The Autistic Gardener, Channel 4, review: An insight into living with autism first, a gardening show second

Pink-haired Alan Gardner recruits a team of gardeners and fellow autists to "unlock genius"

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Channel 4 is not one to go in for subtle titles and, while The Autistic Gardener might garner attention for the wrong reasons, it may prove to be a valuable insight into the oft-misunderstood condition.  

Pink-haired presenter and award-winning green-fingered type Alan Gardner sees his Asperger's as “a gift”, giving him the ability to think laterally, and execute sublime attention to detail (“I see every spider,” he said with glee). He recruited five amateur gardeners, all on the spectrum, to help them “unlock genius” and unleash it on paying customers.

Each of his charges’ conditions manifested itself in different ways. One had an encyclopedic knowledge of plant names. Another found his cactis easier to engage with than humans. While these were all high-functioning autists, the team-work dynamic and flexibility the project required was a struggle for some. These lows were frankly but sensitively handled. Gardner worked with each on their own unique ideas, from channeling a Tim Burton obsession into a gothic grotto to building a multi-coloured insect hotel with animal-shaped entrances.

His unpolished presenting style set this apart from the production company’s show in the same vein, The Undateables, in which disabled subjects are matched up. That attracted criticism for its freak show element (complete with jaunty voiceover). In contrast, Gardner opted for a humorous transparency, including showing camera men in the vegetable patch and admitting that they needed a team of helpers to get the heavy lifting done. This wasn't about creating a super-slick TV show, the aim was to make the participants feel they belonged and were accepted, indeed encouraged to make out-of-the-ordinary suggestions. “My ideas don’t get listened to much…I feel like close to crying, “ said Victoria when she saw her insect hotel in all its glory. We sensed this was just the start.