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(Credit: David Byrne Facebook)

Music

How David Byrne helped to change public perception of Autism

@TomTaylorFO

David Byrne once said, “However we are, we don’t know how to be another way. That’s the way we are.” It might sound simple and entirely self-explanatory, but for those on the Autism spectrum, this was, in fact, something that needed saying. Byrne is, and always has been, a champion of individualism. It is from this viewpoint of individuality and its place in the glowing kaleidoscopic spectrum of humanity at large that Byrne’s artistic output derives. 

David Byrne has what he describes as “mild asperges”. This outward declaration and open representation of the condition in the public eye would be something to rejoice in itself for the misunderstood Autism community. But the fact that he has championed the condition as a vital aspect of his artistry has served as a glowing declaration of the power of inclusivity and recognising the beauty in our differences, rather than sheltering in the dower domain of conformity.

People on the autistic spectrum often have difficulty with conventional social interaction. The keyword being ‘conventional’, as it is not the case that they cannot communicate emotionally; they simply have a different way of processing the world. Byrne found that for him, expression was easier through performance. He told the BBC, “when you have trouble expressing yourself socially through the normal channels, you find other ways to do that.” Byrne’s workaround just so happened to be one of the most joyous forms of artistic expression that the world has ever seen, one which has been an ever-present boon to life since Talking Heads first burst onto the scene, like a beatific shot to the arm, in 1977. 

“I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.” This unique style was not limited to his performance on stage. It also permeates his songwriting. He stands outside of the norm and observes it without cynicism but equally without compromise. And thusly, like a musical alchemist, he has been able to make joyous pieces of pop perfection that probe deeply at the human comedy without doing anything other than extolling the beauty and illuminating the bad. 

He has not achieved this ginormous feat in any other way than being himself and not changing one modicum about his vision to fall into the line of conformity. He has never sequestered his Aspergers to perform; he takes it on stage with him. This has not been without difficulty, but as he has explained to the BBC about being onstage, “There is something about the attention being directed to you, but you’re kind of anonymous,” that he finds liberating. Byrne has relished in this perceived onstage anonymity. 

Likewise, he has spoken about how there are inherent difficulties associated with the condition. “Expression just comes out,” he clarified, “but when you have to deal with all the other things that come along with it, it can be really hard.” Once more, however, the take-home message is that these challenges are no more difficult to overcome for people on the spectrum than other people face in separate areas of daily life. Life for all of us has its pitfalls and windfalls as we bumble on through it; people on the spectrum traverse that same journey, enjoying the glorious vistas and bracing the potholes, they simply have a different neurotype as they travel. The windfall of the condition for Byrne is that he has “no problem on being alone and focussing on something,” he told 3 Girls, 1 Kieth podcast, “That’s my superpower. I can use this in my way.”

Away from the music, the movie David Byrne co-wrote and directed, True Stories, is often touted as the most authentic expression of Autism in cinema. The hyper-fixation of a man desperately trying to fit in is an example of ‘Autistic Masking’. This self-observation is something Byrne has spoken about many times in interviews, stating the maxim: “Is this something I should be doing?” In cinema, as in music, Byrne elucidated these feelings in an exuberantly humanised way.  

In short, when David Byrne and Talking Heads came along, they were not only unique, they were as refreshing as a cold breeze — there was an enchantment to what they were doing, which has remained. Byrne continues to propagate something almost inconceivable yet beautifully simple; he is wholeheartedly himself, and he defiantly embodies the dichotomy of vulnerability and spiritual sanctity that comes with that emboldened stance (and I’m not just talking about his scaffolded suits). His triumph in this regard has not only been something to celebrate amongst the Autistic community, but something to celebrate for all of us at large. As he once said himself, “We all don’t have to be the same.”