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Jory Fleming Shares What It's Like Going Through Life With Autism In New Memoir


Jory Fleming made headlines in 2016 as the first person diagnosed as autistic to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Now Fleming is sharing what he's learned from his time at the University of Oxford and all the obstacles to getting there through his new book, "How To Be Human: An Autistic Man's Guide To Life."

Jory Fleming co-wrote the book with Lyric Winik. And Fleming joins me now. Welcome to the program.

JORY FLEMING: Hi. I'm happy to be here.

ELLIOTT: Now, we should say that at one point in your life, it would have been practically impossible for you to be able to do this interview with us or even have a book out in the world. Can you share a little bit about those early years of your life leading up to your diagnosis of autism?

FLEMING: Yeah, so I was diagnosed with autism when I was quite young. And I'll say that my memories of childhood are not particularly great. Most of the images from my childhood are other people. And I'm thinking especially of my mother, who was also my teacher for many years - I was homeschooled. And so there's been a number of people that have played such an important role in helping me along my journey. And I definitely wouldn't be able to speak with you without their input.

ELLIOTT: You share in the book that you recognized the world was not really set up for you and others who are neuroatypical, but you still wanted to be a part of it. What would you say was the turning point for you that made that happen?

FLEMING: Yeah, I think what my mom was able to give me was the ability to have more energy on a day-to-day level. One of the things that I think is a real challenge for me with autism is that being out in the world and communicating with others - it takes a lot of mental energy and can feel quite draining to do that.

ELLIOTT: Why does it take so much energy for you to interact with others?

FLEMING: Part of the challenge in my case is that there's very few things that I can do automatically. For instance, you know, interpreting body language or social cues, including sound sources in the environment. I'm not able to necessarily selectively prioritize a person's voice over, say, a background noise or even the sound of electricity in the room. And I think that that experience is something that we all may know. I think when the power goes out, you notice the absence of the sound of electricity, but perhaps when the electricity is on, you don't notice it. It sort of fades into the background. And my brain, I just don't think, is able to do that very well at all (laughter). And so it's always there, and it's always sort of competing for my attention. And it takes sort of mental energy to push it away and to hear your voice instead.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about this last year a little bit. We are now operating in this predominantly remote world. Do you feel like that in a sense, it's sort of leveled the playing field for people whose minds and bodies aren't built for working in crowded offices, let's say, or crowded classrooms?

FLEMING: Yeah, you know, part of the difficulties for me in being autistic is in processing the environment. And I've been working from home for most of this past year. And that's an environment that is a bit more familiar to me. And so I think it has impacted the way that I've been able to to do the work that I do. I was able to teach a class, for instance, in the fall that was virtual at the University of South Carolina. And the next time I teach it this fall, it will be face-to-face. I'm sure it'll be pretty different because, you know, being at home doesn't remove all of the challenges that I face, either, in terms of communicating with others. I think being in work means that I do still have to communicate in a variety of mediums. And so it's a bit - it's been a bit of a mixed bag for me, I think.

ELLIOTT: You know, you say in the book that you don't want to be the poster child for autism, but what in your experience do people most often get wrong or misunderstand about autistic people?

FLEMING: One of the things that I was hoping to accomplish with this book is to maybe give people an awareness of autism on many levels. There's several things that I hope people can pause and reflect on, whether that's autistic behaviors - and, you know, what does it mean for - to have an autistic Rhodes scholar who, you know, flaps their hands and has to be reminded to not suck on his fingers - to bigger concepts like what we determine empathy to be because I think, actually, in some ways, I could be more empathetic because I'm able to see people, really see people. And if I learned something after interacting with a person and they share some of their feelings with me, I may have a harder time understanding those feelings. But the memory of what they shared will always stay with me and won't fade away.

ELLIOTT: One of the more interesting things in your book for me was how you explained how your brain really doesn't process things like ideology, culture, even emotion in the way that society does in general. What do you think we can learn from the way that you think?

FLEMING: I think being able to recognize someone who thinks differently, who processes the world differently, who has a different understanding and position when it comes to emotion can maybe help us to think, you know, what does it mean for someone to be different? And I think that each person is incredibly valuable because of the difference and because of the unique attributes and qualities that each person has and is able to then share with others.

ELLIOTT: Jory Fleming's new book is "How To Be Human: An Autistic Man's Guide To Life." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FLEMING: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.