24 Nov 2017

A bloomin’ good life on the spectrum

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 24 November 2017

Alan Gardner has pink hair, pink fingernails and green thumbs.

He also has Asperger Syndrome and presents the TV show The Autistic Gardener.

Gardner talks to Kathryn Ryan about how he views the world and what he likes in a garden.

No caption

Photo: Sky TV

Alan Gardner was only diagnosed with autism in his 50s, three or four years ago.

Growing up, he was viewed as the "different, weird, quirky one", he says.

"I was the one that got bullied severely as a consequence of being different to everyone else… I know I feel different, I know that I see the world in a different way to other people."

People with Aspergers have what is called 'a special interest', but it's wrong to call this an obsession, he says.

"My special interest, I need to know everything I can about it. In turn, that makes me happy, that makes me safe, that protects me because I've got something around me that I know and is my special subject."

Alan trained in agriculture and turned his special interest into a full-time livelihood.

"I was the kid at college … where the guy would go 'Can anybody tell me what this is, apart from Alan?" Nobody would answer, then he'd go 'Alan, tell them'.

People with Aspergers are all completely different, but Gardner is extremely spatially aware and thinks in three-dimensions.

He says that he lives in a world of colours and shapes.

"The best way to put it is I would recognise somebody's car registration number, but I couldn't tell you what that number is … to me that's not a series of numbers and letters, it's a series of shapes."

Gardner loves working in the urban environment and says New York City's High Line is a work of art he wouldn't have done any differently if he'd worked on it himself.

"You're basically taking an elevated train track that runs through Manhattan that's been disused since 1986 and building it into a linear path. So New Yorkers can walk 1.5 miles at the moment through New York without touching the road or seeing a car. That's a beautiful concept."

With gardens, simplicity is everything, he says.

"Gardens become collections of plants rather than using plants like hard material. Using quantities of one thing than just having a spotty quilt effect."

But they also must be functional and reflect their owners' taste.

When someone asks Gardner to design a garden for a new house, he asks to visit their old one.

"Their furnishings, their decorations, their curtains say more about them as people than they ever could verbally to me."

In the UK, 1 in 100 are diagnosed autistic, but that's 1 in 60 in the United States as the diagnosis system is superior there, Gardner says.

Since his own autism diagnosis, he's seen a massive change in England, though, and has become a cultural ambassador for The National Autistic Society.

"The Autistic Gardener was a beautiful opportunity to try and show other people how I saw the world and make other autistic people understand that they're not alone."

Season 2 of The Autistic Gardener premieres on the Living Channel at 7:30 pm on Thursday 28 December.