My response to Susan Boyle and her news of being diagnosed with Aspergers

Over the last week, a lot of attention has been paid by the UK press to a story that Susan Boyle of Britain’s Got Talent fame was diagnosed with Aspergers last year. The story that I read was this one but there are numerous other news stories dealing with the topic too. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/dec/08/susan-boyle-autism

I have to say that, like a lot of people with any knowledge at all of the autistic spectrum, I found Susan’s Aspergers obvious from the first time I saw her perform on Britain’s Got Talent. Although her voice is wonderful, it was obvious to me that she was not a natural performer and was finding the whole situation highly stressful. Her “mind blank” when she was trying to think of the word “villages” sounds similar to how I am in front of lots of people. Her behaviour when her sudden rise to fame became too much for her was also, to me, characteristic of someone with Aspergers. I know that, if I were to be in the same situation, I would most likely have reacted in a similar way. Most people with Aspergers value privacy extremely highly and also like to be in control of how events turn out. I can imagine that being unable to control this sudden surge of both media and public interest was hugely distressing for her. At the time, her response to undeserved personal criticism was a lot like mine is and she seems a lot like me in many ways-sensitive and unable to understand why other people can be so horrible at times.

Reading accounts of her childhood online makes me appreciate the fact that my own Aspergers was diagnosed during childhood. Although this didn’t protect me from mocking, at least I knew the reason behind some of my eccentric behaviours. Susan has only been able to see her eccentricity as being due to her Aspergers in the past year, having lived for over 50 years with the hostile and negative attitudes of others and being described as having brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen at birth. It is apparent to me that Susan is highly intelligent but, due to problems expressing herself verbally, is often seen as the opposite. This is a subject close to my heart as I know that, if someone was to see me when I am stressed or anxious and struggling to communicate via speech, they would probably assume that I had learning difficulties. I have even had people be asked in my presence whether I can speak at times like these. Yet my intelligence is unaffected by my Aspergers-it’s just that, for so many people, verbal ability is equated with intelligence and, if someone lacks the ability to communicate verbally in a coherent fashion, whether temporarily or on a more permanent basis, it is automatically assumed by a lot of people that they don’t have anything worthwhile to say. There are lots of videos on YouTube of people diagnosed with severe autism using Type to Speech software-people who were assumed to be unable to communicate because they struggle or even find it impossible to communicate verbally. Many people on the autistic spectrum prefer typing or writing over verbal communication because it allows a higher degree of control and it allows errors to be corrected before the message is sent. 

What I have found to be of significant personal interest is the response that people online have had to Susan Boyle revealing that she has Aspergers. The vast majority of people have said that it is no surprise to them as they always thought that to be the case-this is encouraging as it shows just how many people are aware of the symptoms of Aspergers these days compared to ten or even five years ago. Some people hold the cynical view that the story of her being diagnosed with Aspergers was released to coincide with the release of her seasonal duet with Elvis Presley. I personally don’t think this has anything to do with it but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Then there are the usual minority of people who have nothing better to do with their time than sit on the Internet and think up disparaging and cruel remarks about the fact that she has Aspergers with comments such as, “Crazy person diagnosed as crazy? Breaking news!” which, to me, aren’t even worth dignifying with a response as they are wrong on so many levels and the people writing them know this but don’t care. One man commented that Susan Boyle’s Aspergers must be severe because most people with Aspergers don’t have learning difficulties, struggling to understand that the main point he was missing is that Susan Boyle was only diagnosed with learning difficulties because medical professionals at the time she was growing up had no knowledge of Aspergers. I doubt that the way she was educated was particularly friendly to the way her mind works and the way she learns, not through any fault of her teachers but just because her Aspergers wasn’t recognised for what it was-a different way of thinking and perceiving the world. It is all too easy to assume that the problem is that someone is unable to learn rather than the issue being that they learn in a way that is deemed to be non standard.

Overall I am impressed with how positive the majority of responses have been to her story. My only regret is that she was not diagnosed sooner than this as she has admitted that diagnosis made such a difference to her life. Susan Boyle is a highly talented individual and I hope that her story helps even more people understand the basics of Aspergers-if just one more person reads her story and goes away with more basic knowledge of Aspergers and how it affects people, then it’s worth it, no matter what some cynics may say.

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