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Chris Packham: 'I don't want to be a nuisance to anyone... that's why I can't relax'

After years spent managing autism, Chris Packham tells Gemma Dunn why he now wants to help others with the condition

When you have a to-do list as long as Chris Packham's, taking a day off can prove something of a rarity. "I work every day. I work Christmas day, I work my birthday, I just work," says the naturalist, shaking his head at the mere suggestion of a break.

"I've got things to do. I can't stop. I can't stop. I was actually forced yesterday to take a couple of hours out. I had a load of work to do, but when I got to the hotel I couldn't check in, so I went to the National Gallery. It was a good couple of hours."

Packham puts his ability to handle such a gruelling schedule down to his autism, a disorder that in many ways has come to define him.

"Sometimes, I'm doing two, or three, jobs a day, so it's one of those times that the Asperger's mind is actually probably the only way it would work," explains the 56-year-old, who has lent his encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world to programmes such as The Really Wild Show and Springwatch for over three decades.

"It works for whoever is employing me, but I get a bit fed up with it - it's just one ricochet to another to another. It limits my preparation time and I like to be well prepared."

Diagnosed in his 40s, the presenter - who went public with the condition in his 2016 childhood memoir, Fingers In The Sparkle Jar - is in London to discuss a candid new BBC Two documentary, Chris Packham: Asperger's And Me.

In the one-off film, Packham invites viewers into his world to try and show them what it's really like being him - from the devastating trials of his adolescence and daily struggles in social situations, to his bouts of depression, difficulty forming human relationships and heightened, often overwhelming, senses.

With scientific advances offering new possibilities to treat Asperger's, he also travels to the US to examine radical therapies that appear to offer the possibility of eradicating autistic traits entirely.

It is a journey that leaves him questioning whether he'd ever want to be cured himself or whether, ultimately, Asperger's has helped make him who he is today.

Much like everything else in Packham's life, he was resolute the show would have a purpose.

"I don't do anything if it's not going to achieve anything," says the Southampton-born star.

"I needed to be able to speak about the positive aspects, as I think that autism is generally perceived as something which is entirely negative.

"I wanted to be able to articulate how it felt, so that people would have a better understanding of it."

It's about "shouting above the noise", he insists, referring to punk rock band Penetration's song lyrics as his "life anthem".

"I have a small voice, because I make wildlife programmes on the TV and I have to exercise that voice positively - that's the purpose of having it," says Packham.

"I think people that have that voice should do so. If they don't say some things, either because they've got nothing to say, or they're too scared to say it... both of these are reprehensible."

For Packham, such candour is part and parcel of his world.

"If you stick your neck out, you get your head cut off," he says, recalling how some of the most upsetting episodes in his life were due to being lied to.

"I get my head cut off from the hunting and shooting fraternity the whole time and I see that as part of a process - it's not something I am intimidated by. And, ultimately, I don't care.

"There's such a dearth of honesty in our society at the moment that if you are truthful about something, it doesn't matter what it is, it's immediately refreshing to any audience."

Head down, Packham - who, by his own admission is "a little bit weird" - moves quickly from subject to subject, glancing up to make eye contact only a handful of times. Hands tightly clasped on his lap, he talks of his decision to live alone in the middle of the woods with his "best friend", Scratchy the dog (as opposed to with his long-term girlfriend, Charlotte Corney), as it's the "only place I feel normal".

"I'm a lot less guarded with people I trust and know - invariably, my family have always taken the brunt of that," he says.

"There are things I would say spontaneously to them that I wouldn't dare say spontaneously out to anyone else, because I would have to measure what I thought their reaction would be to them."

I wonder if this show and public diagnosis of sorts will offer the presenter some measure of relief.

"I know other people who I have spoken to and they've said they found it immediately uplifting and empowering and cathartic," he responds, having revealed in the film he's spent years employing a range of coping mechanisms to fit in on TV.

"But it wasn't like that for me, really. I had come to accept it and I'd certainly been working hard for a long time on managing it independently.

"There's a certain amount of relief, because if I make a mistake, people now understand why. They don't have to just say, 'Chris is a nuisance weirdo'.

"That doesn't, however, mean that I can count on their tolerance. Television is very much about effective teamwork and maximising and optimising what the team can achieve, and I have to be an effective part of that team.

"I don't want people to make excuses for me. I can't take my foot off the gas. I mustn't relax. I don't want to be a nuisance to anyone."

Chris Packham: Asperger's And Me, BBC Two, Tuesday, 9pm

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