From debilitating panic attacks to being a world wide star: How Susan Boyle turned ‘disability’ into ‘ability’.

Since 2009 the name ‘Susan Boyle’ has been a familiar one throughout British households. The Scottish singer shot to fame after her first audition on Britain’s Got Talent of that year, the unsuspecting grey-haired lady in the ‘funny frock’, as she described it, capturing the hearts of every British family with her rendition of “I Have A Dream” from Les Mis. But what many people may not be aware of is the fact that Boyle has had to overcome many personal struggles to get to where she is. Susan Boyle, unknown to any, has Asperger’s Syndrome.

For those who don’t know, Asperger’s is a form of high functioning autism, affecting how people see the world and interact with others. People with Asperger’s are often of high or above average intelligence, and do not tend to have the same learning disabilities that those with autism often have. They do often have other learning difficulties however, and whilst they may not have the same trouble with speech that many people with autism have, they often have difficulty understanding and processing language. Many people with Asperger’s say the world feels overwhelming, causing them considerable anxiety, which is not made easier by their struggles to interact with other people and  measure social situations, due to an inability to process social norms and body language etc.

Though Boyle said she always knew she was different, she was not diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until 2012. As a child she was told that she had brain damage due to complications at birth that had left her starved of oxygen for a short period of time. ‘Brain damaged’ was a label she carried throughout most of her life. She stated that as a child she was called ‘Susie Simple’ by her classmates and that she struggled to make friends. It is not surprising that with all this going on she suffered panic attacks, and that this acute anxiety comes from a sense of always striving to be accepted, and a sense of being inferior and not good enough.

As well as suffering debilitating panic attacks throughout her life Boyle has been prone to volatile behaviour and emotional outbursts, often marring her success. Most notably she was removed from Heathrow Airport by ambulance in 2016 and briefly hospitalised after an outburst in a passenger lounge that made headlines at the time.

Despite all of this, Boyle says that her struggles growing up made her more determined to succeed rather than held her back. She stated that her Asperger’s diagnosis was in fact a relief in many ways, as it gave her an explanation she had always been looking for and proved to those that had stated she was slow and had a below average intelligence wrong. She stated in an interview that “I like to see myself as someone with a problem, but one I can solve. It is definitely getting better.” 

This is something that is clearly visible through the way that she has continued to push herself and her career forwards since Britain’s Got Talent. Whilst Boyle struggles, she has not let this stop her continue to make advance after advance with her singing career. She was the first woman to have a hit in both the UK and the US simultaneously and in 2013/14 she did a world tour, despite many worrying that the emotional stress would be too much for her. Until this point she had never sung more than 2 or 3 songs live in concert in one show, so learning 25 songs for the tour set was a challenge for her. However, she credits her success in part to her Asperger’s, stating that “I don’t see it as a barrier, I see it very much as a positive thing because you have to prove yourself if you’ve got a bit of a disability, so you turn that word upside down and you’ve got ‘ability’. ” 

-Article written by Olivia Hardy