For many, it’s a condition that evokes pity and even fear – but for Alan Gardner, autism is a gift.
Although he was only diagnosed at the age of 55, Alan always knew he had a unique brain.
“Autism is not a condition or a disorder – it’s a different way of thinking,” he explains.
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“We just see the world differently.”
Throughout his life, Alan’s unique and original outlook on horticulture helped him become one of the nation’s most celebrated gardeners.
“People with autism aren’t broken computers, we just run on different operating systems,” he explains.
“I have the ability to see things in three-dimensional space.
“I can draw something on a sheet of paper and while I’m lying in bed at night, imagine it in 3D and walk through it if I want to.”
This superpower has helped him design and conceptualize over 40 award-winning gardens at the country’s most prestigious flower shows – he recently won a silver medal at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Alan’s love of gardening began at the age of 15 when his parents bought him a cactus which he lovingly tended on his bedroom window sill.
Little did his parents know they had instilled in their son a passion for horticulture that would see Alan dig up their entire garden within six months.
“Gardening has become everything,” he says.
“As autistic people, we tend to be drawn to things and then go all out. I had to go as far as I could.
“It’s like an obsession but it’s not an obsession, it gives autistic people a sense of control.
“That’s where we feel happiest.”
The rocky urban jungle of Erdington It may seem like a strange place for one of the country’s most beloved gardeners, but Alan’s creative use of space, light and color in urban environments quickly earned him the title of ” Champion of the suburbs”.
Although he had no formal training, Alan continued to work for the Birmingham Parks Department before becoming a full-time garden designer in 1986.
During this time he became famous for his original approach to landscaping which saw him combine installations of flowing grass and flowers with man-made industrial constructions.
After being spotted by a Channel 4 producer on YouTube, the first series of critically acclaimed “The Autistic Gardner” aired in 2015.
“Almost overnight, I became the autistic gardener,” he explains.
“I was getting arrested all the time on the street.
And rocking the bright pink hair at the time, it’s perhaps easy to see why.
As a – highly visible – member of the autism community, Alan has used his platform to educate the general public about this often misunderstood condition.
Charitable association for people with disabilities Mencap said the program showed that “autistic people are accepted for who they are, as well as functioning human beings.”
“I always felt that if only one person was helped by my TV show, that was my job,” says Alan.
“A lot of us can’t speak, so I thought it was important for those who have a voice, like me, to do so.”
To this day, Alan continues to support members of the autism community as patron of a special school in Birmingham.
“I can relate to them and they can relate to me,” he says of the children at The Pines Special School in Stockland Green.
“It’s like we’re a tribe.”
According to National Autism Society one in 100 people is on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 adults and children with autism in the UK.
“We are in all walks of life, from government to road sweepers,” he says.
Speaking to local charity Autism West MidlandsAlan said much of his outreach work is focused on promoting “acceptance”.
“People with autism are individual human beings and the best thing you can do to help anyone with autism is to allow them to be autistic.”
“We are all human beings who have our own way of doing things. We’re just a bunch of eccentric people. »
Four years ago, Alan’s life changed forever.
He suffered a heart attack which left him with only 20% function in one of his body’s most essential organs.
“The heart attack changed everything,” he says.
“When you have only 20% of your heart left, you won’t live forever – you have to take each day as it comes and have fun.”
One of those sources of pleasure was experimenting with the makeup that Alan proudly wears while I sit down to interview him.
I am informed that this particular look took an hour and a half to be perfect.
“About two years ago, I wondered what it was like to wear a little eyeliner. Over the years, I’ve learned how to do it properly.
“I really like decorating myself.”
“People tell me I’m brave, but there’s nothing brave about it – running through a burning building is brave.
“As an autistic, there’s nothing in my head that says ‘what will people think?’ – I do it because I like it. Even though a lot of people I meet at the supermarket think I’m crazy!
“Live your life the way you want to live it, don’t care what other people think.
Almost 50 years after he started planting seeds in his parents’ garden, Alan is still passionate about the power of nature to change lives.
He is actually develop a number of gardens accessible to people with autism in hospitals across the country that allow people with autism to explore their senses in a safe environment.
Still from the Midlands, where he lives with his wife Mandy and their three children, Alan says he is proud of the city he calls home.
“I love Birmingham, I love the architecture here – I support everything about Birmingham – apart from the football teams!”
“I’m really proud of the city, I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
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