I’ve never been that interested in gardening, but I was excited to watch The Autistic Gardener as soon as I saw the trailer, where Allan Gardner describes his autism as a ‘gift’. At last, I thought, a documentary about autism that a) represents people on the spectrum in a positive way and b) doesn’t include a maths genius! I’d meant to watch the first episode when it aired on Wednesday night, but unfortunately life got in the way, meaning I had to wait until Friday to watch it in low resolution on my laptop. Despite the small screen and teeth grindingly long commercial breaks where the same adverts were often played over and over, I really enjoyed it.
The premise of the show is simple: Alan Gardner, an award winning gardener who happens to have autism, hires a team of autistic amateur gardeners, giving them a limited amount of time and money to transform his client’s garden into something beautiful. Episode one contained some of the group tensions and clashing personalities you’d expect from standard reality tv, but these aspects tended to remain in the background. The main focus was of course autism and gardening. I’d been expecting meticulously organized flower beds and plant pots. What I got was upturned tree roots, giant sculptures and bird house sky scrapers. The visuals (whether it was lush green landscapes or Allan’s quirky combination of gothic clothing with bright orange hair and nails) were absolutely stunning.
Throughout the show, Allan’s commentary expressed his views on both autism and gardening in great detail. He didn’t avoid discussing how difficult life on the spectrum can be, but he also celebrated the positives of having a differently functioning brain. Quirkiness, precision and attention to detail are all typical Aspie traits, which is why, in Allan’s opinion, autistic people make good gardeners. He described autistic brains as ‘not broken operating systems, different computers!’ which reminded me of Temple Gradin’s repeated assertions that people with autism are different, not less.
In the opening of the show, Allan talks about gardening as his ‘passion’ and ‘obsession’, reminding us that the special interests of autistic children should be nurtured. If they’re as lucky as he is, those interests could evolve into careers. Indeed, Allan often managed to harness the special interests of his autistic gardeners (whether it was bright colours, mathematics or the art of Tim Burton) to keep them focused on the project. Allan was realistic about the limitations of his team, hiring landscapers to do the bits of gardening that required competent fine and gross motor skills. But most of the work was done by people on the autism spectrum, and I thought the end result was beautiful. Personally, I can’t wait for the next episode.