Fighting the Drift


Austin, Texas, USA
Staff Attorney, Mom
I like to write. I like for people to read what I write. I like to read what other people write. I only get to do these things occassionally.


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APRIL 17, 2009 3:58PM

My Sister is Susan Boyle

Rate: 38 Flag

My sister Sarah has a form of asperger's syndrome and a phenomenal show-stopping Broadway voice.  She is Susan Boyle, before Boyle was discovered by youtube. 

Now before I get sued for slander I should say that I have no knowledge if Boyle has high functioning aspergers or any other disorder, just that I see my sister in her and even more so in people's reactions to her.  I have a hard time talking about my sister and her peculiarities.  Sarah is also squarely built and frumpy.  She is also oblivious to the social cues around her.  When we were both in college briefly, she was a freshman as I was graduating, I took her to a party where she sat on the couch and ate a bag of chips; cheerfully and purposefully, without attempting to make conversation with anyone.  I asked her if she was having a good time and she said yes, that it was a really nice party.   As soon as that bag of chips was gone she asked to go home.  When I watch the clip of Susan munching on her sandwich backstage, its that moment with Sarah that I see.

Like Susan my sister will probably live with our mother for the rest of her life.  When my mother dies, she will move in with me and my family.  She does not have the crazy high IQ of some asperger's folks, she has the less hip asperger's fate of having a below average IQ.  (She's actually just 10 points to high to automatically qualify for SSI benefits.)  She will probably never have a boyfriend and she will probably never be kissed.  Honestly, she doesn't seem that interested in it, and has put effort into avoiding the few boys that have liked her. 

What Sarah loves is music.  She can't read sheet music, but she plays piano and flute, though neither with much grace or ability.  She listens to her ipod for hours and hours during the day and can give you a complete musicological genealogy of show tune history and most country music styles. (She can also name all the presidents and the dates of their term in office, in order.) 

She can also sing. Boy, oh, boy can she sing. 

When Susan Boyle walked onto that stage people did not really expect her to be able to sing.  Though few would be able to explain why they didn't expect her to be able to sing. They just say she looked frumpy. What they mean is that she didn't quite match the social cues around her.  Normal people (and I use the term "normal" loosely) typically try to adapt their dress and behavior to fit the social setting and "be like everyone else."  Susan Boyle didn't, and she didn't seem to have any qualms or embarrassment at not "fitting in."  She didn't seem to notice. From her church choir dress, to missing Simon Cowell's attempt to invite her into a  joke about the size of her village, to her own strangely timed joke about her age/size, to finally marching directly off stage at the end of her song despite the standing ovation, Susan was not quite in sync with the rest of the Britain’s Got Talent production.   Generally people who can't do the mental math of perceiving how they are viewed from the outside in these shallow ways are also not good at assessing their own skill, at say singing,  in an objective manner.  They are the people who tend to get humored. 

Sarah doesn't know how to respond to people clapping for her either.

My sister sings with a special choir for disabled people now.  She is their superstar.  It is not uncommon after performances for people to tell me or my mother that she has "real talent" and that we should encourage her to audition for professional shows or more competitive choirs around town.  I always thank them.  I never tell them that in the five years it took Sarah to finish high school she was never given a spot on the schools award winning show choir, even though the director told us she certainly had the voice for it.  The list of reasons were as follows: she wasn't coordinated enough, even simple dance moves leave Sarah totally baffled; she couldn't do the acting, Sarah will make eye contact, but she gets nervous and unreasonable giggly about it; she had lots of trouble memorizing, an odd but true problem considering all the other facts she had stuck in her head; and finally, no matter what any of us did with her hair, make-up, or clothes, she just looked frumpy.  Sarah, despite her voice, her gorgeous voice, would never be Elaine Paige.

I truly hope that Boyle gets a recording contract.  I hope she is not exploited.  I hope she and her cat have a long happy life full of evenings singing kareoke at the pub.  I hope, stupidly, that the public is kind to her.  I have watched as strangers, years of strangers, have heard my sister sing and then declared with absolute certainty that she has "it".  They praise her and then disappear.  I hope for Boyle its different. 


