Chris Packham health: Presenter’s love of nature helped him with Asperger’s syndrome
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The presenter opened up about his undiagnosed Asperger’s when he was filming The Walk The Made Me, using a hand-held camera. Looking back on his early 20s, the BBC show presenter said that he was “lucky to get through” that period of his life. Walking through Southampton – where he grew up – Chris revealed that although he had not intended to talk about Asperger’s, he wanted to help others who may be struggling.
Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism where people have difficulties relating to others socially and behaviourally.
Talking about his time as a teenager when he was undiagnosed, Chris said that his love of nature “shaped and probably saved [his] life”.
Chris elaborated: “I absolutely loathe the idea that as this programme goes out, there will be teenagers in their bedroom reading Baudelaire and getting really depressed and not seeing a tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it.”
According to the National Autistic Society, around 700,000 people in the UK live with Asperger’s syndrome. Common signs that someone has Asperger’s syndrome include the following:
- Problems making or maintaining friendships
- Isolation or minimal interaction in social situations
- Poor eye contact or the tendency to stare at others
- Trouble interpreting gestures
- Inability to recognise humor, irony, and sarcasm
- Inappropriate behaviors or odd mannerisms
- Problems expressing empathy, controlling emotions, or communicating feelings
- Lack of common sense
- Tendency to engage in one-sided conversations (about oneself)
- Fascination with certain topics
- Interpretation of information as literal
- The preference for a strict schedule or routine.
Asperger’s syndrome is more common than people think, and knowing this, Chris set out to raise awareness and to help people “better understand” the difficulties people face.
He said: “I read about people who were taking their lives after exposure to things on social media. I could have done that.
“I came so close to doing that and yet in the aftermath my life has been incredibly fulfilled.
“So I want to have conversations to get people thinking so that they better understand it, and can offer help to those people that are bound to be in the same position that I was in.”
Chris in particular struggles with communication, and states that he finds talking to animals easier than with humans.
However, after living with Asperger’s syndrome for so long he has been able to develop coping mechanisms to allow him to continue as a TV presenter. This includes learning to look people in the eye and suppressing urges to make comments that might be deemed unprofessional.
“I’ve spent 30 years on the telly trying my best to act normal, when really I am anything but,” Chris added.
“At times it’s been immensely difficult. I suspect many people find me a bit weird which is one of the reasons why I choose to live all on my own in the middle of the woods.
“I don’t have the need for that social contact at all. Very obviously I prefer animals to humans.”
In order to speak more about Asperger’s Chris then made BBC Two documentary Asperger’s and Me, which saw him travel to the US where clinics claim that they were able to “cure” the syndrome.
Talking about his experience making the programme Chris said: “There is no doubt at all in my mind that a great number of people in the past that have led advances in our civilisation have had autistic traits.
“We have to see this breadth of neurological difference as extremely advantageous to our species. There are many aspects of Asperger’s which are enormously positive.
“I don’t like the idea of comparing autism to a cancer that requires a sort of educational chemotherapy.
“These charlatans and sharks circling round a vulnerable group of people throwing random science at it and then peddling it like snake oil over the fence. We found it quite disturbing.”
Autism Speaks – a charity – explains that the challenges that someone with Asperger’s might face include the following:
- Hypersensitivities (to lights, sounds, tastes, etc)
- Difficulty with the give and take of conversation
- Difficulty with nonverbal conversation skills (distance, loudness, tone, etc)
- Uncoordinated movements, or clumsiness
- Anxiety and depression.
However, there are various therapies and classes that can help individuals – especially those of a young age – with Asperger’s to develop coping mechanisms like Chris has done. This most commonly involves cognitive behavioural therapy and speech therapy.
Anyone struggling right now with their mental health are encouraged to call Samaritans on 116 123.
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