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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 64
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Location: Long Island, New York

02 Jun 2021, 3:36 pm

First Rhodes Scholar with autism pens book on the spectrum of the human mind

As the first young adult with autism to be awarded the prestigious scholarship, 26-year-old South Carolinian Jory Fleming perhaps brought something to the University of Oxford that hadn’t been there before: an utterly unique mind.

In “How to Be Human: An Autistic Man’s Guide to Life,” as told to Lyric Winik, Fleming lays out what it’s like to live in a world designed for neurotypical brains when his is decidedly not. He makes the case that our best hope for understanding and sustaining the world can come through all different eyes.

Fleming, a scientist, doesn’t see his autistic mind as better; rather, he frames the naturally occurring diversity among human beings’ brains as giving us collective strength. He also doesn’t claim to be a spokesperson for those on the autism spectrum.

He makes some assumptions about “neurotypical” people that readers might disagree with, namely that almost everyone thinks linearly (anyone who’s played a random association game that solved a problem or had a stream-of-consciousness bout of insomnia knows that’s not always the case). But ultimately, the insights of “How to Be Human” compel us to consider how our own brains function, whether we should hold opinions so strongly and why “ruthless optimism” is the way to go.

As a child, doctors diagnosed Fleming’s autism, mild cerebral palsy and mitochondrial disease. He had digestive issues and still relies on a feeding tube for essential nutrition. He was prone to tantrums. Fleming doesn’t remember much of this time because he was “beneath the surface.”

Little Jory had no tolerance for people other than Mom, who put aside her career ambitions to homeschool him (he dedicates the book to her — “now the world can see how much you have given me”).

His medical issues stabilized, and Fleming blossomed academically, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in geography and marine science at the University of South Carolina. Science clearly shaped his personal, professional and global perspectives. A devout Christian, he links the two:

“I have this picture of the concept of faith in general, across churches and religions, as being like a kelp plant. … It’s holding fast to something rooted and it’s also free in the waves and experiencing the varying currents of change and motion and the whims of the surface. It changes and shifts, but it also doesn’t.”

Conversation is Fleming’s biggest challenge, he says. Tone, body language and sarcasm are lost on him. He doesn’t grasp the social glue that small talk provides or see the humor in a standup routine, simply because the comedian is a stranger. Sounds disconnected? Yes, but Fleming challenges us to consider why we connect to what and whom we do.

“I am confused as to why people follow celebrity figures … Why do people assume that being famous equates to having more character, more intelligence, or automatically being deserving of more respect? Because when you give more weight to what someone who is famous says, this also means that another person’s words automatically carry less weight and have less power, even if they are the exact same words.”

As for social media, he sees its uses but also pitfalls. Fleming deleted Facebook because “it was all people searching for ways to repeat the opinions they already had.

“Lots of people are not very good at interacting with other people. They may think that autism is a disability, but at least I’m aware of the fact that I don’t interact with people very well. I see so much anger, and I feel like saying, ‘You know what, y’all are disabled too. You just don’t know it because you’re all the same.’”

More critical thinking would go a long way to fixing social ills, according to Fleming. A common autism trait is rigidity, but he flips that on its head.

“Most people don’t like neutral. They want you to have an opinion. And I’ve always been of the mind that opinions are only useful if you’re willing to change them very rapidly. I feel like the stronger your opinion, the weaker you should hold it. … I am quite curious about the other side of an argument. In a lot of cases, people think that means you have no values. But that’s just people confusing values with opinions.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters is titled “Personality Is a Choice.” According to Fleming, personality isn’t innate. Fleming says his intellectual, dry default can come across as robotic, so he’s chosen the more cheerful “ruthless optimism.” “Without that creation, my personality would be the same in all situations.”

Fleming seemingly believes he is alone in expending mental energy to adjust. Though not his intention, these passages feel sad — he compares himself to a small island with no bridge to the larger neurotypical one. To Fleming, there’s no point in dwelling on it; it is what it is. But such a well-rounded thinker surely understands the value of reflection.

Those looking for insight into autism will find it here: the sensory issues, communication challenges, masking of behaviors to appear “normal.” But what’s most appealing about “How to Be Human” is the bigger picture. Writer Walter Isaacson, a fellow Rhodes Scholar, touts it as a book that will “make you more aware of the inner life of your own mind and that of those around you.”

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman