Photo: SuBo Dreamed a Dream by Banalities (flickr)
In 2012, Scottish singer Susan Boyle was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS). Before her diagnosis, Susan’s team believed that her ‘unpredictable’ and ‘eccentric’ behavior was due to her being a diva and hot-headed. They considered that she acted the way she did because she was deprived of oxygen during birth. Team members called her meltdowns ‘the hooded look’ as she could be joking one moment and getting angry the next. However, it was later determined that she suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. “It was the wrong diagnosis when I was a kid. I was told I had brain damage. I always knew it was an unfair label. Now I have a clearer understanding of what's wrong and I feel relieved and a bit more relaxed about myself,” said Susan.
Handling Asperger’s and a busy career
The 56-year-old opens up about coping with Asperger’s syndrome while juggling a career as a global celebrity. “It never happens on stage. Off stage, well, it happens lots. It always has. But I’m getting better at dealing with it because I know what it is. If I feel I’m going to take a mood swing, I get up and leave. That’s what I did today. I’ve learned that it’s the only way. And other people have learned that they have to just ignore me. That way I have no one to rant and rave at,” said Susan. When ‘the hood’ comes down, Susan stresses that she feels a sense of panic. “I get depressed. I just go away, be myself. Then I come back to you. I always come back,” she said. Susan’s management team have learned how to handle her ‘episodes’, but she notes that a lot of individuals in the outside world view her odd behavior as a result of stress or fatigue. “It’s a very difficult subject to talk about because you always feel that eyes are on you, and people view you as different. I like to see myself as someone with a problem, but one I can solve. It is definitely getting better. Since the diagnosis I’ve learned strategies for coping with it and the best one is always to just walk away,” she said.
From the moment that Susan goes onstage, she sings her heart out. If and when she begins to experience a change in her mood, she sits down at the piano and plays a piece. This allows her to compose herself and go on performing for her fans. To her, music is her therapy. “It seems to make me feel better. When I’m up on stage, even if I’ve had a bad day, I can become a different person. I feel safe,” said Susan. “I don’t feel judged up there. I feel accepted,” she added.
Despite her condition, Susan’s fans love her for her down-to-earth behavior. During one performance, a few of them even described waiting for her at the stage door and having her come out of her tour bus in her pajamas. “What’s the point in getting dressed when I’m just going to get undressed on the bus?” she said. Susan also notes that she prefers sleeping on her tour bus with individuals surrounding her, as opposed to being alone in a hotel room. “When I’m at home on my own I tend to think about my mum and dad [both of whom are now dead]. I’m coping a lot better now but still, when I’m on my own at night I just get frightened,” she said. “I think it’s a fear of isolation. But it’s good that I’m in a position now where I’m not alone” she added.
Living in the face of adversity
All of her life, Susan has had to deal with individuals who did not know how to act around her or deal with her. Even her parents, who loved her, were too protective of her. “Basically, I needed a good boot in the backside. I was a very difficult child and maybe they let me get away with it too much because of the way I was. They thought it was brain damage. I did too. They told me about it although later the doctors said that I shouldn’t have been told. But I always knew I was... different. But no one knew about Asperger’s then. Now they do. I want people to see how it is, to see that you shouldn’t judge,” she said.
Susan is aware that some individuals might feel nervous around her but she stresses that they should not be afraid of her. “The thing is not to be nervous. If you let me see you’re not afraid of me, you’ve got it. People with Asperger’s do put a barrier up because they don’t know how to trust people. I try not to. I want to let people in,” she said. In regards to her past relationships, she had a boyfriend in her twenties but her parents tried to put a stop to it. “It hurt at the time but I think my dad was trying to be protective. He didn’t think I was mature enough to have a relationship, and I don’t think I was either,” she said. Today, Susan is hopeful of finding a life partner who is someone a bit like her dad was – strong, fair, and kind.
Strength and vulnerability
Susan recognizes her vulnerability and her constant need for support. “I am not strong on my own. When I have the support of people around me I am fine. I have a great team,” she said. To this day, she does not let her diagnosis define who she is or what she can do. “It will not make any difference to my life. It's a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself. People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do,” she said.
“Diagnosis can be a critical milestone for people with the condition, which, as Susan said, can be a relief, providing an explanation for years of feeling 'different.' It can also offer a gateway to identifying appropriate support, and without it many people may find it difficult to access the help they need. By revealing her diagnosis Susan has played an important role in bringing the issue of autism to the nation's attention. Autism can have a profound and sometimes devastating effect on individuals and families, but public understanding and support can make a huge difference,” said Mark Lever, chief executive of the U.K.'s National Autistic Society.
“It is brave of Susan Boyle to speak out like this, and I am sure her talking about the fact she has Asperger’s Syndrome will lead to greater awareness of the condition. It should provide inspiration and hope to others who also have a similar diagnosis that they can lead successful and fulfilling lives,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service (CLASS).