We sat down with Alan Gardner, a patron of the Lighthouse Futures Trust charity and star of Channel 4’s The Autistic Gardener. Alan shared his views on the educational system for autistic children, what inspired him to start his own business, and his plans with Channel 4 in the future.
Last year you opened Keepers Coffee and Kitchen – what attracted you to support the Lighthouse charity?
I really liked the fact that Katie Parlett started a school for autistic children and then proceeded to look beyond that by helping children once they had finished secondary school. It’s about taking the children out into the real world and helping them come into contact with strangers and unfamiliar places.
We were delighted that Katie (our CEO) was featured in the New Year’s Honours list. What’s your experience of the work done by Katie and her team of “5 mums on a mission”?
I’ve only ever come across a few people like Katie, who come up with a fantastic idea and actually decide to act on it. When most people sit down and come up with an idea, they don’t follow it through – she does! She appears to have the ability to make people join in on a journey and she inspires people.
What impact do you think the work of the charity can have on young people on the autistic spectrum?
I was amazed by the Lighthouse School in general. The kids themselves are so bright, so intelligent, and I think it’s wonderful they’re being given the extra attention that they need. It was really charming to see all of these children together when I visited. They all respected each other and appreciated each other’s differences.
Speaking as someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s quite late in life, I can say that we are very susceptible to our environment. We have no control over volume or brightness and so certain environments can shut you down. The school is nice and quiet and the kids are polite – it’s an amazing place to be.
In your view, what’s missing from the educational system for young people?
It’s just that autistic people don’t learn in the same way that other people do. At the Lighthouse school, there are fewer people in the classrooms than in an ordinary school. It means the students receive better care and education, with more of a focus on their unique abilities.
What was it that provoked you to start your own business?
I didn’t find out that I was autistic until about 5 years ago – it came late to the table! Having my own business means I can go at whatever pace I like and have the freedom to do things the way I want, which is fantastic.
To put this into perspective, last spring I did a one man show and talked for an hour and a half in front of a huge audience of people. The fact that I was stood on the stage and was doing it meant I had the control over the situation. If I was in the crowd of people watching the show then I simply couldn’t be there.
We tend to have special interests in things, mine is gardening. As long as I’m doing something I feel passionate about, I feel confident.
How did you come to be featured on Channel 4?
I had a phone call from a woman who was looking for someone that could lead a group of autistic people into horticulture, not knowing that I had recently been diagnosed as having Asperger’s. They were going to get a well-known TV personality to do it but, by fluke, it ended up being me! For the first four days, a few senior people from Channel 4 attended the filming and approved highly of it. We have two to three months where we have meetings in London, then we go off on location for five months to film.
Then it gets edited and I do voiceovers and get to be involved in the process. The new series will be transmitted in March. Then I have press days for that, going on the likes of This Morning and The One Show to promote the show.
For employers who are interested in taking Lighthouse interns, what would be your advice?
Autism gives a person an ability to think outside of the box in a very profound way. They tend to get labelled as people who are good with computers and maths, but that’s not always the case. We can bring so many different talents to the table with a sharp focus.
People need to understand that autistic people are not broken computers but different operating systems. We can bring something to a team that no one would have thought of because we can see things from a different perspective. Being autistic is not the problem, it’s just a matter of perspective!
Have you got any personal experiences of where having autism has impacted your ability to gain employment?
In some respects, no. However, to sit in front of a person who you’ve never met before can be difficult and it’s hard to read them. We are, to some degree, face and body blind. For example, I have a lack of empathy and I can’t tell what people are thinking, which can be problematic when trying to read someone.
Do you have any interviewing advice for employers? Do you find it’s good to have a different approach to interviewing someone with autism?
The best way to interview an autistic person is to send them a picture of the office and of yourself prior to the meeting. Send as much information and prep as possible as this will make them feel more comfortable.
Four months ago, Gatwick Airport won an award for the most autism-friendly airport in the world.
If you have an autistic child, and you go out shopping where it’s loud and busy, then the child can have a breakdown. From an outsider’s perspective looking in, they may think the child is unruly and that the mother cannot control their child. Whereas at somewhere like Gatwick, they take extra special care of people who inform them of their autism. They show them how the airplane works, how the X-ray machine works, and introduce them to the staff. This technique of informing them of the unknown makes them feel more prepared and comfortable.
So, making the person more familiar with the interview location and who they’ll meet can help them feel more at ease.
It was an absolute pleasure to talk to Alan today and we’d like to thank him for taking part in our Q & A. If you want to find out more about Alan, including channel 4’s show The Autistic Gardener, you can visit his website here or stay tuned to learn more about Alan’s new series The Avant Gardener, launching later this year.