Susan Boyle’s Autism


by A.G. Moore 12/12/2013
Susan Boyle, the Scottish mezzo-soprano whose meteoric rise to fame began with a performance on Britain’s Got Talent, announced this week that she has Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s was much in the news last year when the APA (American Psychiatric Association) announced it would no longer include the disorder in its diagnostic manual.  People who used to fit the diagnostic profile for Asperger’s would in the future be included into a broader category: autistic spectrum disorders.  Many in the Asperger’s community objected.  The fear was that some with a mild form of Asperger’s, such as Ms. Boyle, might be overlooked and therefore denied treatment.

In a recent interview, Ms. Boyle described her reaction to learning she has Asperger’s: “Now I have a clearer understanding of what’s wrong and I feel relieved and a bit more relaxed about myself.” This new understanding of self is something many adults experience when they discover their personalities fit into a pattern that has been identified and described by medical professionals.

People with Asperger’s are often distinguished by noticeable but not dramatically divergent behaviors. Among these behaviors–and essential for a diagnosis of Asperger’s–is a deficit in social skills. This deficit, if not addressed early in life, may marginalize a person. The early marginalization can become a lifetime sentence. With Asperger’s Syndrome, it is frequently the marginalization, and not the mildly autistic behaviors, that have the most devastating effect.

Ms. Boyle’s description of her life provides a telling example of how this plays out. She explains that her learning difficulties during childhood were attributed to brain damage. Learning “difficulties” in someone with Asperger’s often are not an indication of diminished ability but of processing issues. This seems to have been the case with Ms. Boyle, who was recently informed that rather than having intellectual deficits she in fact has an above average IQ. With the introduction of individualized learning modalities, processing issues can be addressed and children with Asperger’s may match or even surpass achievement levels of their peers.

Ms. Boyle describes being bullied as a youngster. Her awkward affect and poor school performance earned her the nickname “Simple Susie”. This is a characterization she took to heart and accepted as a true assessment of who she was. Ms. Boyle left school with few skills and little that prepared her for full integration into the community. After a brief attempt at employment, she led a quiet, almost reclusive existence. Through the years, until her discovery on Britain’s Got Talent, singing was the one passion that drew her out of the house. She had an extraordinary talent. As is often the case with Asperger’s, Ms. Boyle dedicated herself to this activity with single-minded purpose.

Ms. Boyle was fortunate in many ways. Not only was she born with rare talent, but she was protected by a family that provided her with a stable, secure home. Many who are marginalized by Asperger’s do not have this kind of luck.

Since her discovery on national television, Ms. Boyle has become a multimillionaire. She has been coached to comport herself in ways that are more compatible with society’s expectations. This is not a Cinderella story. It’s a story about how appropriate intervention can mold an individual with Asperger’s to be a productive, integrated member of society.  A tragedy in Ms. Boyle’s Asperger’s saga is that relief came so late. More tragic is what this saga  teaches us about individuals who have not been discovered by Britain’s Got Talent. These individuals have the potential to lead full lives–if  they receive  proper diagnosis and treatment.

Ms. Boyle describes her life before stardom as one of self doubt and repeated episodes of depression. Depression is not a symptom of Asperger’s; it’s a result of being bullied and marginalized. It wasn’t Asperger’s that restricted Ms. Boyle’s life, it was the way her Asperger’s was perceived and handled.

In an interview, Ms. Boyle speaks about how having a diagnosis and appropriate treatment has changed not only her self image, but the way she expects others to perceive her. “People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do,” she explains.

Asperger’s Syndrome, at least the mild form evidenced by Ms. Boyle, is manageable if diagnosed early. Children with the syndrome can usually  learn to accept themselves and to successfully integrate into the larger community; this is an aspect of the disorder that distinguishes it from more severe forms of autism. Children with Asperger’s often have special skills that have little chance for full expression in a setting that does not nurture them. A lack of growth is a loss to the child and a loss to society. Everyone benefits when children develop the potential with which nature has endowed them.

More articles addressing Susan Boyle’s Autism
Singer Susan Boyle has Revealed that She has Asperger’s Syndrome
Britain’s Got Talent Superstar on her Own Asperger’s Diagnosis
More information on Asperger’s Syndrome (in the UK and other parts of the world this terminology is still in use, although the designation is not sanctioned by the APA):

Autism Society: Asperger’s Syndrome

Mayo Clinic: Asperger’s Syndrome

NIH: Treatment for Asperger’s

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