Chelsea Flower Show sees groundbreaking autistic garden

  • Post last modified:May 21, 2024
  • Reading time:17 mins read

The National Autistic Society is aiming to raise awareness of autism and masking with a show garden at the world famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Neurodivergent celebrities including Chris Packham helped launch the feature.

Masking takes a horticultural form at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show

The garden is a collaboration between the charity and co-designers Sophie Parmenter, and Dido Milne, Director of CSK Architects. The National Autistic Society Garden is sponsored by Project Giving Back, a unique grant-making charity that provides funding for gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from 21 – 25 May 2024.

After this year’s show, the garden will be relocated to one of the charity’s supported living sites at Catrine Bank alongside the river Ayr in Scotland.

Masking is a strategy used by some autistic people, consciously or unconsciously, to appear non-autistic in order to fit in and be accepted in society. However, masking can come at a great cost for autistic people because it relies on suppressing natural behaviours and instincts, needs, preferences, and coping mechanisms, which can result in exhaustion, mental health difficulties, a loss of sense of self and low self-esteem.

The Chelsea Flower Show garden seeks to represent autistic masking and how autistic people experience this in different parts of their lives.

Chris Packham and others launch the garden

Walls or ‘masks’ of timber and cork create a series of spaces dedicated to different types of social interaction.

There is a large, covered space for family or friends, an intimate corner for a quiet conversation with a partner or for sitting by yourself and a more formal space for colleagues:

Chelsea Flower Show autistic Chelsea Flower Show autistic

A mesmerising kinetic sculpture alludes to the mind’s beauty and complexity. These three outer spaces surround the heart of the garden, a sheltered and mossy dell that embodies the space of the inner mind:

There is a large team collaborating on the project, including autistic people and people who have family or friends who are autistic. Autistic people are involved in developing the message and ethos of the project, as well as the creation of the garden itself.

TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham and actress Jane Asher were at the launch at the Chelsea Flower Show:

Co-designer and botanist, Sophie Parmenter, said:

RHS Chelsea Flower Show offers an opportunity to break new ground as a designer, enjoying the creative freedoms involved in making a show garden. It also affords a chance to challenge the industry’s traditions and to push for innovation in sustainable design.

We are delighted to have a show garden at Chelsea, and to have the opportunity to provide a platform for the National Autistic Society to talk about masking and late diagnosis, as well as promoting acceptance of autism in our society.

Chelsea Flower Show: raising awareness of autism

Co-designer and director of CSK Architects, Dido Milne, said of the Chelsea Flower Show installation:

Sophie and I are passionate believers in the power of collaboration and have a shared interest in a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. We are thrilled to be now leading a talented and diverse team of designers, makers, growers and craftsmen who are bringing the National Autistic Society Garden to life.

The inclusion of the cork screens or masks in the garden provides an opportunity to explore autistic masking and also allows us to design with a regenerative material life cycle. We’re looking forward to the garden opening up conversations and increasing understanding about autistic people in society.

Caroline Stevens, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said:

We are really excited to at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year to raise awareness of autism and masking.

This is such an important issue and we want to build understanding of masking and the impact it can have on people’s mental health, sense of self and self-esteem.

We are incredibly grateful to Project Giving Back for sponsoring our garden, our co- designers Sophie and Dido and also the many suppliers and volunteers who are supporting the creation of our beautiful garden.

A ‘strong, ecological theme’

The planting scheme of the National Autistic Society Chelsea Flower Show garden is multi-layered, evolving from wetland meadow to river birch woodland, with a vibrant colour palette at its boundary soothing to softer hues at its heart, where textured curling bark sits alongside large crusted blocks of expanded cork:

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The planting will create two distinct areas in the garden: The hidden ‘inner room’ with woodland planting, and the outer garden with bolder drifts of colour amongst grasses and sedges.

A strong ecological ethos runs through the garden, showcasing the circularity of regenerative systems and the interdependent relationship between natural ecosystems and man-made materials.

Featured image and additional images via Tammy Marlar

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