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Susan Boyle And Asperger’s

Did you hear the news that the singer Susan Boyle — the “I Dreamed A Dream” lady — has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome? Mary Elizabeth Williams comments:

In an interview in the Observer this weekend, Boyle, who’s currently promoting her fourth album, acknowledges that “Some articles have said I have brain damage,” and says, “I have always known that I have had an unfair label put upon me.” After seeing a Scottish specialist a year ago, Boyle learned that her IQ is in fact above average, and that “I have Asperger’s. It is a relief.”

People with Asperger’s — a condition on the autism spectrum – are generally characterized by having difficulty with social interaction and communication. As Boyle’s interviewer Catherine Deveney describes her, the singer possesses “warmth, kindness and empathy” but also displays “delayed eye contact … visible anxiety until the stranger in her presence settles into at least superficial familiarity … slightly offbeat laughter in the middle of conversation … [and] sudden and obvious emotional withdrawal if she feels uncomfortable with a particular subject.”

The interpersonal challenges people with Asperger’s often face can make it easy for them to become the targets of bullies and critics – and Boyle has spoken and written much of her struggles in that arena, stretching back to the time she was a child.

I’m sorry for Boyle’s condition, but deeply appreciative of her decision to go public with this diagnosis, both to raise awareness of it and to show what Aspies can achieve. My older son’s diagnosis years ago — he is on the mildest end of the spectrum — came as a huge relief to his parents, who finally knew why he was behaving the way he was behaving. It also makes it a lot easier for us to prepare him for, well, life. He will have to deal with people who don’t understand Asperger’s, even if they are told exactly what it is (Matt has this in his life). There are things he can do to cope with this, and to increase understanding. But the more prominent Aspies like Boyle who “come out,” so to speak, the easier life gets for kids like him.

Learning about Asperger’s and the autism spectrum from this experience as a parent of an Aspie has made me aware of my own Aspie tendencies. It’s easy to see my son’s inordinate demand for order and logic as an expression of his cognitive condition, but I have always seen the same trait in myself as an expression of moralism. Maybe it is, to some degree, but I have had to concede that a lot of this probably comes from an abnormal neurology, not from an overdeveloped conscience. My dad talks about how when I was a little kid playing summer-league baseball, I had all the possible permutations of defensive plays worked out before each pitch, but I was consumed by anxiety over it all. True. The reason I was consumed by anxiety was that I could not be sure that my teammates — who were nine, 10, 11, and 12 years old — would do the correct thing if the ball were hit to them. I couldn’t “lighten up” about it. Not remotely.

So when I see my son riding herd on his siblings for minor infractions, I think: Yep, been there. Of course that means that I must teach him to push back against those inner compulsions, just as I have had to learn those skills, and still do work at it. It’s hard to know when one is expecting too much and being unreasonable and Aspie-ish, and when one is reasonably expecting others to follow the rules.

Maybe this is happening to you too: I notice that as I age, I’m sinking more and more into Aspie-ish social reticence. At some point in the past 10 years, I began flipping from extrovert to mild introvert. It started showing up on Myers-Briggs assessments, and has only accelerated. I find that the gap between how I interact with people online, and in real life, is growing. I wonder if this latent social anxiety now finding, um, fuller expression is a function of aging, or a function of the fact that I spend so much time communicating through the online medium that talking face to face, or even on the phone, is becoming a lot more difficult for me than it once was.

Anyway, yay Susan Boyle. I’m so excited by her move that I’m going to go rearrange my bookshelf, to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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