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This is a wonderful post. Thank you.
You speak so beautifully about your sister. I hope one day she can be a show stopper too.
I hope one day you'll share Sarah's singing with us via audio you record.
Your concern and understanding of your sister speaks volumes. She is very fortunate to have you and I too would love to hear her sing.
Great post. Thanks for this.
Thank you for sharing this sweet, heartfelt story.
That was very enlightening. Thank you.
Thank you for a very thoughtful well-written post and a different point of view.

My son has Asperger's. I have blogged about him on OS and have a piece about him in the upcoming collection "A Cup of Comfort For Parents of Children With Special Needs."

Fortunately for my son, unlike your sister, he attended a small independent school that gave him the chance to play in the little orchestra and have major roles in the theater productions, even though he did not fit the usual profile.

How awful that the school couldn't find a way to make room for her in the choir. School choirs etc are supposed to be about discovering abilities and passions, about process, not product.

But I'm glad that you see your sister's abilities and appreciate her.
I am so glad I stopped to read this. This is a beautifully written tribute to your sister, she is lucky to have someone like you in her life.
I genuinely enjoyed reading this. I had similar thoughts regarding possible Aspergers. The interesting thing is that everyone wants "fame" for Susan Boyle, when perhaps she is quite content living her life as she is. You sound like a good sister. rated
Wonderful post. You raise some interesting questions about talent, ability and what to do with it.
really nice post. Thank you very much for sharing it.
What you say resonates with me. I know lots of people on the autism spectrum, most very high functioning. One of the best, most refreshing things about them is their honesty. Because, let's face it, "social cues" is like the antonym for honesty. Think about it. Much of what we do in life revolves around manufacturing a presence or appearance of sorts that we let the world see. People the world consider mentally ill in some capacity (Autistic, Aspberger's, ADHD in some ways) don't really have that filter, so we see the content of their enthusiasms, not just what they choose to allow us to believe are their enthusiasms. It's all rather interesting, really. In a way, I've always wondered if everything isn't reverse and the people considered mentally ill aren't really the sane ones.

On sort of a related note--I was engaged in an important argument with a school official (relating to one of my kids), and it so happened that I'd had about 2 hours of sleep each night for the past 5 nights. I was the kind of tired that was dangerous. I noticed that the first thing to go was civility. I demonstrated eloquent content and impeccable logic in my responses to this bureaucrat's officiousness, but I spat them out without regard to how she would receive them. I wanted to wring her neck, and it's a wonder I didn't calmly do her bodily harm. My contempt was clear, though, and that's very unlike me. The point is, I had lost that veneer, the part that cares how others see us. It was interesting, in retrospect.

Not to have made this all about me, by the way (insert chagrin emoticon)--this post just got me to musing, is all. That's what the best writers do for ya!
Wonderful story. I simply affirm what other commenters have said.
It is very apparent how much you love your sister.
What a wonderful post to honor your sister. I hope you're right.
Moving post. Rated.
Lovely tribute. Your sister is lucky to have you, it's obvious you love her very much. We learn so much for disabled sisters, I know, I have one too! They are a blessing to us.
I wonder if you could record her singing and post it? This would be a wonderful way to share her gift with people without forcing her into an uncomfortable situation. What is most touching is how much you love her and respect her--you are all very lucky indeed.
Your sister is very lucky to be loved and cared for by people like your family. I hoe that Susan doesn't get eaten alive by the "handlers" that will proceed to exploit her. It is OUR job as humans to see more clearly with our hearts to make sure that doesn't happen. Beautiful story. I'd also like to hear your sister sing.
theglasscharacter- have you heard the other song Susan Boyle recorded that someone posted here on Open Salon. It's quite nice. I think she has genuine talent.
This was lovely. Thank you for sharing.
Your instincts , I believe , are 110% correct. I thought the same thing as I watched the mesmerizing adorable Susan. My son is Asperger's and will be with me the rest of my life. His art talent is amazing, even his most simplistic works have dimensions and shadows that make it look three-dimensional, and then his intricate Dali -style art is mindblowing! Yet he will never drive, balance a checkbook, or use the stove (he cooks with the microwave).

