By Melissa Tettenborn
Chris Packham is known for his work as a naturalist, TV presenter and wildlife advocate. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning disorder on the autistic spectrum, when he was in his early 40s. He had kept relatively quiet about this until last night when he fronted a documentary on BBC2 about what it was like living with Asperger syndrome.
He started the programme by saying: “My name is Chris Packham. What you probably don’t know about me, because I’ve been hiding it most of my life, is that my brain is different than yours because I’m autistic. I’ve spent 30 years on the telly, trying my best to act normal, when really I’m anything but.”
With an amazing degree of eloquence, Chris described some of the symptoms that he has, including obsessions, a need for routine, heightened sensory awareness, difficultly with social interaction, and finding change difficult. He described his thoughts as a “cascade”, layers upon layers of interconnected thoughts. He showed us the rows and rows of perfectly straight coathangers, all pointing the same way, and explained about having attachments to certain clothes which means he has to buy several identical shirts, trousers and fleeces.
Application to social work
As I watched there were a few areas that struck me due to their application to social work. The first was an examination of the relationship between attachment, compulsion and obsession. Chris described his first love, a kestrel, and a succession of other animal best friends including his poodles Itchy and Scratchy. Itchy died last year and Chris explained with excruciating frankness how bereavement and loss affected him.
The second was Chris’ use of a strengths-based approach. He didn’t call it this of course. What he did was visit a school in America for autistic children that used behavioural therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ autism. This was very difficult to watch with distressed children being retrained until they behaved ‘normally’. He had a conversation with the headteacher, who used the metaphor of cancer to describe autism and likened the school’s intervention to chemotherapy. I was struck by Chris’ observations of the school environment – too chaotic, noisy, bright, and asymmetrical. These things may cause stress and anxiety in people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and it made me wonder about the service user voice and whom the architects had consulted when planning such a specialist school venue.
Chris also visited a clinic in America which was using electrode therapy to lesson the symptoms of Asperger syndrome by realigning the neurons in the brain. He then went for a trip down Silicon Valley to meet some people whose specific skill set due to their ASD has enabled them to have successful careers building up households brands such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
One of the tech giants described to Chris their interviewing model for people with ASD, which was designed to get the best out of them and let their skills and abilities shine through. The tech company was happy to make reasonable adjustments for people with ASD as it understood the benefit they could bring to the company.
Social v medical model
Another area that was discussed, although not using these exact terms, was the distinction between the medical and social models of ASD. After Chris visited the medical and educational establishments, he talked about his depression and anxiety. He was asked about the attempts on his own life and whether, if he could take a pill to stop it all and be ‘normal’, would he take it.
He was categorical: given the choice he would not change although he did accept that his life has not been without its challenges. His view was that, rather than finding a cure to make people with ASD ‘normal’, society should change its perception and be more accepting of difference. He understood that his ASD made him have an encyclopedic mind, a relentless energy for the pursuit for truth and justice for wildlife and a unique understanding of the natural world.
I really want to wax lyrical and promote the programme in detail because it was fab –really honest, inspiring and challenging. Chris is in a prominent position to advocate for people with ASD, not through specifically talking about it, although that does help, but by just being him and doing what he does.
Melissa Tettenborn is professional development officer – adult social care learning and development team, at the Borough of Poole
Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me was first screened on BBC2 on 17 October. It is available on the BBC until 15 November.