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Autistic Gardener helping to change perceptions of Autism

04-Aug-15
Article By: Ellie Spanswick, News Editor

Channels 4’s Autistic Gardener is the latest in a long line of programmes created by the channel to cause discussion and provide an insight into the lives of different people around the UK.

The four-part show follows renowned garden designer and horticulturalist Alan Gardner, who himself was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as he leads a team of five fellow Autists with an interest in gardening as they renovate neglected gardens across the UK.

Alan Gardner with his team from The Autistic Gardener

Speaking about how the show came about he said: “I was approached to do a programme on horticulture and how it benefits people with autism. Previously I did a fly on the wall programme for BBC 2 called ‘Passion for Plants’ but that was back before I knew I had Asperger’s as I only found out recently. When I was asked to do Autistic Gardener, they had no idea.

“It was very exciting filming, editing, doing voice-overs and talking to magazines, BBC Breakfast and the radio. I like new and interesting things as long as I have the chance to plan and the whole thing requires a lot of plotting.

“I was asked to do the voiceover after filming had finished which was incredibly difficult and required lots of practice, repeating things over and over again, in different tones.”

The National Autistic Society (NAS) estimates around 700,000 people have autism which equates to 1.1 per cent of the UK population.

The proportion of people with autism who also have learning disabilities compared to those without is almost equal. While five times as many men are affected by autism compared to women, this is reflected in the show as the team of five trainees features only one woman.

'People with autism aren't broken computers, we're different operating systems, we see things differently'

Alan said on the show: “I want to prove that people with autism are not broken computers, we are different operating systems, we see things in a different way.

“Autistic brains are wired different to neurotypicals. For some of us, a whisper is the same volume as a scream. I see every little nook, cranny, every little spider running through the grass. I miss very little.”

The film crew documented Alan’s meetings with his ‘neurotypical’ clients as they met for the first time, and working with his team of Autists and the crew. He said: “We mentored the team before the show, to make sure everyone was used to each other and the cameras and they really bonded as a team, and meeting the clients for the first time was genuine, as the cameras filmed it for the show.

“My biggest concern during the show was that I would lose one of them. If someone with Autism wakes up one day and decided they don’t want to do something anymore, that’s it.

“People with Autism are the most talented, skilful people, who all have an interest in doing something. Some people could be obsessed with one thing or change each week, their special interest could be good or bad and could be an obsession that takes hold.”

A number of famous people throughout history are thought to have been on the Autistic Spectrum, including: Alan Turing, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford and Albert Einstein.

Alan continued: “I’ve been into gardens since I was 15 and I do what I do to inspire people, to get them to come together and create something amazing. I have to be the best garden designer on the planet or what’s the point?

“I have a particular style when designing gardens and people who hire me know that, they want to be shocked because they like that. I work on large budget gardens and usually do three or four a year.

“I like the gardens I design to change with the weather and the seasons, unlike conifers that are all over gardens in the UK, remaining the same whatever the weather, as though they have no personality.

“I like bright colours and they excite me. I’ve been painting my nails and dying my hair bright colours for the past ten years and I don’t worry about what people think, I don’t care.”

Photo courtesy of RHS Press Images, Viking Ocean Cruises Show Garden

“When designing the gardens, it’s 90 per cent me and my ideas and I use my favourite Asperger’s friendly contractors when designing each garden, they are like an elitist team as they are used to working with me. I used the same landscapes when I did the Viking Ocean Cruises Show Garden for RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 and dedicated it to the National Autistic Society.”

The garden was awarded a Silver medal at the show. Alan added: “The garden reads like a journey from left to right, they’re all a narrative or a concept but the client doesn’t necessarily know that.” Each carefully selected garden featured in the show has its own individual budget, donated by the client to allow the team to create something wonderful in the space given.

'Appearing on Autistic Gardener was a brave thing to do and the reaction has been very encouraging'

Referring to his work process, Alan said: “When I work, I have to have a quiet place, with no phones or distractions, as if the phone rings and distracts me, I may as well start again, but it is also very important for the way my brain works to have several projects going on in my head, I am constantly thinking.”

“Gardening can come across as very boring on TV, but if everyone who had gardens did gardening and nurtured their gardens, maybe we could make a big difference, like stop the bees from dying out.”

The reaction to the show has been very positive, across national and local media, social networks and Alan himself has received fan-mail since the show was first broadcast in July.

Autistic Gardener is just one of several programmes and series created in recent months, focusing on people with Autism, ITV recently produced a documentary on schools specifically for ‘Girls with Autism’ while the BBC has recently broadcast a whole season dedicated to ‘Defying the Label’.

Alan Gardner

Alan added: “Appearing on Autistic Gardener was a brave thing to do and the reaction has been very encouraging for the autistic community and we’ve had lots of very positive tweets about the show and some beautiful fan-mail.

“We set out to create a simple little garden programme, but didn’t estimate the effect the show would have, keeping that beautiful feel and educating people about autism.

“I am lucky to be able to do what I do, having that self-confidence and self-belief to recognise my special interest. I am time rich, and enjoy seeing my children grow up and tending to my own garden – what I do is not a job, I just enjoy doing and people give me money to do it.”

“Nobody knows if we had another series how it could evolve, but I am in touch with the team, the NAS and ‘betty’ who produced the show. In the future, I hope to be able go back to Chelsea and continue designing gardens that are more adventurous. There are always new things to see and new things to learn and there is constantly something to do.”

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