Nature presenter Chris Packham wants viewers to try and understand what it’s like living with Asperger’s, writes Gemma Dunn
WHEN you have a to-do list as long as Chris Packham’s, taking a day off can prove something of a rarity.
“I work every day: I work Christmas day, I work my birthday, I just work,” says the naturalist, shaking his head at the mere suggestion of a ‘break’. “I’ve got things to do. I can’t stop. I can’t stop...
“I was actually forced yesterday to take a couple of hours out,” he adds, almost surprised by his own declaration. “I had a load of work to do, but when I got to the hotel I couldn’t check in, so I went to the National Gallery. It was a good couple of hours.”
Packham puts his ability to handle such a gruelling schedule down to his autism, a disorder that in many ways has come to define him.
“Sometimes (I’m doing) two or three jobs a day, so it’s one of those times that the Asperger’s mind is actually probably the only way it would work,” explains the 56-year-old, who has lent his encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world to shows such as The Really Wild Show and Springwatch for over three decades.
Diagnosed in his 40s, the presenter — who went public with the condition in his 2016 childhood memoir, Fingers In The Sparkle Jar — is in London to discuss a candid new BBC Two documentary, Chris Packham: Asperger’s And Me.
In the one-off film, Packham invites viewers into his world to try to show them what it’s really like being him — from the devastating trials of his adolescence and daily struggles in social situations, to his bouts of depression, difficulty forming relationships, and heightened, often overwhelming, senses.
With scientific advances offering new possibilities to treat Asperger’s, he also travels to the US to witness radical therapies that appear to offer the possibility of eradicating autistic traits entirely. A journey that leaves him questioning whether he’d ever want to be cured himself, or whether, ultimately, Asperger’s has helped make him who he is today.
Much like everything else in Packham’s life, he was resolute the show would have a real purpose. “I don’t do anything if it’s not going to achieve anything,” says the Southampton-born star.
“I needed to be able to speak about the positive aspects, as I think that autism is generally perceived as something which is entirely negative. And I wanted to be able to articulate how it felt, so that people would have a better understanding of it.”
It’s about “shouting above the noise”, he insists, referring to punk rock band Penetration’s song lyrics as his “life anthem”.
“I have a small voice because I make wildlife programmes and I have to exercise that voice positively — that’s the purpose of having it.
“I think people that have that voice should do so,” he elaborates. “If they don’t say some things either because they’ve got nothing to say or they’re too scared to say it — both of these are reprehensible.”
Head down, Packham, who by his own admission calls himself “a little bit weird”, moves quickly from subject to subject, glancing up to make eye contact only a handful of times.
Hands tightly clasped on his lap, he talks of his decision to live alone in the middle of the woods with his “best friend”, Scratchy the dog, (as opposed to with his long-term
girlfriend Charlotte Corney) as it’s the “only place I feel normal”.
“I’m a lot less guarded with people I trust and know — invariably my family have always taken the brunt of that,” he confesses, pinpointing his battle to connect with strangers.
“There are things I would say spontaneously to them that I wouldn’t dare say spontaneously out to anyone else, because I would have to measure what I thought their reaction would be to them.”
I wonder if this show and public diagnosis of sorts will offer him some relief.
“I know other people who I have spoken to you and they’ve said they found it immediately uplifting and empowering and cathartic,” he responds, having revealed in the film he’s spent years employing a range of coping mechanisms to fit in on TV. “(But) it wasn’t like that for me, really. I had come to accept it and I’d certainly been working hard for a long time on managing it independently.”
“There’s a certain amount of relief because if I make a mistake, people now understand why,” he muses. “They don’t have to just say, ‘Chris is a nuisance weirdo’.
“That doesn’t, however, mean that I can count on their tolerance,” he quickly adds. “Television is very much about effective teamwork and maximising and optimising what the team can achieve and I have to be an effective part of that team.
“I don’t want people to make excuses for me,” he finishes. “I can’t take my foot off the gas. I mustn’t relax. I don’t want to be an encumbrance to anyone.”
Chris Packham: Asperger’s And Me airs on BBC 2 on Tuesday, October 17.
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