Celebrities with Special Needs Revisited- Susan Boyle

The term “special needs” is used to collectively define those persons that require assistance due to physical, mental, behavioral, or medical disabilities or delays. Autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and mental illness are all examples of special needs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) gives guidelines for clinical diagnosis.

There are famous people with special needs in nearly every sector of sports, entertainment, politics, and academia. In fact, some of the most brilliant thinkers and artists of our time were diagnosed with special needs, and they’ve gone on to do great things in spite of the odds against them.

In our recent “Celebrities with Special Needs” series, we discussed inspiring celebrities including Temple Grandin (an American doctor of animal science who has autism and is an autism activist), Catherine Zeta-Jones (who battles with bipolar disorder) and Chris Burke (an actor with Down Syndrome and Goodwill Ambassador of the American Down Syndrome Society (NDSS)). These celebrities with special needs have won the respect and admiration of millions of people. Today, we will focus on Susan Boyle, a British singer who recently announced that she was diagnosed with Aspergers’ Syndrome.

*Please note: The latest version of the DSM-5 officially eliminates the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Asperger’s is now incorporated into a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Ms. Boyle speaks about a diagnosis that occured more than a year ago, before the release of the DSM-5 and the diagnostic changes that resulted. Read our blog post about the DSM-5.

Susan Boyle

“Asperger’s doesn’t define me. 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.”- Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle was born on April 1, 1961, in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland, to Patrick Boyle, a miner and WWII veteran, and Bridget, a shorthand typist. She is the youngest of four brothers and five sisters. Growing up, she had a learning disability, though testing showed she has an above average IQ. As a child, she was shy and withdrawn, and was verbally and physically bullied by her classmates at school.

Upon graduation from high school, she was employed for a short time as a trainee cook in the kitchen of West Lothian College, took part in government training programs, and performed at local venues and at church. She loved to sing and began taking lessons from vocal coach, Fred O’Neil, and also attended Edinburgh Acting School.

In 1995, Boyle auditioned for Michael Barrymore’s My Kind of People, and according to British media, Barrymore was more interested in mocking her than in her ability to sing.

In 1998, Boyle recorded three tracks—”Cry Me A River”, “Killing Me Softly”, and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”—at Heartbeat Studio, Midlothian. She used all her savings to pay for a professionally cut demo, copies of which she later sent to record companies, radio talent competitions, and local and national TV.

After she won several local singing competitions, her mother urged her to enter Britain’s Got Talent (BGT). It wasn’t until her mother passed away that Boyle was motivated to audition for the show to pay tribute to her. In April 2009, during her BGT audition, she told the judges that she “aspired to become a professional singer” and sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables. Initially, the audience was cynical about her ability to sing. According to The Washington Post, her initial demeanor and homely appearance caused the judges and audience to be waiting for her to “squawk like a duck”, but her voice was so beautiful that one judge remarked that it was the “biggest wake-up call ever”.

The performance was widely reported and millions of people viewed the video on YouTube. Within a week, the audition performance had been viewed more than 66 million times, setting an online record.

On BGT, she was one of 40 acts that were put through to the semi-finals. During the competition, it is said that she did not take it well when judges complimented the other semi-finalists’ performances, and was reported to have had at least two public outbursts that involved losing her temper and swearing angrily. Boyle placed second in the competition, and according to BGT judge, Simon Cowell, “it was hard for her to handle not coming in first.” The day after the final, she was admitted to a private psychiatric clinic in London, due to being “exhausted and emotionally drained.” Cowell offered to waive her contractual obligation to take part in the BGT tour, but she decided to go on the tour and the experience helped her to become more confident in performing

Boyle released her first album, I Dreamed a Dream, on November 23, 2009.The debut album was recognized as the fastest selling UK debut album of all time, selling 411,820 copies. In the U.S., the album sold 701,000 copies in its first week, the best opening week for a debut artist in over a decade.  Boyle performed for Pope Benedict XVI on his tour of Britain in 2010. In May 2010, she was voted by Time magazine as the seventh most influential person in the world.

On July 9, 2010, Boyle announced that her second album would be a Christmas album entitled The Gift. In November 2010, she became one of only three acts ever to top both the UK and US album charts twice in the same year. On November 30, 2010, she performed on ABC’s  The View singing “O Holy Night” and then on NBC’s Christmas at Rockefeller Center program performing “Perfect Day” and “Away in a Manger.” During her appearance on The View, she was unable to finish her song, stating that she had a “frog in her throat.” The audience applauded her anyway and she later performed an unaired version of the song which was uploaded to The View’s YouTube account.

Boyle released her third album, Someone to Watch Over Me, and fourth album Standing Ovation: The Greatest Songs from the Stage in November 2012. In November 2013, she made her first appearance in acting as Eleanor Hopewell in a film called The Christmas Candle. In the movie she sings an original song, “Miracle Hymn,” the anthem for the film and a track from her new album Home for Christmas, which features a duet with Elvis Presley singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” She also starred as herself in I Dreamed a Dream: The Susan Boyle Story and in a 2011 documentary titled Susan Boyle: An Unlikely Superstar.

Boyle now has a car and chauffeur to take her to appointments, but she sticks close to familiar places and routines. She bought a new house, a modern four-bedroom two-story in Blackburn that cost 300,000 pounds ($480,000), but locals say she often stays in the modest row house she grew up in. According to a Huffington Post article, “[T]he 51-year-old singer who entered the TV talent contest to make her late mother proud is remarkably unchanged. She’s still a bit frumpy, though she’s acquired a new hairdo, more expensive clothes and a makeover. She still lives in her down-at-heel home town, has outbursts of anger and struggles to overcome her nerves before live performances.

Recently, Boyle revealed to her fans that she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. According to Boyle, “[s]ome articles have said I have brain damage. I have always known that I have had an unfair label put upon me.”

She explained that she saw a specialist a year ago and was informed that she has the autistic disorder which affects her social interaction and communication skills. But, rather than feel down about her diagnosis, she feels “relieved and more relaxed” now that she knows about her condition. Boyle admits that she “struggles with relationships, never knows if people are genuine, and has difficulty communicating, which can lead to a lot of frustration.”

Unlike autism, which is normally spotted in children around 18 to 30 months old, Asperger’s Syndrome is not usually noticed until a child starts school. In some cases, as with Susan Boyle, it can sometimes be diagnosed later in life. Often, depending on the severity of the disorder and therapies received, people with Asperger’s can learn coping strategies to hide or cover up their associated symptoms.

Do you or a family member have special needs? Twenty million American families have at least one member with special needs.  Parents of those with special needs are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetime, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently.

As a parent or guardian, you want to ensure that your child with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support.  A Special Needs Trust is a vehicle that provides assets from which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses. Learn more at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C. website, or call us at our Virginia Elder Law Fairfax office at 703-691-1888 or at our Virginia Elder Law Fredericksburg office at 540-479-1435 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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