Sitting at home in his New Forest cottage, Chris Packham is talking very fast, and getting faster. The words are rattling out as rapidly as his mental assembly line can deliver them – but not once does his fluency falter.
“I’m anything but normal,” he agrees, staring at the floor. “I experience the world in hyper-reality. Sensory overload is a constant distraction. I’ve just been for a walk in the woods, and it was very different for me than it would be for you – the sights, the smells, the sounds.” He frowns, and glances at his partner, 41-year-old Charlotte Corney. “But we need to go to the supermarket later, and I’ll do anything to get out of it because supermarkets are a swamping of the senses. The lighting is hideous, it’s crowded, and the complex of smells is overwhelming.
“Bookshops are similar. I love books, but I hate bookshops – all the colours, the shapes, the geometry, books all over the tables – oh my God. I have lots of books, but I don’t like seeing their spines because my visual perception is hugely sensitive. Every item in my home relates spatially to every other item, via the vectors co-joining everything.” He points around the room at the invisible vectors. Then he fleetingly makes eye contact for the first time since the interview began, and smiles.
Like 700,000 or so others in the UK, Chris Packham is autistic – he has a developmental disability affecting how he relates to other people, and also how he experiences the world. Specifically he has Asperger’s syndrome, so he doesn’t have the learning difficulties or problems with speech that many autistic people have. The form Asperger’s takes varies, but difficulties can include understanding body language; interpreting the thoughts and feelings of others; relating to the non-literal use of language, such as jokes or irony; anxiety if familiar routines aren’t adhered to; being overpowered by visual, auditory or tactile stimuli; and having restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour. The cause isn’t known, and neither can Asperger’s be cured.
Chris Packham and the Autumnwatch presenters
For Packham, 56, his lifelong fascination with the natural world paved the way to his television career, but the degree of his obsession was fuelled by Asperger’s, although it wasn’t formally diagnosed until 2005 (and made public only last year in his memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar). Over the years he has learnt to manage some of his behaviour. Now he has made an utterly remarkable documentary about his condition, laying bare its impact on himself and others.
Much of it was filmed in and around his New Forest sanctuary. Charlotte, his partner of ten years, doesn’t live here, but on the Isle of Wight where she runs a zoo, yet their bond is evident. She is warmly hospitable, plucking tea and biscuits from his cupboards, where every jar and tin is lined up in perfect rows, labels to the front.
Packham lives in the cottage with his 14-year-old poodle Scratchy, whose twin brother Itchy died last December. It was an incalculable loss. His Asperger’s means that, while human relationships can be puzzling, his depth of feeling for all the dogs he has owned knows no bounds. The corollary is that their deaths engulf him in such unreachable despair that he has previously considered suicide. He knows his remaining time with Scratchy is limited, and he describes this as “the interval between disasters”.
“Scratchy is the most important creature in my life,” he says. “He’s dependent on me; Charlotte isn’t. I’ve always had a problem with needing to be loved by other people. My love for Scratchy and Charlotte is different, but of equal gravity, and that gravity is the problem. Humans find it crushing. Animals benefit because my devotion is profound. Also humans consistently fail one another, whereas Scratchy never, ever fails me.”
Since Itchy died, Packham has devised what he calls “my romantic plan”. Itchy’s body is in cold storage in a barn beside the cottage, and when Scratchy dies, the two will be cremated.
“After I die I’ll also be cremated, and we’ll all be mixed together and chucked out in the woods,” says Packham cheerfully. “Then the three of us can become something joyous in the place we’ve loved so greatly. You must see it.”
Wellingtons are found and we head out into the autumn air. In truth it is these woods that are the real key to Packham’s peace of mind. “There’s a tremendous amount I like about having Asperger’s,” he says. “I can remember things. You don’t want to play me at Trivial Pursuit. It’s just retentive memory, not intelligence, but if I’ve read it, I can regurgitate it.
“If there were a cure for Asperger’s, I don’t know if I’d want it. Humanity has prospered because of people with autistic traits. Without them, we wouldn’t have put man on the Moon or be running software programs. If we wiped out all the autistic people on the planet, I don’t know how much longer the human race would last.
“I hope the documentary will show that Asperger’s is something other than a total handicap. And of course I want it to help younger people with Asperger’s, who become inordinately depressed and sadly often suicidal. They’re incredibly creative with enormously interesting mindsets, locked away in a bedroom on their own, lonely kids in a very bad place.”
The rattle of words is cut short, with a crisp: “We’re here.” And in a clearing in the dense tangle of woodland stands a great beech.
“This tree is about 600 years old, an enigma of the woods,” says Packham, gazing up into the canopy. “It reminds me of my own inconsequence. It’s magnificent. This is where we’ll be, Itchy and Scratchy and I. Part of the earth, and in time part of this tree. Literally, life after death. What could be better than that?”
By Kate Battersby
Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me is on Tuesday 17th October at 9pm on BBC2