Thursday, October 19, 2017

Accept yourself

I was already a fan of Chris Packham for his trenchant opposition to the badger cull, attacks on the Countryside Alliance and skill at peppering episodes of Springwatch with the titles of songs by The Smiths, The Cure, The Clash and David Bowie. But this week's documentary Chris Packham: Asperger's And Me, a courageous and intimate portrait of the private struggles of a very public figure, really sealed the deal.

Packham wasn't diagnosed with high-functioning autism until his forties, but admits he'd known for decades that his brain worked differently - starting with his childhood obsessions, which were deeper and more all-consuming than those of others. His descriptions of experiencing the world around him as a kind of hyperreality were fascinating - something that is often draining but can occasionally be savoured.

Given that he finds social interactions so awkward and uncomfortable that he lives alone and hasn't been to a party in ten years, the fact that he's managed and concealed his condition to such an extent that he's been able to work as a TV presenter is remarkable. Now, though, he's decided the time is right to open up about his experiences in the hope of shining a light on a condition that, while universally recognised, remains widely misunderstood.

Perhaps the key misunderstanding is that being diagnosed with autism is some kind of curse. Certainly, Packham pulled few punches about the lows, but he also stressed the advantages of the condition - his obsessive love for and encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife, for instance, which got him to where he is today, or the methodical attention to detail and creative thinking without which Silicon Valley wouldn't exist. It all supports his case that the currently pitiful number of autistic adults in full-time employment - just one in every six in the UK - constitutes an appalling waste of valuable human resources.

Ultimately, the message of this touching hour-long film was that autism isn't something to be "treated" or "corrected" (or zapped like a cancerous tumour, to use one scientist's analogy), as the advocates of such techniques as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or the horrifying applied behaviour analysis (ABA) would have us believe; on the contrary, it's something to be accommodated and embraced. The problem essentially lies not with the individual but with society.

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