Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Chris Packham. He is, hands down, my favourite television presenter, and a genuinely inspirational figure to me as a naturalist, a conservationist, and—more recently—as an author. This blog usually (and all too sporadically, particularly of late) concerns itself with fictional onscreen representations of mental health, but in the case of this recent documentary by Chris about his experience of Asperger’s Syndrome, I therefore had to make an exception. The only reason I didn’t write about it sooner is that I was out of the country when it aired, and hence have only had the opportunity to catch up with it over the past week. It is, however, every much as extraordinary and superlative an hour of television as I had anticipated and hoped.
My name is Chris Packham. What you probably don’t know—because I’ve been hiding it most of my life—is that my brain is different than yours, because I’m autistic. My type of autism is called Asperger’s. I’ve spent thirty years on the telly trying my best to act normal, when really I am anything but. Now, I’ve decided that I want to talk about my Asperger’s. I want people to try to understand what it is like to be me. There is a lot about me which is pretty normal. There are a lot of other things that are not quite so normal. This is the story of my life: the past and the present, how those that love me have learned to live with me. As a young man there was absolutely nothing available to help me, but now I am going in search of radical new therapies that might be able to improve my life and the lives of millions of others, treatments aimed at making us more normal, stripping us of our autistic traits. If a cure for autism ever became available, would I choose to take it?
Last year, Chris Packham published Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a memoir remarkable for its detailed recall, its beautiful prose—especially when describing his experiences of the natural world—and a unique style that finds sections written as from a third person’s perspective mixed in with first-hand accounts and exchanges from his therapy sessions. It was in this book and the promotional tour that accompanied it (during which I was lucky enough to attend a talk at London’s Natural History Museum and, briefly, to meet Chris) that he first talked about his Asperger’s, and the challenges it has conferred upon him throughout life.
If you have autism there’s an enormous breadth of how that impacts upon your life, and I think it varies from having a few traits that might be perceived as quirky or difficult socially—and many, many people will have those—and, at the other end, I think that it is fair to call it a disability. I’m not a typical autistic person because there is no typical autistic person.
Asperger’s (or Asperger Syndrome) is on the autism spectrum, a developmental disorder characterised by levels of difficulty in social interactions including understanding and experiencing empathy. It is notable how Packham describes the spectrum in such inclusive, individualistic, and relatable terms. Indeed, there are certain behavioural “quirks” that Chris references—his deep love for the animals over and above human relationships, obsessional interests, and a degree of social awkwardness—that I recognise to some extent as traits of my own such that they do not seem abnormal to me at all.
Throughout the documentary and with great candour, Chris reveals his experience of Asperger’s and its effects upon his life from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. He explains the hyper-reality with which he experiences sensory data, and cascades of remembered encyclopaedic information that tumble through his brain and can lead to lengthy, verbose monologues of free association he is inclined to share with anyone who might listen. He has learned to minimise his clumsiness in social circumstances, but in some respects that has led to a decision to isolate himself from such interactions.
Packham lives in a house in the New Forest with Scratchy, his beloved miniature poodle, as his sole companion. (His rapport with animals is self-evident in any number of encounters, both during the documentary and throughout his television career.) He describes how that self-enforced solitude helps him to feel “normal” in his day-to-day environment, and how he takes rigorous steps to control that environment, for example by leaving window blinds pulled down through the day, and by regimentally organising his belongings and habits.
There is, however, a price to pay for such isolation. Alienated from social circles by other children at school he felt an escalating conflict with the outside world, preferring instead to spend his time with the natural world, leading to an obsessional interest. The pinnacle of this was his six-month relationship with a kestrel he took from a nest as a young teenager, which he describes as a “mental love missile” but which ultimately ended in the “catastrophic event” of the bird’s death from illness. That part of his personal story was the most powerful passage of all in Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, and his pained response as he revisits the bird’s grave in the documentary makes for difficult viewing. He has considered suicide on no fewer than three occasions during his lowest moments, revealing the psychological impact living with autism can have—not only upon the individual but also upon their family.
One of the aims of the documentary is to explore potential treatments for those with autism. To this end, Chris crosses the Atlantic, first visiting Rhode Island’s Brown University where a program is trialling Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in order to determine whether or not it can help alleviate the effects of autism. TMS operates according to the theory that autism may be caused by over- or under-activity of certain parts of the brain, and uses electrical induction to cause neurons in such areas to fire. Packham is concerned that the accuracy of the equipment used is to within one cubic centimetre—comprising many millions of neurons—and hence announces that there is “categorically not a chance” that he would ever countenance undergoing such treatment for himself, whilst also admitting the dichotomy that the scientific part of his nature inclines him to also consider that you have to “pioneer”.
