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Was Alan Turing dyslexic?

Some commentators think Alan Turing was dyslexic, some say autistic. In any case his life and his genius remain sources of inspiration for engineers and all those who defy discrimination and prejudice.

Apparently, people with dyslexia or autism make good engineers.

Sounds like the sort of thing parents might have heard at the school open day, before anyone really acknowledged what dyslexia or autism were and how these conditions affected people. Can't read or write, but can drive a tractor. Work hard and one day you might even be able to design one.

Alan Turing – the man whose work paved the way for the modern computer, the Second World War codebreaker and the all-round genius – was dyslexic too. Well, allegedly. But not according to Sir John Dermot Turing, Alan's nephew and a trustee of Bletchley Park, where the codebreakers broke Hitler's Enigma cipher and read secret communications between the Nazi leaders and their naval and airforce commanders. "Never heard of nor seen any evidence of Alan having been dyslexic," he says.

The rumour mill also says that Turing might have been autistic, although Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him in the film 'The Imitation Game', out this November, denied any knowledge of this when a BBC reporter put the question to him at a press conference.

Kiera Knightley, who plays Turing's fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke in the film, was diagnosed dyslexic at the age of six. There were no dyslexia tests when Alan Turing was growing up, however.

Born in Maida Vale in 1912, Turing was sent to Sherborne School in 1926. According to his headmaster, the boy was wasting his time at public school if he focused only on science and ignored the classics. One needed the classics to get educated, the headmaster believed. Never mind that Turing grasped Einstein's critique of Newton when he was just 16 years old.

Turing died in 1954. He committed suicide. Aged 42. Two years earlier he'd been prosecuted for having a homosexual relationship, illegal back then, and opted to undergo hormonal treatment to reduce his libido, as an alternative to prison. Not everyone 'had it so good' in 1950s Britain.

Not a disease

Over subsequent decades, scientists became more interested in autism and dyslexia. They looked at people like Alan Turing and wondered whether these conditions might actually be an advantage, not a hindrance, in certain walks of life.

Researchers trawled through history looking for famous people who might have had these conditions. Looking for a reason why oddball geniuses were the way they were and for a link between odd behaviour and genius. Looking to replace 'odd' with something a bit more scientific.

Mozart, Einstein, Newton, Michelangelo. All got the retrospective diagnosis treatment. Their behaviour back then, it was believed, was consistent with what contemporary science knew about autism. Social awkwardness, narrow interests, communication difficulties, repetitive behaviours - were all called up in support.

Did Turing have Asperger's?

In 2003, scientists Henry O'Connell and Michael Fitzgerald published a paper investigating evidence for the theory that Turing had Asperger syndrome. That's a form of autism that is not typically associated with learning disabilities. People with Asperger's have fewer speech problems than those with more severe forms of autism, but still have difficulties understanding and processing language.

Among other things, Turing's school report said he was anti-social, had only one school friend and narrow interests in science, maths and chemistry. He also ate an apple before he went to bed every night, had poor handwriting and avoided eye contact when speaking to people.

All this, however, is based on reported behaviour and anecdotal evidence, not clinical observation. Critics complain that this sort of talk is just speculation. Jon Brock from the ARC Centre for Cognition and its Disorders at the University of Macquarie in Sydney, Australia, says that historical associations like these are of limited value, because they cannot be checked with further, more targeted questions. "What happened if Turing missed his nightly apple?" Brock asks. "Did it bother him? Did he choose another fruit?"

Brock adds: "Can we really say that Turing had narrow interests when he was so influential in so many fields?"

In the 1990s, a new idea emerged. People with autistim, dyslexia and other neurological disorders weren't ill, they were 'neurodivergent'. These conditions were no longer diseases to be cured or problems to be overcome, they were simply a natural variation in the human genome that didn't make a person better or worse; it just meant they thought and learned differently.

Hidden strengths

Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychology professor, thinks that children with autism do more than just act out bizarre obsessive-compulsive behaviours; they're also driven to figure out how complex things work.

Professor Baron-Cohen believes that the autistic brain has an average or superior ability to understand and analyse, predictable rule-based systems, and also to hyper-systemise. He discovered, for instance, that a higher percentage of Cambridge University maths students had a diagnosed autism-spectrum condition than law and classics students. He also found that children with Asperger syndrome could better figure out how simple mechanical systems worked than those who didn't.

