Like so many people, I was undone by the news that Prince died last week. I could write forever about the role his music played in my life. I could go on about musical brilliance. But this is an autism blog. So let’s talk about Prince and autism.
Let me start by asking if (and how) Prince pushed your limits? You don’t have to Tipper Gore to be a little bit scandalized by the lyrics of Darling Nikki, right? You could love Prince breathlessly and still wonder about some of his fashion choices. You could own every album and still pause when he changed his name to a symbol.
For many of his biggest fans, those moments of hesitancy lasted hardly longer than a heartbeat. We accepted his ode to a woman finding pleasure in a hotel lobby. We figured it was our job to learn to love the orange sequin pantsuit. We learned that the name change resulted from a struggle to protect artists’ integrity. And that just made us love him more.
Because of his of artistic brilliance, we followed him down every weird path: before-its-time gender-bending, sartorial outrageousness, melodramatic movies, and purple everything. We accepted it all and, of course, we were the luckier because Prince gave us his music and led us to places we should have been willing to visit anyway.
He should not have had to be so brilliant to garner people’s embrace of his fluid gender, bizarre lyrics, and crazy clothes. If we were better people, we would have accepted everything without him having to give us something in return.
But he did take us to places we hadn’t expected. Once there, we realized it was no big deal if people moved back and forth between the poles of gender we had assumed to be fixed. We recognized that outrageous clothes don’t harm us. If anything, they can delight. And we accepted that lesser songs are just part of the artistic process.
It was easy to love Prince because he gave so much more than he asked of us. It’s harder, of course, to love the weird when the benefits are less tangible. And here I make the turn to autism. Sometimes, and often quite unconsciously, people want something from people with autism. They search for some kind of genius within them. They hope that the autistic person is also a savant, somehow making them cooler to know. But this is selfish. Having preternatural talent should not be the price of autism acceptance.
Prince was beyond weird. But he also had preternatural talent. And so we loved him wildly, every part of him. Hopefully, he taught us not to be so stingy in our willingness to love the people that push our limits. He showed us that it’s a beautiful thing to love those who are strange. Perhaps it’s time to start giving and loving a lot more and forego our expectation of an equal return.