“We need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are,” Chris Packham
By Nils Skudra
On recent occasion I had the opportunity to watch Asperger’s and Me, a documentary available on Vimeo.com featuring Chris Packham, a prominent English author, TV presenter, naturalist and nature photographer. In this documentary he elaborates at length upon his identity as an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome and how it has affected his life.
Packham begins with a confession that he has hidden the fact of his diagnosis for a long time: “I’ve spent 30 years on the telly trying my best to act normal when I’m really anything but.” Given the length of his career, it is remarkable that he has remained closeted this long about having Asperger’s and that he is opening up about it now at this point in his life.
In describing how he does not live a normal life, Packham lists a variety of factors, both in terms of self-perception and how he is perceived by others.
For example, he admits to being “clumsy socially” and points out that “many people think I am weird.”
In addition, Packham states, “I don’t have that need for social contact” that is manifested in such activities as going to a party. In fact, he spends much of his time with his beloved poodle Scratch rather than with people.
Most poignantly of all, however, Packham states, “I’m not a typical autistic person because there is no typical autistic person,” a striking commentary on the truly diverse nature of how autism is manifested in each individual.
Packham elaborates further that as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, “I experience the world differently than others,” indicating that the world, for him, is experienced as a hyper-reality.
In addition, he explains that sensory overload is a constant distraction for him and that he had a unique degree of fascination with nature as a topic: “The depth of the obsession was so much greater than my peers.” This is a common trait among people with Asperger’s Syndrome since they tend to display a very narrow focus on a particular field of interest, to an extent that is highly detail-oriented, intensive and all-encompassing. This is further attested to in Packham’s testimony about his childhood activities, such as collecting tadpoles: “As a child I had an enormous hunger and thirst for knowing about every living thing.”
Although Packham was not diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until he was in his 40’s, the signs of his diagnosis were highly present at a very early age, not only in the extent of his obsession with nature but also in his social life. He states that, as a child, “I didn’t have a need for friends” at school, as he spent much of his time pursuing his interest in nature rather than mixing with peers. In addition, his sister Jenny says that Chris “didn’t really understand the subtleties of what people mean.” Due to these proclivities, Chris reminisces, he was frequently bullied by other children at school.
As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Packham reflects that he makes an effort to control his environment as much as possible. This includes following a regular set of routines such as wearing the same thing and eating the same types of food all the time, which Packham describes as “a comfort thing.”
Controlling his environment through adhering to these patterns, he maintains, helps him to best live his life. This is very common among many people with Asperger’s Syndrome since they have a tendency to organize their daily activities according to a strict routine, which is also demonstrated by Dakota Fanning’s character in the film Please Stand By. Oftentimes, any disruption of this routine can become a source of anxiety for a person with Asperger’s, which is why neuro-typical individuals need to tread carefully in attempting to convince them to try something new.
One of the major issues that the documentary addresses is the debate over treatment aimed at providing a cure for autism. On this topic, Packham remarks, “I’m not sure how I feel about curing autism” since he feels that “autism has defined my life.” He takes a trip to a medical facility in Providence, Rhode Island to investigate a trial session of a new treatment called TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). This procedure involves the application of electrical impulses and electrodes to one’s brain in the hope that it will cure an individual of their autistic proclivities. Packham observes this treatment applied by Dr. Linsey Oberlin of Brown University to Patrick, a young adult with autism who lives with his mother and “struggles with social interaction like me.”
The question of whether to cure autism is highly controversial in the medical field and in the autism community.
Many feel that individuals who have very severe symptoms of autism would be able to live life more fully if they undergo treatment that will cure these symptoms, but others believe that this would deprive autistic individuals of their unique identity by forcing them to become “normal.” Packham observes that in the United States, applied behavioral analysis is the preferred panacea when it comes to treating autistic children. Taught in hundreds of schools in the U.S., ABA follows a system of rigorous repetition in order to make the child more socially normal. However, Packham states that this treatment is largely neglected in the United Kingdom because “it forces kids to be something they’re not,” a sentiment that is widely shared among many people with autism today who argue that their identity is something that should be cherished rather than cured.
In reflecting on his own experience with Asperger’s and the debate over curing autism, Packham asserts that “Asperger’s shouldn’t be a prison sentence.” Noting the success of other individuals with Asperger’s in the job market, he maintains that they should be allowed to “exult in these aspects of the condition which empower them. It’s got to be about what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
This is a highly insightful observation that I strongly agree with in light of my own experiences as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome – when I was first diagnosed at age 10, doctors believed that I might have to be committed to an institution since they did not fully understand Asperger’s at that point, but through diligence and perseverance I have received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History and am now working on a Master’s in Library and Information Sciences.
Furthermore, Packham’s perspective on society’s outlook with regard to people on the spectrum is very resonant today: “We need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are.”
In light of the high number of people on the autism spectrum today – some 25 million across the world in total – it is vital that society takes a more enlightened approach which involves helping autistic individuals with managing their social challenges while respecting their neuro-diverse identities, and Chris Packham’s insights should serve as a guiding light in that direction.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.