Susan Boyle ‘relieved’ by Asperger’s diagnosis
A singer who shot to fame on a TV talent show has revealed she has felt ‘more relaxed’ since being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Why do such labels matter?
When Susan Boyle strode onto the stage for the auditions of the 2009 edition of Britain’s Got Talent, she was greeted with sniggers and expressions of disbelief. Audience members rolled their eyes, anticipating humiliation for this ordinary-looking and rather awkward middle-aged woman. The judges reacted with embarrassment to her odd onstage manner.
Boyle, however, was unphased. She had been facing this sort of mockery since she was a child, and she knew exactly how to deal with it. She grinned, wiggled her hips and joined in with the titters of the crowd. Then she opened her mouth and sang, and the soaring purity of her voice left her audience astonished.
The performance made Boyle a YouTube sensation, and her first single made history by topping US and UK charts simultaneously. But since then the singer has not always had an easy ride. Some called her stupid, weird or mad. Sections of the media reported that she was brain-damaged, while journalists claimed to have witnessed her ranting as she cracked under the pressure of her fame.
One year ago, after being judged, bullied and overlooked for a lifetime, Boyle made an important discovery about herself. And this weekend she shared it for the first time with the world: ‘I have Asperger’s,’ she told The Observer.
Asperger’s syndrome is an autistic spectrum disorder which makes it difficult for people to communicate and interact. People with Asperger’s are perfectly sane and often have above-average IQ. But they tend to struggle to read facial expressions or adapt to unfamiliar situations, and the repetitive behaviour patterns associated with the condition seem odd to some.
Boyle is in good company: Mozart, Thomas Jefferson and Michelangelo are just a few of many historical figures who some psychologists say displayed possible symptoms of autistic spectrum disorders.
Boyle insists her new knowledge will not change her life: ‘It’s just a condition that I have to live with,’ she says. So why does the diagnosis bring her such relief?
A good label?
The medical label matters, Boyle believes, because it will help people to accept and empathise with her. ‘I think people will treat me better because they will have a much greater understanding of who I am,’ she says, ‘and why I do the things I do.’
But why, some will ask, do we need medical confirmation to accept that somebody is different? If we can accept that someone with Asperger’s has different needs and perspectives to us, we ought to be capable of dealing with unusual characteristics in those who lack a medical label too. Being different should never be a problem, disorder or not.
- If somebody you know was diagnosed with a mental disorder, would it change the way you thought of and treated them? How?
- ‘Most mental disorders are just threads in the rich and varied tapestry of human psychology.’ Do you agree?
- Watch Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent and discuss it as a class. Why did the crowd react as they did initially? Is there a moral you can draw from the episode?
- Read the extract from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the Become an Expert links. Write a paragraph describing what it reveals about the narrator.
Some People Say...
“It’s a compliment to be called weird.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How can you tell if someone is autistic?
- You can’t always tell at all. Autism is called a ‘spectrum disorder’ because there is a huge range of severity within it, from those who cannot speak and need 24-hour care to those who write acclaimed poetry or run successful businesses. But for high-functioning versions of autism like Asperger’s, the main signs are: difficulty in non-verbal communication, a desire for regular patterns and familiarity, and a tendency to take jokes or figures of speech literally.
- I’m a bit like that – does that make me autistic?
- Not necessarily: plenty of people have autistic traits without being classified as having a disorder. If these characteristics make everyday life hard for you it might be worth seeing a specialist, but otherwise it’s nothing to worry about at all!
- As a way of judging overall intelligence this measure is very controversial, and it’s impossible to make broad generalisations about people with autistic spectrum disorders. Nevertheless, it is fairly common for people with Asperger’s to be very skilled in a particular area, be it a creative talent or a capacity for logical thought.
- Accounts of the great composer often remark on his repetitive fidgety habits, his unusual conversational foibles, and his extreme sensitivity to loud noise. Some researchers have suggested such mannerisms were typical of someone with an autistic spectrum disorder.
- Thomas Jefferson
- One of America’s founding fathers and author of the Declaration of Independence. He reportedly had difficulty relating to others and was obsessed with taking notes and remodelling his house.
- One of the most celebrated artists of all time, who painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and sculpted the famous statue of David. His obsessive work ethic, love of routine and difficulty in forming personal relations have led some psychologists to diagnose him with Asperger’s.
- Some psychologists
- Of course, all of these diagnoses are speculative. One in a hundred people has an autistic spectrum disorder, and that is likely to include some historical figures – but psychologists would need more information to know for certain.