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Hiding beneath the mask, build an understanding of autism with Chelsea’s National Autistic Society Garden

by | 05 Apr 24 | Garden Design, Long Reads

Offering the industry an opportunity to break new ground as designers, landscapers, and architects – the RHS Chelsea Flower Show presents the enjoyment of the creative freedoms that are involved in making a show garden whilst also affording a chance to challenge the industry’s traditions and to push for innovation in sustainable design. 

And with that, also comes the opportunity for charities to get involved and set their own challenges for said designers. 

Sophie Parmenter and Dido Milne

The National Autistic Society seeks to capture an autistic person’s everyday experience of the world. Teaming up with artist, botanist, and creator of planted spaces – Sophie Parmenter and director of CSK Architects (Ltd), Dido Milne, the pair have joined forces to create the National Autistic Society Garden at this year’s show. 

Project Giving Back provided the society with the opportunity for a fully funded garden, with the added bonus of being able to tie this in with the charity’s ‘Now I Know’ campaign which focuses on the late diagnosis in women and non-binary people - highlighting the link between masking and the gender gap in diagnosis. 

“As I explored a design concept centred around bark – and in particular cork – CSK Architects came on board owing to their expertise developed through the award-winning Cork House,” says Parmenter. 

The garden is set to use walls of cork to create a series of spaces dedicated to different types of social interaction – at work, with friends and family, with partners, and with ourselves. “The cork ‘masks’ encircle a central sanctuary with a mesmeric kinetic sculpture, alluding to the inner mind’s complexity and beauty,” says Parmenter. 

This strategy called ‘masking’ describes how autistic people consciously or unconsciously hide their autistic characteristics, in order to fit in and feel more accepted. Masking autistic characteristics and suppressing coping mechanisms can result in exhaustion, mental health difficulties and a loss of sense of self. 

The cork used within the garden’s design with emulate these ‘masks’ encircle a central sanctuary with a mesmeric kinetic sculpture, alluding to the inner mind’s complexity and beauty. 

Both the hard and soft landscaping also use bark which provides the perfect metaphor for this protective and attractive outer layer. “We have walls made of expanded cork (the bark of Quercus suber trees) and the planting includes the beautifully textured bark of Betula nigra (the river birch) and Salix viminalis (the Osier Willow),” says Parmenter. “The narrative is further layered using a spatial metaphor - the cork walls encircle a central sanctuary representative of the inner autistic mind.” 

Keen to display the lifecycle of materials – where they come from and where they go to at the end of their useful life – Parmenter believes is also often ‘masked’ from public view, therefore they aim to explore these hidden lifecycles within the garden through the choice of materials and how they are processed and finished.

As architect and garden designer both Parmenter and Milne are passionate believers in the power of collaboration and both of their practices have a shared interest in a holistic approachto environmental sustainability.This explores the building lifecycle,the provenance of plants and materials,and architecture and landscape as time-based processes. 

“This natural synergy in our work meant we hit it off immediately, and we are now leading a large and diverse team of skilled designers, growers and craftsmen who are bringing the National Autistic Society Garden to life.” 

Beginning work with the charity back in Autumn of 2022, the narrowly defined brief offered a great opportunity to challenge Parmenter and Milne as designers. “It has to deliver both as a show garden at Chelsea, and is to be used as a platform for the National Autistic Society to talk about masking and late diagnosis, as well as promoting acceptance of autism in our society,” says Parmenter, “And then to top it all off, it also has to provide for the needs of the residents and staff at the National Autistic Society’s supported living scheme at Catrine Bank, where the garden will be relocated following the show.” 

All whilst Parmenter and Milne make sure we do so as sustainably as possible – in a way that challenges the industry, and designers back home, to think about the lifecycle of buildings and gardens. 

Its goal – to increase awareness and acceptance ofautism andmaskingand send a positive message about autistic people and their place in society. 

“We hope our garden will enable us to build understanding of autism and masking within the wider public, but also reach out to and open conversations with autistic people and their families,” says Parmenter. 

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