Thursday 7 February 2019

"A genius. A saviour. But he was also autistic and gay. So we betrayed him." Autistic?

The legacy
The quote titling this post - "A genius. A saviour. But he was also autistic and gay. So we betrayed him" - came from the impassioned speech given by the naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham. The speech probably contributed greatly to his Icon being crowned "the 20th century's most important and influential figure" as part of the BBC Two series called Icons. That icon was Alan Turing, the "Father of the computer and WW2 code-breaker."

I don't think many people would argue that Alan Turing was a worthy winner. To get to the finals of the Icons series, the public voted for him above other great scientists in his category such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein (my brood and I actually thought Einstein was going to walk this category given his life, the universe and everything theories). Turing eventually saw off competition in the final from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Nelson Mandela. Even the 'greatest' couldn't match the impressive contribution that Turing made to the 20th Century and beyond. A worthy British winner voted for by a (predominantly) British audience 😉.

That all being said, I was a little disappointed by the reference to Alan Turing being 'autistic' made by Chris Packham (himself diagnosed with autism). Disappointed because, as a scientist who I assume sought truth or at least a significant degree of probability of truth, even Turing would perhaps raise an eyebrow at the notion that he was autistic without, as far as I am aware, ever being assessed or diagnosed as such. It might seem like a paltry point to focus on. After all, there were certainly clues throughout Turing's life that had he been alive and working today, someone, somewhere might have considered a diagnostic assessment for autism. But he wasn't diagnosed with autism. That's the 'truth' of the matter. And trying to rewrite history to say that he was autistic without any authoritative evidence (i.e. a diagnostic assessment of the man himself) is, well, unscientific.

Other writers have already discussed the Turing diagnosis issue in some depth (see here and see here). Although not necessarily sharing the politics of all those writers, I do share the sentiments that the rush to (armchair) diagnose historical figures of some importance to have autism or some other diagnosis serves no-one well. And believe me, there have been enough attempts at this down the years (see here); all speculative and many evidence-free. Any attempts to insinuate that the achievements of Alan Turing were 'down to his autism' pathologises his life and important works to a diagnostic label that he didn't even possess.

I know some people want that to be the case. They want the 'autistic identity' to reflect the achievements of people like Alan Turing; a sort of poster boy for autism, alongside the likes of Einstein and Newton according to some people. They'll say something along the lines of that autism wasn't recognised back then as much as it is nowadays. They might also say that autism is just a label, and that the current way of diagnosing is too restrictive or something like that. I don't disagree with some of those arguments (as long as you don't tell me self-diagnosis is as valid as formal diagnosis), but the simple fact of the matter is that Turing was never, as far as we know, assessed or diagnosed with autism. Period.

By saying that Turing was autistic would no doubt help the thousands of children (and adults) who have been labelled with autism / as autistic. It would convey a message that autism is not always exclusively about 'deficit' and that some of the greatest achievements of humankind might have had 'a pinch of autism' added. I admire such attempts to convey such a message; kids of all shapes and sizes should have role models and people to look up to. But such a message should not be made at the expense of facts. It shouldn't be made at the expense of rewriting history as one might prefer it to look, no matter your strength of feeling on a matter. Indeed if you want a good role model, look to Chris Packham and his 'Really Wild' influence over the past few decades. Fond memories for many including me.

If one follows the guidance on diagnosis, as in a diagnosis only being made when autistic signs and traits 'significantly impact on facets of life', one could similarly argue that Turing might not have even hit such a diagnostic threshold anyway. Did any of his 'autistic traits' impair his important work during World War 2? Obviously they did not. Did such a presentation deter him from coming up with the designs for the Automatic Computing Engine? No, they did not. And the idea that autistic traits are "present over time and have a noticeable effect on daily life" is an important part of the diagnosis of autism.

What did have a noticeable effect on Turing was his sexuality; his sexuality at a time when anti-homosexuality laws were active here in Blighty. A shameful set of laws eventually meant Turin accepting chemical castration rather than going to prison. This is the betrayal that Chris Packham rightly asserts in his speech, as Turing was barred from working at GCHQ. He was credited with saving millions of lives during the war, but archaic laws meant that counted for nothing during his lifetime. I don't know how much this affected Turing personally. Yes, he died by cyanide poisoning and the coroner at the time reported death by suicide. But even his death by suicide is now being questioning in some quarters (see here); to quote: "Turing had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments he conducted in his tiny spare room... And he was known for tasting chemicals to identify them." We don't know.

Alan Turing is a worthy winner of the BBC Icons series. His endeavours and achievements are very much still with us today in just about every corner of our lives. He was a genius, and certainly during World War 2 he was also a saviour. Labelling him however as autistic without even any hint of a diagnostic assessment being undertaken or diagnosis received represents a gross 'evidence-free' injustice to him and his memory. And the words 'evidence-free' is a particular slur on the memory of one of our greatest scientists...


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