A few months ago, a commenter told me about the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, and asked me to evaluate its depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome. I saw the movie a few nights ago, and I am ready to chime in.
The movie is about Alan Turing, who decoded Nazi war codes during World War II, thereby shortening the war and saving many lives. Turing also helped set the stage for modern-day computers. The commenter referred me to an article that criticized the film’s depiction of Turing as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. The article not only said that such a depiction of Turing was inaccurate, in light of what Turing’s friends have said about him, but also that such a depiction of Turing is rather demeaning to those on the autism spectrum. It implies that their value is based on them being good with numbers, which is not always true of people on the autism spectrum, and which devalues them as human beings.
As a person with Asperger’s, what did I think about the film? Here are some rambling thoughts:
1. In terms of its depiction of Asperger’s, I would say that the movie was accurate, overall. In the movie, Turing sometimes avoided eye contact with people. He separated his peas from his carrots. He took things literally. He tended to be stiff and quiet in social situations. He had a bit of a monotone. He preferred to work alone so that he did not have to explain himself to people. I can identify with some of that. As a child, my mom has told me, I would line up my toys, and I thought about that when I saw young Turing separating his peas from his carrots. I am also a bit of a loner, and I am stiff and quiet in social situations. And, yes, I do not particularly like to explain myself to others.
Of course, none of this stuff can be absolutized, really. Granted, in a number of books about Asperger’s, I read that taking things literally is a characteristic of people with the Syndrome. But neither I, nor many of the people whom I have encountered in Asperger’s support groups, take things literally to the extent that Turing did in the movie. I am able to recognize idioms, metaphors, and some social nuances (i.e., what people really mean when they say certain things). Maybe we have had difficulty with these things in the past, and we no longer do as much because we have learned and have been socialized. I can vaguely recall that, as a kid, I would take certain idioms literally or picture them literally in my mind, the way that Temple Grandin did in the Temple Grandin movie. But I do not do that as an adult, as much (if at all).
I also am not as cold as the Turing character. I would not have fired those two mediocre decoders on the spot but would have thought about their livelihoods and their families. There are people with Asperger’s who may prize efficiency above people, but there are also many who do not, especially considering that so many of us have been in vulnerable situations and have needed compassion and understanding from others.
2. I agree with the article that there are many people on the autism spectrum who are not good at math. Still, I do believe that people on the spectrum should be encouraged that they can contribute to the stream of life and can find a niche for themselves, with help from others. What we should NOT be told is something like this: “What’s your problem? Why can’t you get your shit together? Thomas Jefferson, John Nash in a Beautiful Mind, Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, and Jerry Seinfeld were on the autism spectrum, and they went on to be successful. What’s your problem? Stop whining, and start looking for a way to contribute!” (NOTE: We are not sure that all of the people in that list were on the spectrum, but you can probably get the point of what this hypothetical interlocutor is saying.) The thing is, some of us may need help to find and to develop our niche, and telling us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, when we have fewer bootstraps than a lot of people, is not particularly helpful. But we can still contribute, and I am inspired by movies that highlight that. They encourage me to keep on keeping on, for something good can happen to me down the road. I think of what the Tom Hanks character said in the movie Castaway: keep on surviving, for you do not know what the shore may bring.
3. Of course, reality is not always as glamorous as what we see in the movies. The wikipedia article about The Imitation Game highlighted that. In the movie, Alan Turing is a man who sticks by his machine against incredible odds and apparent lack of success, until he finally succeeds. In reality, he was working with a bunch of people. But which version makes a more compelling story? In the movie, his fiancee and colleague Joan Clark is pretty (yet pretty in a down-to-earth way)—-the actress who plays her has been on FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World List more than once—-and yet Joan Clark in real life was rather plain. And, to come back to the topic of this post, Alan Turing in the movie has Asperger’s (or manifests characteristics of Asperger’s), whereas, in real life, he could have been more socially adept. But underdog stories about people overcoming significant odds are compelling, endearing stories.
I wouldn’t suggest that people throw away their dreams. A person with Asperger’s may feel let down after watching an inspiring movie about a person with Asperger’s succeeding, only to learn that the person depicted in the movie did not actually have Asperger’s (or may not have had Asperger’s) in real life. But, in real life, there are people with Asperger’s who find a niche in life, who have employment, and who have a spouse or a significant other. It’s not impossible, so don’t lose heart. My advice—-to myself and others—-is to have dreams and to let them inspire you to keep working and trying. Just remember that real life is not as glamorous as the stories we see in movies and on television, and even read in books. Temper your dreams with some realism.