Chris Packham, the BBC presenter and naturalist, has criticised the ‘charlatans and sharks’ trying to cure autism, claiming he would not have succeeded without the condition.
Packham, 56, who has enjoyed a 30-year television career anchoring programmes including The Really Wild Show and Springwatch, was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his late 40s.
In a candid new documentary, which will be broadcast next week, Packham allowed BBC camera crews to film his daily struggle with autism for the first time, and travelled to the US to visit clinics and educational programmes which claim to be able treat the condition.
The presenter said he was troubled to see that the positive sides of autism were often ignored in the desire to entirely stamp out the disorder.
“There is no doubt at all in my mind that a great number of people in the past that have led advances in our civilisation have had autistic traits,” he said.
“We have to see this breadth of neurological difference as extremely advantageous to our species. There are many aspects of Asperger’s which are enormously positive.
“I don’t like the idea of comparing autism to a cancer that requires a sort of educational chemotherapy. These charlatans and sharks circling round a vulnerable group of people throwing random science at it and then peddling it like snake oil over the fence. We found it quite disturbing.”
In the film, Packham reveals how he has always battled to communicate with humans, preferring the company of animals and choosing to live on his own in the middle of The New Forest, because it is ‘the only place I feel normal.’
He also described how he was forced to develop a range of coping mechanisms to allow him to work as a television presenter, including learning to look people in the eye, and suppressing urges to make inappropriate or unprofessional comments.
But he claimed Asperger’s also allowed him to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, by homing his focus on plants and animals, to the exclusion of everything else.
As a child he ate live tadpoles to see how they would taste in his mouth and even stole a kestrel chick from its nest and hand-reared it after the Home Office denied him permission to take the bird.
“I’ve spent 30 years on the telly trying my best to act normal, when really I am anything but” said Packham.
“At times it’s been immensely difficult. I suspect many people find me a bit weird which is one of the reasons why I choose to live all on my own in the middle of the woods. I don’t have the need for that social contact at all. Very obviously I prefer animals to humans.
“30 years on managing my autism on national television still requires an enormous effort. Sometimes I fail, I do just go off on one. But I realise now there is no way I could do my job without Asperger’s.
“What I do in terms of making programmes is afforded to me because of my neurological differences. Being able to see with things with perhaps a greater clarity, being able to see the world in a very visual way.”
However he described being bullied to the point where he mocked up photographs of himself as a corpse, and even strapped fake bombs to his head.
Asked whether he would consider a controversial new therapy which aims to ‘cure’ some autistic traits using magnetic fields to stimulate brain cells, he said: “Not a chance would I allow anyone to put electrodes anywhere near my brain.
“On bad days I might have taken a pill to make it all go away, but on good days very definitely not.”
Chris Packham Aspergers And Me, will be broadcast on BBC Two on October 17.