Saturday, September 12, 2009

Recognition and apology for Alan Turing from UK Prime Minister

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, cryptographer and logician, a pioneer of modern computer science, and he played a major role in deciphering the Enigma code used by the Germans during WWII. Turing apparently helped to bring World War II to a swifter conclusion. He was also one of those eccentric geniuses who have been identified posthumously as being on the autistic spectrum. In 1952 Turing was convicted of "gross indeceny" after admitting to police that he had a sexual relationship with a man. The bizarre punishment/treatment was a choice between imprisonment or injections of female hormones which were thought to reduce libido. In 1954 Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest found it was suicide. The 1950s were certainly not "happy days" for this national hero.

A computer scientist started a campaign seeking an official apology for Turing and a posthumous knighthood from the Queen. A petition attracted thousands of signatures, with support from scientists and LGBT activists. On Thursday September the 10th Gordon Brown issued an official statement in which he wrote "... we’re sorry, you deserved so much better". I'm sure that many scientists and LGBT people are pleased that a famous person who's trials or talents they can identify with has been given posthumous recognition. As an autistic person I also feel pleased that something has been done to recognize a past injustice to one of our people.

The year 2012 will be the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, and many events are being planned to mark this occasion. I hope any events or writings that will be a part of this celebration will depict Turing realistically and in an unbiased way as an autistic person, rather than simply a martyr to autism or a "sufferer" of autism. I believe that the committee planning these celebrations should include at least one autistic person (formally diagnosed or not) who has an understanding of intellectually gifted people who are on the autistic spectrum. There is evidence that the autism of intellectually intact autistics could be more representative of the autistic phenotype than the different varieties of autism and autism-like conditions that co-occur with intelllectual disability (Leonard et al 2011), so any autism expert who's experience has been primarily with intellectually disabled autistic people will most likely not be able to add anything to our understanding of a gifted autistic historical figure.

Turing's story is a special story, because of his historical importance, his intellectual achievements (which are beyond my understanding), his amusing eccentricities, and because of the terrible personal injustice. It appears to be a story about the individual being rejected and crushed by society. Once or twice I've retold Alan Turing's story to teens, and the response is "Wow, you mean being gay was against the law?" I think this response shows why it is important to have these little talks. In the decade before our kids were born gay sex still was illegal here, and it wasn't so very long ago that divorce was considered a major scandal, and women were forced by law to resign from the public service if they got married. I often find myself telling the young ones horror stories about injustices of the past: Aboriginal people having their wages and children and land stolen by the government, severely limited opportunities for women, orphanage children made to work like slaves, life under Stalin, genocide in Europe, Africa and Asia. I tell these horror stories because I know children don't get taught a fraction of this stuff at school and I want the next generation to appreciate and guard the freedom and the rights that they have, to understand how it would feel to be the victim of gross social injustice, and to understand that injustice is a feature of every type of human society, a problem that we must all recognize and engage with.

Brown, Gordon (2009) Treatment of Alan Turing was “appalling” - PM. September 10th 2009.
[an official posthumous apology from the Prime Minister of the UK]

BBC News "PM apology after Turing petition"

Helen Leonard, Emma Glasson, Natasha Nassar, Andrew Whitehouse, Ami Bebbington, Jenny Bourke, Peter Jacoby, Glenys Dixon, Eva Malacova, Carol Bower, Fiona Stanley (2011) Autism and Intellectual Disability Are Differentially Related to Sociodemographic Background at Birth. PLoS ONE. Received: January 8, 2011; Accepted: February 11, 2011; Published: March 30, 2011.

O’Connell H., Fitzgerald M. (2003). Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s syndrome? Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. 20, 1, 28 – 31.
[a particularly well-written paper about a very interesting man]

A referenced list of 140 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum
[Alan Turing is included in this list]

Breaking the Code (1996)
[TV dramatization of Turing's life directed by Herbert Wise with Derek Jacobi in the lead role]

Gelonesi, Joe (2007) David Leavitt on Alan Turing. The Book Show. ABC Radio National. August 30th 2007.

[an interesting interview in which the biographer said he believed Turing possibly would be diagnosed as AS if he were around today]

Gray, Paul (1999) Alan Turing: the Time 100: the most important people of the century. Time. March 29th 1999.

Hodges, Andrew (1983) Alan Turing: the enigma. Burnett Books with Hutchinson, 1983.

[a highly regarded biography]

Leavitt, David (2006) The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer. W. W. Norton, 2006.

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