut 8 co-worker Joan Clarke, a fellow mathematician and cryptanalyst, but their engagement was short-lived since he decided that he could not go through with the marriage. (Alan Turing. (2015). from http://www.biography.com/people/alan-turing-9512017.)

Authors Henry O’Connell and Michael Fitzgerald did some research looking for anecdotes and descriptions of Turing that would support a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome.

Here is what they discovered which they divided into categories:

Severe impairment in reciprocal social interaction

• School report described him as "antisocial" 

• Only one friend at school 

• No attempt to socialize with academic superiors 

All-absorbing narrow interest

• Interests in science, mathematics, chemistry, codes and ciphers, nature 

Impositions of routines and interests (on self or other)

• Always ate an apple before bed 

• House was cluttered with whatever he was interested in at the time 

• Always put the cork back in the wine bottle at the end of a meal 

• Often worked through the night 

• Wrote about his work to people with no scientific background 

Nonverbal communication problems

• Stiff gaze in photographs 

• Lack of eye contact 

• Awkward appearance 

Motor clumsiness

• Poor handwriting 

• Always got ink on his collar at school 

Can a person with Aspergers Syndrome (AS) improve their social skills and have meaningful relationships? 

People with AS often have extremely mixed feelings about the idea of improving their social skills. On one hand they may see how it could help them achieve some of their goals in terms of making more friends, or getting into a romantic relationship. However, they may also dislike the idea at the same time, for all kinds of reasons:

By the time they reach adulthood they may have completely associated socializing with things such as failure, discouragement, anxiety, confusion, depression, rejection, and not being accepted for who they are. They may resent that they have to conform to typical people's idea of what good social skills are, even though a lot of those practices seem totally illogical (e.g., "Why can't people just come out and say what they mean? Why is being blunt necessarily such a bad thing?")

Similarly, they may be fed up with constantly getting the message that there's something wrong with them because they have AS. They may want certain things for themselves socially, such as a social circle that understands them, but have no interest in other aspects of socializing, like small talk or office politics, and not want to learn them.

The people who seem to improve the most have a clear idea of what their goals are, and what they're willing to do and not do to achieve them. Some successful people with Asperger's seem to come to peace with the fact that the social world is set up a certain way, they don't take it personally, and adapt to its rules in order to get the things in life that are important to them. 

Many people struggle to make peace with their Asperger-ish traits. They will often put tremendous effort into improving their social skills so they can pass as normal, and their sense of self-worth may be very tied into how successful they are at doing that. Sometimes, their self-esteem gets so wrapped up in getting past their Asperger's that they deny and suppress some of their other traits, and that ultimately leaves them feeling unfulfilled. They need to keep the aspects of themselves that they like and work to get rid of the parts they don't like. It's not an either-or thing. There may be nothing wrong with looking at the world in a different way, or having different priorities, or being super interested in esoteric topics. Accepting these traits about themselves can be liberating. 

Some people seem to give the label too much power and use it as an excuse not to try to improve their social skills, or they give up too easily. Their thinking can be, "I have Asperger's. I can't do anything. There's no point in trying." In some cases the people who think like this may not be all that motivated to do better socially in the first place, and the label plays right into that.

On the other hand, if you do have AS then you have to respect how it can make socializing harder for you. If you don't you may put unrealistic expectations on yourself and get discouraged when you don't meet them. There's nothing wrong with knowing your limits and working within them. 

People with AS need to have social situations broken down in detail, and have various approaches and strategies explained to them. It is helpful to provide them with a reason for why social rules and situations are the way they are, rather than just going, "That's just how it is. Don't ask questions." It's easier to adjust to something if you know the rationale behind it.

Some prefer to tell others that they have the disorder since the person they are interacting with can be more understanding and compassionate and adjust their expectations accordingly. The negative side is that some people won't understand, or get the wrong idea about what the condition means, which can lead to a negative sense of self. 

Various tools have also been developed to teach social skills, such as comic strips that explain how someone may typically be thinking in a certain scenario. Someone could also get this information in a social skills training group, or by working with a coach, a mentor, therapist, family member, or friend. People with Aspergers sometimes observe and analyze social situations, but then arrive at conclusions that aren't quite right. A mentor or coach could tell them if they're on the right track or not, and explain why.

Many socially successful people with AS will speak of growing up with a lot of siblings, or having a good group of friends in high school. Those circumstances gave them many opportunities to practice and learn, compared to someone who was more isolated. Role playing is a helpful tool to use in order to improve interpersonal situations, learn to recognize emotions in others, cope with awkward silences, and learn to have a conversation. 

There are many resources and better therapies that are available now which were not available when Alan Turing was alive.  We have the benefit of using those resources to help people with Aspergers Syndrome live successful, meaningful, and joyful lives.

Sarah Kahan, LCSW is the coordinator of the Simcha Program @ OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services. Individuals interested in the program should please contact OHEL at 1(800)603-OHEL

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