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Asperger's has been engine of Bap Kennedy's creativity, says terminally ill singer in poignant post

By Stephanie Bell

Published 22/10/2016

Bap Kennedy and his wife Brenda
Bap Kennedy and his wife Brenda
An image of the singer taken from his health blog

Terminally ill Belfast singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy has spoken for the first time about the challenges of living with Asperger syndrome.

Although too unwell to write his online blog, he has posted a heartfelt piece he penned in August.

His wife Brenda says he was waiting for "the right moment" to post it.

In it Bap writes he is proud of his Asperger's and also reveals how he struggled not knowing he had the condition for most of his life until he met his wife Brenda in his early 40s and, with her help, was finally diagnosed.

Brenda's youngest child Kenneth was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was eight and Brenda gave up a career as a lawyer to become involved with autism charities and wrote several books on the subject of Asperger's.

Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

In a moving piece Bap reveals the difficulties he faced as a musician coping with Asperger's and how at one point he gave up music because he found the lifestyle too hard to cope with.

Thankfully for his many fans, who have rallied round him since he was diagnosed with pancreas and bowel cancer in May, he was drawn back to his great love of songwriting and performing.

The 53-year-old is currently in the Marie Curie Hospice where he has been receiving treatment for pain management since his condition deteriorated during the summer.

In another blow for the west Belfast family last month, Bap's singer brother Brian Kennedy revealed that he is being treated for rectal cancer. However, unlike Bap, Brian's was caught early and he is receiving radiation and chemotherapy and hopes to make a full recovery.

When told in August that his condition was terminal, Bap poignantly wrote in his health blog that he wanted to use what time he had to "fix the things I can and put as much love as I can into the world before the boatman rows me across the big river".

He and his brother Brian have since reunited after being estranged for many years.

Bap has posted his latest blog under the heading 'The engine of my creativity', accompanied by his song Lonely Street.

He says: "I've decided, because of the situation I find myself in, to reveal that I have a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.

"I've never spoken about this publicly before because, although it has caused me a lot of problems, I know that many people are more severely affected than me, so I never wanted to make a big deal of it. But it's important for me to set the record straight now, because Asperger syndrome (AS) is a big part of who I am."

Bap goes on to reveal that, growing up in the 1970s during the Troubles, little was known about Asperger's. He says symptoms went unnoticed because there was so much going on.

"We were too busy trying to survive, so I ended up without a diagnosis most of my life," he adds.

By the age of 44 he says he was "in real trouble psychologically" and his saviour was meeting Brenda, who hasn't left his side since he was diagnosed with cancer in May.

With her expertise in Asperger's, Brenda was able to guide Bap towards a professional assessment for the first time.

He says: "My mind was absolutely blown as I began to understand for the first time why my life had unfolded the way it did.

"When I was younger I spent a lot of time in bars with other musicians, and alcohol did a good job of masking my Asperger syndrome. I was ill-equipped for the music industry from the start.

"As it makes you tend to misread what people are saying and sometimes you see things in black and white - you misunderstand. You find it difficult to believe that people may be saying one thing and thinking another - and that kind of attitude can be a real handicap in any kind of business.

"Over the years I failed miserably to negotiate the music business despite the help of notable musicians such as Steve Earle, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler. And it ended up taking a huge toll on me."

Bap says in his blog by the time he reached his early 40s he was completely disillusioned with the music business as he had experienced it and took a part-time job in pawn-brokers.

He also gave up alcohol which had a profound effect on him. "Without alcohol in my life I began to realise that I was very, very obsessive," he says.

"My job in the pawn-brokers led to an obsession with diamonds to the point that I began to study gemmology and became a qualified diamond expert and gemmologist. Then a few years later my obsession with the space race led to my album 'Howl On'."

Bap expressed concern that sometimes Asperger syndrome gets a negative and what he feels is an "unfair" Press.

He adds: "You might hear that people with AS are totally inept socially, but that is not completely true. For me most social situations are quite difficult, especially now I don't drink, but some people may find this hard to believe as I can get on a stage and entertain people for two hours.

"But performing on stage is not like a normal social engagement. It is quite easy for me. I know everything I'm about to do. It's all been rehearsed and (apart from a few ad libs and jokes) it's all predictable.

"It's worked successfully enough times for me to be confident that it will work again. The off stage bit is always more difficult for me and I find ordinary social engagement including small talk quite difficult. I can do it. I can do it to the point where I seem socially 'normal' but privately I end up completely exhausted by social experiences."

He says people with Asperger syndrome can find relationships difficult and expressed how lucky he feels to have met Brenda.

He adds: "We're extremely similar so we enjoy each other's intensity to the point that we have been together pretty well 24/7 from the word go, and it's a great relief to feel understood.

"I was also lucky enough to find a sympathetic and understanding manager, Willie Richardson. So the last decade of my life has been the happiest by far".

Bap also paid tribute to his stepson, Kenneth, who he described as a great example of Asperger syndrome as he has found a way to be happy in the world.

He concludes: "I think the key is acceptance. So the thing I want people to know is that I'm not ashamed of my Asperger syndrome. I've never been ashamed of it. In fact to be honest I'm proud I've got Asperger's - it is the engine of my creativity."

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