Keep trying for your sister's SSI , there is no reason they should turn her down, my son gets SSI, Medicaid and Food Stamps and still attends the local community college. He was correctly diagnosed , finally, at age 22. I put him in Community College 10 years ago when he was 18, and he has been plugging away at courses ever since, and of course his electives are all Art & Fine Art related. Finally was evaluated again last year for Learning Disability in Math, so he can waive the Math Requirement with course substitutions. He is now 6 credit hours away from an Associate in Arts degree! He hopes to pursue Fine Arts degree in local university .

I believe Susan is more mature than her male counterparts, but I agree with you, I think she is undiagnosed and is high-functioning Asperger's . She is a jewel, I simply love her, and gotta tell ya, my son is lovable too :-)
Thanks for the comments. I will try and record/post a recording of Sarah singing. Though I have poor technology and will not promise quality.
I enjoyed reading your post. I am a mental health professional, and the minute I saw Susan Boyle on stage I knew she had a mental illness, most likely asperger's syndrome. I was blown away by her performance, and was immediately concerned that she would be exploited and the brunt of jokes. Anyway, thank you for sharing this story.
I have been teaching children with Aspergers/ASD for years now and as many of you have said as soon as you see her social interactions you spot the 'tendencies'. I feel she is in the right place now and will get support she needs. I hope she is happy in whatever she does in the future.
I found this article when I googled 'Susan Boyle Autisum' as I wondered if anyone else thought the same! Maybe it's a good thing for her to be high profile for society to see that being different does not make you unworthy or untalented...infact quite the opposite!
THANK YOU FOR YOUR INSIGHTFUL AND LOVING POST. On other sites there seems to be a fair bit of ignorance about Aspergers and Susan Boyle, so I would like to post a copy of what I posted on those sites, just to ry and help Susan or any one with Aspergers out. Love to your sister:
Psychologists, physicians, educators, and parents remain largely uneducated and uninformed regarding high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, particularly in girls and women, and the person is often misdiagnosed (Fattig, 2007) or undiagnosed, such as Susan Boyle - she is 47 it was quite uncommon for a primary school child to be diagnosed with Autism, let alone Aspergers in that era, but I suspect her behaviour and social isolation would earmark her as an Aspie, almost immediately nowadays. I am surprised that some official psychologist has not come out before now and confirmed what any of us who work with people with Aspergers have suspected from the first moment we saw her stumble over trying to find the words "collection of villages" in her first performance. It is not unusual at all to be highly talented (HIGH FUNCTIONING) in one area such as music, singing or playing an instrument and be totally inadequate in the social graces. I love her just as she is and would not change a thing, she is what she is - unique and genuine - people should take her as she comes - realising that behaviours such as using four letter words, running around half naked in public etc., are typical aspie reactions to extreme stress! What so called "normal" person could handle the unprecedented overnight media “fame,“ that this beautiful woman has been subjected to? I would say unreservedly she could fit into the Aspergers category on the autism spectrum. INCIDENTALLY HER BEHAVIOUR WOULD HAVE BEEN THE SAME AFTER THE SHOW, WHETHER SHE HAD WON OR LOST - IT IS JUST A TYPICAL ASPIE REACTION TO ALL THAT THE STRESS. SUSAN IS NOT ALONE, YOU WOULD BE SURPRISED AT JUST HOW MANY VERY FAMOUS PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SUSPECTED ASPIES, THE LIST INCLUDES:
Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Virginia Woolf, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Goethe, Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Abraham, Lincoln, Louis IV, Catherine the Great, and Isaac Asimov just to mention a few!
I OFFER THIS INFORMATION AS EN EXPLANATION, NOT AN EXCUSE, FOR HER BEHAVIOUR and YES, I do think her behaviour should be accepted without penalty on the strong possibility of her having undiagnosed Aspergers Syndrome.
((Everything I say can be researched on the internet - just type in Famous people and Aspergers Syndrome))
Have you ever considered recording Sarah's story for NPR's StoryCorp? I think it would make a lovely addition.
Your instincts , I believe , are 110% correct. I thought the same thing as I watched the mesmerizing adorable Susan. My son is Asperger's and will be with me the rest of my life. His art talent is amazing, even his most simplistic works have dimensions and shadows that make it look three-dimensional, and then his intricate Dali -style art is mindblowing! criminal minds season 5 episode 13 | friday night lights season 4 episode 10
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