In 2009, a shy, 47-year-old Scottish woman touched the world with her breathtaking rendition of Les Misérables’ “I Dreamed A Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. After the performance, Susan Boyle catapulted into a singing sensation, selling more than 14 million records worldwide.
But despite her meteoric rise over the past few years, Boyle has, more recently, been coming to terms with a more private matter. Last week, she revealed to The Observer that she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome by a Scottish specialist about a year ago — a revelation that she calls “a relief.”
“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,” she said in the interview. “People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”
Asperger syndrome is one of a group of developmental brain disorders, which are collectively called autism spectrum disorder or ASD, according to the National Institutes of Health. Asperger’s affects the ability to socialize and communicate with others, the Mayo Clinic reports, and is characterized by symptoms that may include one-sided conversations, unusual nonverbal communication, obsession with one or two specific subjects and difficulty “reading” others. Other ASDs include autistic disorder (or classic autism), pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.
While many people in the public eye are speculated to have an autism spectrum disorder (among them, Courtney Love, Mozart and Tim Burton), Boyle joins a group of famous faces who have spoken out publicly about their diagnoses. Read on for seven more inspiring people with an autism spectrum disorder.
James DurbinThe American Idol alum (from season 10), who recently released his new single, “Parachute,” was first diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and Tourette syndrome at age 10. “Right around the time when I was diagnosed, I got a hand-me-down guitar with a chord book and a cheap busted tuner,” Durbin told Autism Speaks last month. “I think music is like medicine and can be a benefit for anyone no matter what genre. There’s just so much you can learn. It’s all about focus and for me, not only on the Autism spectrum but also the Tourette’s spectrum, focus was something I needed help with. Music is my focus.”
Music also became a way for Durbin to cope with bullying growing up. “Throughout this process, I figured out that no matter how bad of a day I had at school, I could come home and create my own world within the music,” he wrote on CNN. “I could make the music as happy or as sad as I wanted it to be. I used the pain from being bullied to transform me into who I was meant to be.”
Daryl HannahEarlier this year, the actress opened up to People magazine about being diagnosed with autism as a child, and how it contributed to a fear of fame as an adult, HuffPost previously reported. That fear caused Hannah to retreat from life in the spotlight. “I’ve never been comfortable being the center of attention,” she told People. “It’s always freaked me out.”
Dan AykroydThe actor and writer told the Daily Mail earlier this week that, like Durbin, he has been diagnosed with both Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome. And he says the latter actually helped to inspire the movie Ghostbusters. “I also have Asperger’s but I can manage it. It wasn’t diagnosed until the early 80s when my wife persuaded me to see a doctor,” he told the Daily Mail. “One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement — I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born.”
Heather KuzmichWhen America’s Next Top Model cycle nine began in 2007, the audience met 21-year-old Heather Kuzmich, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. “It was a point in my life where I was thinking either Asperger’s was going to define me or I was going to be able to work around it,” Kuzmich told The New York Times of her decision to join the competition show. “At first I was really worried people would laugh at me because I was so very awkward. I got the exact opposite.”
The contestant finished in fifth place, and was voted as the viewer favorite eight weeks in a row. “I was at the bottom of the totem pole,” she told People about her time growing up. “I wanted to be a role model for girls who aren’t the most popular and are picked on.”
Dan HarmonThe Community creator started learning more about Asperger syndrome while developing the character of Abed for the NBC show. “So, in a very naive way — and I’ve never told anybody this before — I started researching the disorder,” Harmon told Wired in 2011. “I started looking up these symptoms, just to know what they are. And the more I looked them up, the more familiar they started to seem. Then I started taking these Internet tests.”
Eventually, Harmon met with a doctor and came to understand that symptoms of the disorder lie on a spectrum, and that in fact there is a place on it for people with inappropriate emotional reactions and deep empathy. Harmon now sees that he may fit somewhere on that spectrum, though figuring out exactly where could take years.
Alexis WinemanEarlier this year, Miss Montana became the first Miss America contestant with autism to compete in the pageant. At age 11, Wineman was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, CNN reported.
“My path may not be one that another person would choose, but I challenged myself to enter the Miss America competition because it seemed like the peak to my own personal Everest,” she wrote for CNN in January. “It also seemed kind of ironic: a girl who was told she was different and considered an outcast by many, in the nation’s biggest beauty pageant.”
She reached the top 15 in the competition, and won the America’s Choice Award, according to CNN, for garnering the most online viewer votes. “So many people expect autistic people to all be the same — that it’s a brain disorder so we can’t function in society,” she told Time. “I want people to realize there’s a whole spectrum of people who live with autism. There are high-functioning people and low-functioning people.”
Temple GrandinA professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, the university calls her “the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world.” According to her website, Grandin didn’t speak until she was three and a half years old, “communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping and humming.” After receiving a diagnosis of autism, her parents were told she should be institutionalized. She wrote in her book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic:
I have read enough to know that there are still many parents, and yes, professionals too, who believe that ‘once autistic, always autistic.’ This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people, it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. However, I feel strongly that I am living proof that they can.
In addition to her work in the animal sciences (among her other accomplishments, Grandin developed corrals to improve quality of life for cattle), she has become an outspoken advocate in the autism community. In 2010, TIME named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and HBO produced a biopicbased on her life called Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes as the title character.