Prof Baron-Cohen also claims that when scientists, technology professionals and engineers form relationships, they are more likely to have autistic children. Such is their own everyday focus on complex phenomena and a lack of interest in and empathy for things outside their field of interest. Prof Baron-Cohen discovered that children in Eindhoven, a technology hub, were two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than in Haarlem and Utrecht, similar-sized Dutch towns.

It is widely believed that people with dyslexia also have strengths in higher order reasoning skills. Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, himself dyslexic, believes that people with dyslexia better notice visual anomalies, things that are out of place within the big picture.

Schepps explains that when people read, their brains and visual systems are trained to follow precise sequences, but as a result they lose their ability to process other types of visual information. He says that dyslexics, who read less during their formative years, are like the security guard who notices everything all at once and immediately spots if something is out of place. Readers examine everything in sequence, one thing at a time. "We (dyslexics) see the forest not the trees," he says.

Awareness and intuition

Paul Clarke, principal engineer with MBDA Missile Systems' Safety Systems and Telemetry Equipment Team, was 12 when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. "I was always able to rotate images in my head and look at drawings and describe what could not be seen or how it would look from a different angle," he says. "I could memorise chunks of maps, drawings in an almost photographic way."

Gary Smith, a dyslexic software designer, adds that people with dyslexia tend to be very intuitive. "You're designing a website for someone, and after talking to them you intuitively know what they want," he says. Smith adds that people with dyslexia spend a great deal of time simplifying the things around them, so they have an advantage when it comes to designing easy-to-use technology. He adds: "We've always had to find our way round things, find our own ways of getting things done; that makes us good problem solvers."

Clarke believes that spatial awareness and an ability to relate to things visually gives dyslexic engineers an edge. He says that he can remember large chunks of the circuit diagrams that he's seen, or what a piece of equipment looks like on the inside. "It's like having a 3D whiteboard in my head," he says.

Clarke explains that when he reads a piece of software code, he can test the different variations and values inside his head. "For us, things don't work in straight lines; we look for boundaries," he says. "Using your visual memory you engage with the subject matter directly, through seeing, not through reading what someone else has written."

Not everybody is convinced that the benefits of autism and dyslexia outweigh the disadvantages. Critics of Simon Baron-Cohen's work on autism say that he focuses too heavily on high-achieving people, and that the majority of people with autism do not have these advantages, although Prof Baron-Cohen has countered this by saying that studies need to be done to investigate the same traits in people with a lower IQ.

The British Dyslexic Association says that although not everyone with dyslexia will have outstanding talents, all will have comparative strengths.

Clarke says that he needs support with simple, everyday things, such as remembering the digits of a phone number whilst someone is telling him. He can only store three digits at any one time, while some people can store up to nine. He also has difficulty with the language and spelling in a report. "Over the years I have slowly got better at reading and writing, but it's still painfully slow compared to the speed my brain wants to run at," he says.

Clarke uses software packages to help him create lists to organise his work schedule. A visual learner, he blocks out his Outlook calendar with different colours, each representing a specific type of task, so he doesn't forget what he's planned to do. "It's important to be open about the condition with colleagues," he says.

Gary Smith adds that breaking instructions down into individual parts helps people with dyslexia engage with one thing at a time. So too does using video to explain a project rather than long written reports. He's also developing an app, Dyslexia Toolbox, which helps people with dyslexia to access the Internet. A camera feature allows users to capture text and transport it into an easier-to-digest font or substitute background colour. The app also provides reference points for word lettering orders, date formats and direction differentiation.

Life is not a movie

At the recent press conference for 'The Imitation Game', Benedict Cumberbatch warned the media about making lazy associations between the characters he portrays, like Sherlock and Alan Turing, and autism and dyslexia. "I'm very wary of that, because I've met people with those conditions. It's a real struggle all the time," he said. "Then these people pop up in my work and they're sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it."

After his conviction for homosexual activity, Alan Turing lost his security clearance. He was sacked from GCHQ and barred from entering the USA. That's one of the 20th century's most brilliant technologists ostracised, driven to despair and eventually suicide by a society intolerant of those who diverged from, or contradicted, mainstream beliefs and practices. Something similar happened to Jack Parsons, one of the founders of rocket science (see 'Geek Rocketeer', E&T November 2014).

Whether he was dyslexic, autistic, or just brilliant, Turing's life teaches us to celebrate what people can do, support them with what they find hard, and never castigate, abuse or condemn them for being different.

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