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Posted 26 Jun 2023

Lewis Capaldi Sings The Highs And Tics The Lows Of Tourettes

At the 2023 Glastonbury Festival, Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi gave an outstanding performance of his incredible musical and vocal talents. His music is well loved across the world for his raw, vulnerable lyrics and minor major key switch melodies. He has touched so many with his authenticity and emotional insight, laying much of this bare additionally in a documentary for Netflix. Capaldi was recently diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and has long been aware of a disabling level of anxiety and depression. He was unable to sing at points during his set and the crowd responded with a level of care from which we can all learn.

What Is Tourettes?

Tourette Syndrome is characterised by involuntary verbal and physical tics. These are sometimes the focus for jokes and ridicule, particularly when the individual has coprolalia or copropraxia, which involves rude words, phrases or gestures. These can appear in a complex form, such as an insulting phrase directed to a colleague or member of the public. But Tourettes is no laughing matter, and can be very disabling. At the least intrusive end, repeated movements can lead to repetitive strain injury, embarrassment and self-consciousness. A person may feel they have to avoid public places at Christmas due to a seasonal tic “Santa’s your mum.” At the more extreme end, some Touretters have had surgery to partially paralyse their legs to reduce kicking tics that prevent them from sleeping or causing damage when in a car.

The causes of Tourettes are still unknown, but they become significantly worse during periods of anxiety and can be lessened when a person is focused on their talents, such as photography, climbing or, in Capaldi’s case, music. However, Capaldi was unable to complete his set at Glastonbury, because his tics became unmanageable and he was not able to control his voice. This must be soul crushing for Capaldi, who has used music as an outlet for many years. However, in a moment which must surely reinforce our faith in humanity, the Glastonbury crowd offered their support by singing the words for him and offering sustained support, as he ticced through the lyrics.

Paul Stevenson, star of many documentaries about Tourette Syndrome commented: “In that one moment thousands of folks watching Lewis, witnessed firsthand the challenges we face daily, not in a comedic way, no mocking just empathy and supporting him”.

Pressure And Performance

Neurodivergence is about ascending highs and crashing lows. We seem to have developed a rather unhealthy obsession with the idea that neurodivergent people will be magical beings who turn up with unusual and extreme talent, but we have lost sight of the difficulties and how these show up at moments when we least expect them. Capaldi showed us at Glastonbury how, at the moments when we most need our talents, our physiology can unexpectedly and uncontrollably let us down.

The relationship between pressure and performance is curvilinear. This means that as pressure goes up, so does performance, until it has hit peak, and then performance plateaus and starts to go backwards. The peak for some neurodivergent people may be higher, or lower than average, but in my experience as a practitioner once it it is reached, the nosedive is steep.

The day-to-day experience of neurodivergent employees has parallels to Capaldi’s moment. We get overwhelmed by the pressure of success, which can send our nervous systems into a massive spin, raising our sensory sensitivity to unendurable levels. Capaldi is lauded for being honest and up front about what is happening, but not all employees are able to explain and they might not have the words to describe their experience.

Lesson For Employers

Employers can help, just as the crowd at Glastonbury helped Capaldi, with a circle of care during the crashing lows and permission to take a recovery plan which allows for resetting our stress levels. We work in bursts. We need significant down time to recover from heat, travel intensity, changes in environment. A summer festival schedule is unlikely to be sustainable for a neurodivergent person without significant scaffolding. If you want us to show up with our magic, we need as much consistency and care around the aspects of work that many neurotypical people take for granted – travel plans, food, timing, administration.

The intensity of Tourettes comes and goes across a lifetime. It can get worse, better within a 24 hour period or across a period of months. Neurodiversity inclusion is a long term commitment, and does not work well with standard billing cycles, performance appraisal. It can require us to develop flexible work patterns that might seem inconsistent, but are actually the difference that makes the difference. I hope that Lewis Capaldi feels supported and that his team are looking at all the travel arrangements, scheduling and sensory support that he needs in order to perform at his best, and upping the ante, including reassuring him that he is allowed to ask for this care. I hope he feels able to take the time he needs and comes back when he is good and ready.

For many years, musicians have been criticised for being Divas when they ask for the same bedding, flowers, food in whichever hotel they stay around the world, but actually this is just sensory neurocare 101. The critical lesson is to not judge what a neurodivergent person needs when they ask for help with what you might think unnecessary or fussy. If it makes a difference, it is worth it. You cannot have the highs if you do not buffer the lows; that’s exploitation. Consider the rigors of your work routines and environments and review where you can make them less physically uncomfortable for all. These are the differences that makes all the difference for some of your headline performers.