The Autistic Gardener

Rebecca Furness reviews a Channel 4 offering.


Award-winning gardener-turned-TV-presenter Alan Gardner has Asperger’s Syndrome. In this recent TV series, Alan re-designs gardens for neurotypical clients with his five-strong team of trainees; all amateur gardening enthusiasts and all on the autistic spectrum. His opening line sets the show’s up-beat tone: ‘I am A. Gardner – I literally am, it’s my name: Alan Gardner’.

The emphasis is on gardens, design, valuing individual differences and achievement, lightly sprinkled with Alan’s illuminating quotes and insights. Alan’s straight-talking presentation style subverts the formulaic script usually associated with TV makeover shows. His voice-over is refreshingly original, as in the following example: ‘…the executive producer wants there to be some form of pressure. I’ve got Asperger’s. I don’t do pressure’.

For me (a neurotypical) one of the show’s strengths is that the TV audience and on-screen clients are welcomed into an ASD-centric world, turning the tables on the concept of ‘us-and-them’. The series emphasises positive aspects of ASD, with fleeting reference to the challenges. For example, in episode two, a trainee is stressed and use of a ‘chill-out area’ is briefly mentioned, without elaboration.

There is plenty of scope to develop the show; viewer reaction on Twitter (#autisticgardener #askagardner #askagardener) indicates enjoyment and eagerness for a further series. Although Alan explained that autism is a spectrum disorder and that ‘we’re all different colours of a rainbow’, every gardener in the series was high-functioning. To better reflect the range of ASD a future series might usefully include a garden designed especially for the enjoyment of a client with low-functioning autism. Client soundbites on their knowledge of autism both pre-recording and post-recording would also be a valuable addition.

A behind-the-scenes show could clarify the realities of filming, which may have been blurred by TV magic (editing and post-production) before reaching our screens. It would be interesting to see the preparation and support which enabled participants to film on-location across England and cope with an experience many people on the autistic spectrum would find challenging. I am also curious about how accurately the finished programme represents participants’ subjective experience.

Doubtless, the series name was chosen for attention and impact. ‘Creative Gardeners Who Happen to Have Autism’ would perhaps be more accurate, although admittedly less catchy. What matters most is that this innovative garden make-over series has the potential to bring autism awareness to a mainstream audience, in accordance with Alan’s goal: ‘I want to prove that people with autism are not broken computers – we are different operating systems’.

- Watch now.

Reviewed by Rebecca Furness, who is a psychology graduate, University of Glasgow. 

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