More disturbing is his exploration of Applied Behavioural Analysis, an educational approach that is often applied in attempts to eradicate autistic behaviour. Chris Packham’s distaste at the technique and the chaotic environments in which it is practised is clear, however he also acknowledges its appeal to desperate parents of children with seriously debilitating forms of autism. It is considered a panacea in the USA—where one practitioner he meets is positively evangelical about its potential to eradicate the condition, citing it as “educational chemotherapy”—however is widely discredited in the UK for its attempts, essentially, to force autistic children to become something that they are not.
Returning to his personal narrative, Packham credits his anger and confusion at his difference from others as leading to an interest in punk rock (citing Penetration‘s “Shout Above the Noise” as his life anthem) that he found empowering. Furthermore, his obsessional interest with animals led him to his career break on The Really Wild Show in 1986, on which he first learned to control some of his behavioural inclinations and turned in a charismatic performance as a presenter that birthed a career that sees him as a stand-out performer in his field.
Reflections on his personal history combined with his investigations into potential treatments for autism lead to the revelatory conclusion to Packham’s journey. He recognises how he is lucky to be high-functioning with his autism, yet realises that his career would not exist without his condition.
I realise now that there is no way I could do my job without Asperger’s. What I do in terms of just making this programme is afforded to me because of my Asperger’s—because of my neurological differences—so that’s being able to see things with perhaps a greater clarity, to see the world in a different way, in my case in a very visual way. But I’ve been able to understand that, and that’s something that was a painful process to go through, but I did it and now I am very fortunate to be able to reap the benefits of that. Not all autistic people are in that position. There are many aspects of Asperger’s which are enormously positive, and there must be many other people out there who could contribute in an immensely productive way who aren’t able to do so because they can’t quite manage some aspects of their life in the way that I do in order to make it productive. In the UK, only 14% of autistic adults are in full-time employment, the lowest percentage for any notifiable disability, and that is a tragic loss.
For his last journey Stateside, Chris visits Silicon Valley and learns that it is people with autistic traits that are responsible in part for some of the most celebrated leaps in technological innovation of recent decades. In this context, the idea of a cure for autism is considered nothing less than “toxic”. Whilst treatments are founded upon the assumption that autistic people should be forced to fit within society rather than adapting to include them, some of the tech giants of Silicon Valley have learned to do just that, to society’s enduring benefit.
Imagine all those people trapped in their room because they are isolated by this condition. They haven’t been able to sculpt opportunities, manage themselves in a way that allows them to fulfil their lives. That’s like a ghastly sentence set in a vile fairy tale. No one should be imprisoned by this condition. They should be allowed to exult in those aspects of the condition which empower them. That difference is such a valuable tool, an enormous asset. To be able to see things, understand things, process things and remember things in a way that most people can’t do has to be seen as a gift, not something that you are badged with and it’s about what you can’t do; it’s got to be about what you can do.
I have often railed on this blog at the presentation in television dramas of mental health conditions as some kind of super power, but when it comes to certain kinds of autism Asperger’s and Me makes a powerful case that, in certain circumstances, the positive aspects of some conditions can be harnessed to considerable benefit if the more negative aspects can be managed.
Countering this perspective, however, Chris shares his honest fear that he may be making this documentary in an “interval between disasters”, noting that for all his successes he still finds himself unable to deal with losing those that he loves, and that he does not wish to therefore appear as some kind of a charlatan given a sense that all of the success and happiness he has found may be “built on sand”. Nevertheless, in sharing how he has sustained a long-term relationship for a decade (albeit not without its stresses and strains) and also enjoys what is clearly a mutually rewarding and loving relationship with his step-daughter, there is an undeniably optimistic thread to the balanced view of his condition that he presents. And so he has his answer to the question he poses at the beginning of the documentary.
For all the contradictions, all the heartache of this condition, what I have seen in America has made it very clear to me that we need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are. If you offered me a cure, from my particular perspective, from where I stand, then no thank you.
Asperger’s and Me is a bold documentary in which Chris Packham dares to reveal a side of himself and aspects of his personal history that are clearly deeply personal and, at times, harrowing. It is to his credit that he has done so, as he has helped to shine light upon a complex, poorly understood range of disorders. His sharp intelligence, matter-of-fact delivery, and scientific mindset combine to make this a very special hour of television indeed. The critical response has been universal in its praise, prompting Chris to write a heartfelt thank you note on his website. Asperger’s and Me gets my highest recommendation, so if you can please do check it out on the BBC iPlayer (it is available for UK viewers for another couple of weeks or so, at the time of writing), or alternatively/ additionally read Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. Both offer the opportunity to see and understand the world from the gifted perspective of a unique, intelligent, and fascinating man.