Susan Boyle & The Portrayal of Autism in the Media

Most of us have heard of Susan Boyle.  She stunned audiences everywhere on Britain’s Got Talent when she came on stage looking a little disheveled, and blew us all away with her amazing operatic voice.  Not confirming to societies ideas of how a person should look or act, she’s taken a lot of stick in the 7 years since her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ on the ITV show.  Soon after the show and before she went on to start her very successful singing career, it was reported that she had checked into The Priory as she was “missing her cats”.  The tone was set then, and unfortunately hasn’t improved since.

“SuBo” as she’s been dubbed by the media has hit the headlines over the last few days after announcing that she may never sing live again.  The media coverage of this has once again been less than kind, but more than that it has been both wildly inaccurate and derogatory when speaking about Susan’s Asperger’s syndrome (a type of Autism).

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This article from International Business Times (IBT) is particularly problematic, beginning with the title, “Susan Boyle says she may never sing again due to her illness”.  As we read on, we discover that the author of this piece is in fact citing Autism as the illness in question.  Autism is not an “illness”, it is a neurological disorder that effects the way an individual perceives and interacts with the world around them.

When questioned about why she would no longer be touring, Boyle is quoted as saying,

“I haven’t performed live because I’ve been ill. The short answer is that it has been connected to my Asperger’s syndrome”.

This shows that neither the author of this article, not indeed Susan herself truly understand what Asperger’s syndrome is and what it means.  Asperger’s syndrome is not an illness.  It cannot be cured and you cannot “get ill” with it.  It is something you have all your life and you learn to adapt too and work around.  Unfortunately Asperger’s syndrome is severely under diagnosed in females, who are often better at masking symptoms, and thus are often diagnosed later in life, as I myself was.

Autism is not a mental illness.  It is not a learning disorder.  A diagnosis of autism does not mean that a person is developmentally delayed.  These conditions are sometimes more prevalent in people with autism, but I cannot stress enough that they are separate conditions and must be treated and reported as such.

The article is brought to a close with what I believe is meant to be a joke.

“I would love to adopt a child too but my cat might get jealous. I don’t want to see a cat and a baby fighting. It’s something I might do later.”

The quote, which is taken from this article in The Mirror, clearly guides the readers to see Ms Boyle as a figure of fun, laughing not with her but at her.  The piece in IBT, which is clearly based on the piece from The Mirror, manages to surpass the original article in The Mirror in both tackiness and inaccuracy, which is saying something when it is compared to a piece which talks of her “crippling” Asperger’s syndrome and lets readers know all about her two stone weight loss, which may help her find love, or at least help her conform a little more to societies idea of how a person should look.

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This type of reporting is unfortunately not uncommon.  With much of the general public taking their perceptions of autism largely from films like Rain Man, or assuming that a person with autism is developmentally delayed or “simple” as it was put in The Mirror article, it is not hard to understand why.  But this is simply no excuse when it comes to accurate reporting, which should require even the most basic due diligence when an article is focusing on something as specific as autism.  With the entire world wide web at the touch of a button, there is simply no excuse for poor reporting.  Authors, journalists and filmmakers need to make sure they have at least a basic grasp of what autism is before they ever put pen to paper.

My friend is named Jack Welch, and he has Asperger’s syndrome too.  He does great charity work all across the country in many fields.  He wrote an email to IBT several days ago regarding the tone and content of their article, but is yet to hear back, not even to acknowledge that his email has been received.  This is how much people care about accurate reporting of autism.  This is not acceptable.

 Lets.  Lead.  The.  Narrative.

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*For more information on autism visit The National Autistic Society website

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