Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me

Renowned naturalist Chris Packham leads a remarkable life, having gained recognition as a TV presenter, nature photographer, writer, conservationist, film-maker and wildlife campaigner. Packham is the presenter of BBC series, Springwatch, which won the BAFTA Special Award in 2011 for the way in which it charts British wildlife through the changing seasons.

Chris Packham

Packham’s list of TV credits is endless: he presents Autumnwatch and Winterwatch and the natural history series, Nature’s Weirdest Events and World’s Weirdest Events. He presents fun animal shows, including World’s Sneakiest Animals and Cats v Dogs, and a host of other nature shows such as Inside the Animal Mind, The Burrowers, Secrets of our Living Planet and Operation Iceberg.

During his 30-year career on our screens, he also enjoyed success in the United States after he was invited to feature on The Tonight Show. Packham delighted the live audience when he introduced Fallon to a baby spotted hyena and a porcupine. There were also some thrills when Fallon went to stand in the audience and Packham sent a black vulture flying over to him!

When in his 40s, Packham was diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger Syndrome – one of the autism spectrum disorders. The condition is thought to have defined his life since his childhood in the 1960s, when he was bullied at school. He decided to make the 2017 documentary, Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, to describe his condition and how it had impacted on his day-to-day life.

 

Early life

Born in Southampton in May 1961, Packham had a tough time at Bitterne Park Secondary School, where he found solace from bullying through his love of wildlife and nature. He even hand-reared a baby kestrel, describing it as a “catastrophe” when it died at six months old, as he had grown to love it so much.

He went on to study at Southampton University, where he received a BSc in Zoology. Following graduation, he planned to study for a PhD but instead he decided to train as a wildlife cameraman. This led to his first job in television in 1983. At the age of 22, he became wildlife film-maker Stephen Bolwell’s cameraman – they worked together on A Toad’s Tale.

 

Television

His career blossomed after sister, Jenny, joked that he should go on television and “bore the rest of the world about animals” instead of just his family. He began to forge a hugely successful career, saying that Asperger’s has shaped him into the person he is today.

He worked on The Living Planet series for the BBC from 1983 to 1985 and over the next three decades, he made numerous wildlife and nature programmes for television – not only for the BBC, but also for Channel 4, LTV Carlton Television, BSB Satellite and Cable and Harlech Television. In 1986, his BBC1 children’s show, The Really Wild Show – which ran from 1986 until 1995 – won a BAFTA award.

He has presented numerous regional television programmes including The Wood Worker, Through Two Cameras, Jewels in the Sand, The Wild Garden, Wildfowl Seasons, The Disappearing Down and The Keepers of the Forest.

Chris Packham - Autumnwatch

He also formed his own production company, Head Over Heels, producing wildlife programmes for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and the BBC. In May 2016, his autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, was published and within two weeks it had hit the number one spot in the Sunday Times’ Bestsellers chart. Packham has also read extracts from it on Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme.

 

Asperger’s and Me

Broadcast in October 2017, the BBC2 documentary, Asperger’s and Me, gave an insight into Packham’s personal life, including his childhood struggles.  Bravely, he explains to viewers how his brain works differently because he’s autistic. Determined not to be “different”, he admitted to fighting his condition for years, but when he reached his 40s, he was finally diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

In a frank interview straight to the camera, the 56-year-old tried to demonstrate what it was like inside his brain and how he experienced the world around him. He spoke of having heightened senses and how his mind would leap from one topic to the next. He described his OCD-like fixation with order and explained how he had developed coping strategies.

Although he has a long-term partner of 10 years, the couple don’t live together. Packham lives in the New Forest, surrounding himself with the animals he loves – including his beloved poodle, Scratchy.

The documentary revealed the presenter had been to Silicon Valley in the US, where people on the autism spectrum had helped build the technology boom, thanks to their often-unique skills with computers and programming. He said society must understand autistic people – we should harness their gifts and appreciate them as a valuable asset.

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