In a very interesting profile in the Guardian, Susan Boyle does something that’s likely to attract less attention than her performance of “I Dreamed A Dream,” but that’s just as important. She’s come out as someone who’s been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, one of the conditions that makes up the autism spectrum. Catherine Deveney reports:
Sometimes people misunderstand. Sometimes she gets frustrated. “Some articles have said I have brain damage,” she acknowledges, before adding, cryptically: “It’s been something else.” A year ago she went to a Scottish specialist. “I have always known that I have had an unfair label put upon me,” she explains. The specialist discovered her IQ was above average. And the diagnosis? “I have Asperger’s,” she says calmly. Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism, mainly affects people’s social interaction and communication skills. When she says the word, things fall into place. Finally, it’s like looking at an apple and agreeing it really is an apple. “It is,” she says, “a relief.”
Boyle’s coming-out is fascinating and important, not only because it pushes back against so much of the cruel gossip and speculation to which Boyle’s been subject over the years, but because at a moment when characters on the autism spectrum are suddenly in so many places on television, Boyle is perhaps the only very famous real person to publicly announce that she’s on the spectrum.
Many of these depictions of fictional people with variants of autism paint them as savants. I understand this tendency, because it’s a way to give people on the spectrum both dignity and work that they can do as part of a show’s plot mechanics, whether separately or part of a team. But it’s not as if getting diagnosed as somewhere on the autism spectrum is a one-way ticket to genius with side effects. I’ve been relieved to see Alphas, for example, which had two characters on the spectrum of the show, with very different levels of social and communications skills, as a counterbalance to The Big Bang Theory, which falls somewhat closer to the tendency I’ve just described. And of course Parenthood is a terrific, ongoing exploration of both what it’s like to be a pre-teen and now a teenager with Asperger syndrome, and to parent someone with Asperger’s, without making an argument that Max (Max Burkholder) needs to be a genius to somehow pay back his parents for their love, affection, and patience.
Boyle further complicates the idea that people on the spectrum are all math nerds or computer geniuses. Instead, she’s an artist (like Community‘s Abed). And perceptions of people on the spectrum aren’t all that her success challenges. At 52, Boyle is much older than the average pop star (though not than any number of popular classical singers, or Elaine Paige, who Boyle said she hoped to be like at Britain’s Got Talent). She’s single, and speaks about her father’s decision to break off the main serious relationship of her life when she was in her twenties in a way that’s almost inexpressible in the tabloid language used today to analyze celebrities’ relationships.
Asperger syndrome–and Boyle told the Guardian the diagnosis has been a relief–is clearly one force in Boyle’s life: “I struggle with relationships,” she tells the Guardian in the profile. “I never know if people are genuine. I would say I have relationship difficulties, communicative difficulties, which lead to a lot of frustration. If people were a bit more patient, that would help.” But it’s obviously not the only thing that influences her decisions, whether she’s continuing to live in her late mother’s council house (which she bought early on in her success) rather than a fancier property she also owns because of the memories she associates with the place, or consistently voting Labour. And of course, Asperger syndrome may explain why Boyle’s talent didn’t translate into a singing career earlier. But class, which influences both access to the people who can groom you for a career, and your ability to match yourself to the public perception of what a singer ought to look like, surely plays a role as well.
In other words, getting an Asperger syndrome diagnosis gives Boyle a framework to make sense of some of the challenges she’s faced in life. And a medical explanation is a useful rebuke to people who defaulted to the cruelest sort of judgements about Boyle. But she’s far too well-defined by her singing abilities, by her astonishing introduction to the world, and by her subsequent success to ever be reduced to the sum of her diagnosis. That’s not to say that receiving certain diagnoses on the spectrum don’t require exceptionally demanding interventions, and extraordinary commitments of time and money. But Boyle’s an important public reminder that such a diagnosis doesn’t have to be same thing as getting one’s fate handed down by the Greek Gods.