‘What I see is different,” says Chris Packham as he introduces Inside Our Autistic Minds (BBC Two). The naturalist is in his natural habitat, a woodland scene, which looks lush and peaceful but is, Packham explains, a lot for him to take, because he sees not just a vista of nice trees but all the connections between them, the names of all the species, their possible animal and insect inhabitants. Sherlock-style graphics on the screen help to convey the information overload within Packham’s brain. “It becomes utterly overwhelming,” he says.
Immediately, we have learned a little more of what it can be like to experience the world with autism. This new two-parter doesn’t give us too many insights into Packham’s own thoughts, in the way that his gently revolutionary 2017 documentary Asperger’s and Me did, although his interactions during the programme with others on the spectrum are noticeably different to the more familiar sight of him working with neurotypical co-presenters. This time, he is handing the mic to others – meeting autistic people and then helping them to make a film that encapsulates their inner life. It’s a gesture with results as valuable as they are beautiful.
Packham’s first film-maker is 28-year-old Flo, whom we initially see in a packed arts venue, performing improvisational comedy. The uninitiated might assume a stage performance would be the last activity an autistic person would volunteer for, but once the applause has died down, Flo explains: improv requires its exponents to understand the rules of human interaction and then replicate them, picking up on cues and aiming to artificially contrive a satisfying conclusion. Flo can do this, because it’s how she conducts nearly all her conversations in real life.
Flo’s share of the hour becomes an indispensable guide to “masking” – the exhausting, torturous technique used by some autistic people to help them function in work and social situations. Performatively copying the behaviour and mannerisms of others means Flo is, in her words, “never speaking my native language”. She can only be herself at home, where her husband is accustomed to her sitting and rocking, or flapping her hands behind her ears (“Your head’s on fire,” says Packham, knowing exactly what is going on), or melting down when a planned trip to Tesco ends up being Sainsbury’s instead. What might be another surprise for those without direct experience of autism is that Flo’s domestic life was not always like this: masking was a dominant part of her youth. We meet her mother and can see she is the most tolerant and loving parent imaginable, yet her daughter still fought shy of letting her true self show when growing up.
So Flo’s film is a monologue, unloading her lingering anxieties (“I’m worried that you’ll think I need fixing”) and unpacking her confident stage persona. As her mum watches it and cries tears of relief and regret, it’s both a deeply moving illumination of autistic life and a story about how children of any kind can remain, even to their parents, somewhat unknown.
The second case study is Murray, 20, whose issue is starker – he does not speak, and never has. His dad, Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce, confirms that the sharp irony of a father and son’s very different experiences of verbal communication has not been lost on the family, but what emerges is that, having spent years unhappily locked in his own thoughts, Murray has developed a felicity with words that desperately deserves an outlet. In the film, his writing spoken by an autistic voiceover artist, Murray says that “non-verbal people sense the world in a deeper way than those who talk … we become deep thinkers, people watchers. We have the same dreams as everyone else … each of us is a star, waiting to be discovered and named in the atmosphere.”
If there is a frustration with Murray’s section of the programme, it’s that there isn’t quite time to hear much of what he wants to say, beyond his pleas to be heard in the first place. But his demand for more tolerance and better awareness is pure and undeniable, and the life lesson he offers about those who speak the least often being the people who are most worth listening to has – like Flo’s mum discovering that she does not know her own child as well as she would wish – considerable universal application.
A diversion to visit a school for autistic girls brings a slew of shocking statistics about how many children and adults might be suffering silently, in a world that hasn’t recognised how their brains operate. With another programme that derives its charm and its power from how intimate and relatable it is, Chris Packham has taken a further, deeply admirable step towards making us see things differently.
• This article was amended on 16 February 2023 to reflect style guidelines.