The Autistic Gardener: How Alan Gardner uses his unique brain to his advantage

by Fiona Rae / 27 December, 2017

Alan Gardner: “This new series is me going full pelt, doing these gardens myself, but parachuting little pieces of autistic wisdom in there.” Photo/Rory Mulvey

In the business of landscape design and gardening, autism can confer an imaginative edge. 

Seeing the world in patterns has its advantages. Alan Gardner has used his unique brain to build a successful landscape-design business and has won numerous awards in the UK, although it was only a few years ago, when he was diagnosed as autistic, that he discovered why he looked at the world differently.

In the new season of The Autistic Gardener, he is sorting out some sad backyards that have been let slide by their neurotypical owners.

Is the show a way to bring autism into the everyday conversation?

Yes. This new series is me going full pelt like a Chieftain tank, doing these gardens myself, but parachuting little pieces of autistic wisdom in there. It’s like dropping in little jokes or stories: people tend to remember things more than an entire hour-long programme about autism.

How do you describe your landscaping style?

I would describe it as simplistic. It’s trying to put a space together, and the bits that are there and the bits that are not there are each just as important. It’s having a concept and then coming up with a design and throwing everything in that you possibly can and then starting to dismantle it, and you get to a point where you can’t dismantle it any more and what you’re left with is the essence of the idea.

In the first episode, there’s a trip to New York, where you’re seen struggling with the noise and the environment.

Yes, it was probably a bigger challenge than even comes across on television. Coping strategy No 1 failed me almost immediately, which is not to go there in the first place. I couldn’t have gone to America without the film crew. There were two people with me in each state who knew where to drive and where to go. Although they were younger than me, I was the 10-year-old and I just did as I was told.

Gardner and the neurotypical backyard owners. Photo/Rory Mulvey

Gardner and the neurotypical backyard owners. Photo/Rory Mulvey

The show uses a lot of quick edits and sound effects to give an idea of what all that input coming at you is like – does it give an accurate impression?

I think it does. You’re talking to an Aspie [Asperger syndrome] who’s never had a meltdown, never had an overload, and I would honestly say that Times Square was the closest thing I’ve had to an overload. I was there for about two hours and the problem was all the sound and the movement and there’s all those bloody TV screens. I had to say to the producer, “I’m sorry, I can’t go on any more and if we do, I’m probably going to be a curled-up ball on the floor.” But then again, I actually liked New York very much: I felt it was a place I could live; there were areas of it that were quite autistically friendly. There’s an area called Chelsea, which was right up my damn street.

Are gardens a sanctuary for you from too much input?

It’s a special interest, and a special interest is not an obsession. A special interest is something that we know all about, and because we know all about it, we feel comfortable. It’s a protective blanket. I do an awful lot of going on stage and doing gardening talks or whatever, and I’m quite happy and really enjoy doing it, but I couldn’t go to a venue and watch somebody doing something. I’d find that too stressful. So it’s all about control. I’ve been doing these interviews, and I’m very comfortable to do so because we’re talking about me, and that is one of my special interests. My wife is now sat there laughing.

Can it be quite difficult explaining your concepts and thinking to neurotypicals?

No. Within a TV setting, we do withhold quite a bit of information, but if they were actually paying me to design something, I couldn’t leave them with six lines on a piece of paper. The funny thing was, I went through life doing this for a living thinking that I was very good at reading clients and when I found out I was autistic, I found out I was quite crap at it. There are some clients that I see two or three times a year and to me they’re totally nude. I can’t get anything from them; I can’t make heads or damn tails of them. Yet there’s other people I know quite well who I feel comfortable with and I understand where they’re coming from.

Gardner and the neurotypical backyard owners.

In the first garden, you’re inspired by the shapes made by wind turbines, but you have to point them out to the clients.

I loved that concept: it worked so beautiful because it was not obvious. I did a garden recently for a private client where he wanted the general things that everybody wants, but he’s also a Lego fanatic, so when I came to do the design, the entire garden was made up from the dimensions of Lego bricks. There’s no way that you could tell that’s what it is, except when you point it out to him, but that’s the thing that when people come around to see him, he’ll be saying, “Did you know it’s based on a six-point Lego brick?”

You revealed on Twitter that you recently had a heart attack. How’s your recovery going?

I, apparently, in August, had a heart attack and it was misdiagnosed as indigestion and it turned into heart failure. I’m on drugs, but I’ve had an implant, a little friend in my chest called Phil – I had to give him a name – and he basically sorts my heart out, makes sure it’s beating correctly. Autistics can feel pain differently and I have quite a high pain threshold and I didn’t get a chest pain and that’s how I got skipped over. My daughter broke her leg and we took her to the doctor about a week later. The doctor said, “she’s broken it”, and she was sitting on the bed swinging her leg and singing Old MacDonald.

When you were diagnosed, did a lot of things fall into place?

Was a bit of a crying moment. Knew I was different, knew I saw the world differently, but that surely didn’t have to have a name, did it? All three of my kids have been diagnosed. Haydn went to university and got a degree in fine-arts illustration and is now an artist; my middle son [Reiss] has done fashion design and loves to make 16th- and 17th-century clothing; and my daughter is looking at universities to do illustration and animation. So it hasn’t held them back, and because those things they’re pursuing are their special interests, there’s no stopping them.

The Autistic Gardener, Living, Sky 017, Thursday December 28, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the December 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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