Ben Dixon is a 25 year old full-time street musician in London. Ben is diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, characterised by repetitive and involuntary tics, and Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder.
Ben shared some of his journey through being diagnosed as a teenager and the influence the conditions have had on his life as a musician.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 11. My year 6 teacher decided to try and teach the whole class guitar, and then extended that to our whole year group, which was ambitious. I carried on playing on and off, not very seriously but just for fun. Then I started taking it more seriously at university, when I was 19.
How long have you been a busker?
Full time, for 7 months. I started busking on and off over the summer. I did alright, not brilliantly, and sometimes I didn’t even cover my train fare to London. Back then, I only had a tiny little amp, so I had to be picky about what spots I played. I couldn’t play any of the bigger pitches in the West End, so mostly on Oxford Street and places like that. At one point I turned up on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and started playing, but I got about three songs in and another busker who was there came up to me and said, “Hey man, you’re really good, but you’re a bit quiet. Do you want me to plug you into my amp?”
Then I moved to London in September last year, so I was working part time and busking in the evenings. Then in the run up to Christmas I started doing quite a lot better, so it just made sense to leave my other job.
How did you get into busking?
A few friends from my hometown who had done it told me that I should, saying you get paid to practice. I was really scared to do it to begin with. I put it off quite a few times before I actually first went up to London to busk, because it’s really nerve wracking. It’s completely different to doing an open mic night or something like that. But the weird thing is, now I feel more nervous playing in a venue than I do when I’m out busking.
When did you get diagnosed with Tourette syndrome?
In the summer of 2007, when I was about 14, I started to develop some small twitches. Then they got progressively worse and I started to suspect that they might be tics. One of my closest friends had developed Tourette’s a couple of years earlier, so I knew some of the symptoms.
The first time other people started noticing it was when my older brother was getting really annoyed because I was making this sniffling noise all the time in the car. Then about a week after that, we went to a Christian camp and I think the anxiety of being away from home and staying with a family that I didn’t know very well kind of caused an explosion of tics. So I went from having a really minor sniffling thing to full blown Tourette syndrome – slapping myself in the face, making grunting noises, stuff like that.
I got formally diagnosed about a year after that, so it would have been sometime in the summer of 2008, when I was about 15.
When did you get diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome?
During a few of my early Tourette’s appointments some of the psychologists suspected that I had Asperger’s, based on descriptions of my behaviour growing up and having met and spoken to me. I was then referred to Great Ormond Street for an appointment there, where I was diagnosed – I think I must have been about 15 or 16 then.
At the point when you got diagnosed, how did Tourette’s and Asperger’s affect you?
I’ve always had Asperger’s syndrome, so I don’t know what it’s like to not have it. I always knew I was a bit different from pretty early on.
When I started to develop really serious symptoms of Tourette’s, it was pretty worrying. It was really disconcerting to feel like I didn’t have control over my body, especially when it happened so suddenly. On a practical level, it made life really hard to begin with. I couldn’t do very basic things without serious difficulty. For a few weeks, I had to eat with a bib because I was making such a mess when I was eating because I couldn’t hold utensils for any amount of time. I couldn’t concentrate at all. I couldn’t write for more than maybe 10 seconds at most. I was already a pretty self-conscious person, but having tics meant that I was constantly aware that people were looking at me.
Most of my tics were motor tics, so that meant doing anything physically was really difficult, until I started playing tennis a lot. In between points I could still just about find the time to have a flurry of tics. The focus of it also helped me control my tics to an extent.
What sort of affect have Tourette’s and Asperger’s had on your music?
To begin with, Tourette’s made it really hard to play guitar – for obvious reasons. I didn’t pick up my guitar for at least a year after. It was only really in Tourette’s subsiding and me starting to manage it that I was able to put a lot more time into music.
But at the same time, literally everyone I know who has Tourette’s is very, very musical. There’s something rhythmic about the way tics sometimes manifest, I think. I feel like I have a beat in my brain most of the time, so even if I’m not ‘ticking’ I’ll be jogging my leg, that sort of thing.
Then, Asperger’s – I think I just get really fixated on something. If I get into something, it’s just hours and hours and hours doing that thing. So it’s not that difficult for me to spend 4 or 5 hours in one stretch practising, much to other people’s annoyance sometimes. But on the face of it, Asperger’s and busking don’t go well together, because I’m really, really shy – not something you’d expect from a street performer, or any kind of musical performer.
What has helped you to manage Tourette’s?
With Tourette’s, learning to make myself relax, not panic when a lot of stuff goes through my head because that just exacerbates it. Over time you just learn mental shortcuts. So I’ve still got all of the tics, but they mostly just manifest themselves inside my head, rather than physically or verbally. Or they’re minorly verbally, like throat clearing – things like that. It’s just something you learn to manage over time. It’s like a skill.
I had some CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). When I first got diagnosed with Tourette’s, I started showing quite a lot of symptoms of OCD at the same time. They are quite co-morbid, they go together a lot of the time. I think some of the strategies that helped me with that then helped with managing some of my tics as well.
How does Asperger’s affect your life?
Psychologists say that people with Asperger’s and ASD have something called ‘mind blindness’, which means they find it difficult to form a strong idea about what someone is thinking. It definitely makes a lot of social situations more difficult. Sometimes I don’t pick up on cues in social situations, especially around people I don’t know that well and I don’t know their mannerisms. It just means I have to put more effort into listening to people and take more time in thinking about what to say, which sometimes gives me a little bit of a stutter. I misunderstand things, like I don’t get jokes that easily. So it does make life harder on that front.
With music, I think it’s positive in that it helps me focus. I’m quite single-minded. I don’t struggle for motivation to practise and go out busking.
What would you say to someone who’s just been diagnosed with Tourette’s?
It probably seems like the end of the world at the moment, but it’s not going to be nearly as bad as it seems right now. Don’t let the things people say affect you. Ignore the silly comments and funny looks.
Where do you see music taking you in the future?
I’m pretty open-minded about it. Busking in a way feels like it’s happened to me in that it wasn’t something I set out to do, to be a full time street musician. I wanted to become a full time musician at some point, but I thought my timescale was a lot further on. So I’m still figuring out where I want to go from here.
I’d like to get into doing more gigging and find some time to do more writing in the next year or two and hopefully release some more original music.
What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve had put into your case?
I was given a book about psychedelic drugs – a users guide to things like magic mushrooms and LSD, and things like that. I’ve had a half eaten sandwich put in my case. A friend of mine put some broccoli in my case once.
Where can people find you?
I mostly busk in Picadilly Circus. I’m there most days of the week.
Ben’s Q&A is part of the “Conversations with…” series.
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