Jory Fleming and Harry Smith

‘How to be Human’

New book by UofSC Rhodes Scholar Jory Fleming examines life and autism

Jory Fleming is the most decorated national fellowship winner in the University of South Carolina’s history, winning the prestigious Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater and Hollings scholarships.

Fleming now has another title to add to his accomplishments: published author.

Fleming’s book, How to Be Human, An Autistic Man’s Guide to Life (Simon & Schuster, April 2021), is written as a series of conversations between Fleming and writer Lyric Winik. The two delve deeply into what it means to be human, while offering insights into how Fleming has survived and thrived in a world constructed for neurotypical brains.

A Capstone Scholar who earned his bachelor’s degree in geography and marine science from South Carolina in 2017, he now works as a research associate in the university’s geography department with CISA, Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessment, a group that does climate adaptation research.

We caught up with Fleming, who, with his service dog Daisy, is back in Columbia after earning his master’s degree in environmental change and management at Oxford. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

His two years at Oxford

Oxford is a dynamic place. Of course, this was pre-pandemic. But everyone was passing through, and people would stop by the university to give a talk. The Rhodes House organized a lot of events, and alumni would come back to speak about their fields. I was able to hear about fields that were different from my own — public health or learning from indigenous communities in other countries. There were all these different opportunities.

There were so many interactions, and interacting with people in that way helps you grow and learn about yourself, too.

I also grew in my faith during that time. I got confirmed in the Church of England, which was a great opportunity. I met a lot of wonderful people at my college, which was Worcester College, and it helped me settle what I want my driving values to be.

Why the book?

There was lot of interest that was generated after my story about being an "autistic Rhodes Scholar" got out there. There were newspaper stories, the NBC interview with Harry (Smith). I guess it’s interesting, right? It’s my life, so it’s hard to envision that it could be of interest to other people. I’m not necessarily the kind of person who thinks I’m incredibly interesting.

Some people actually reached out and said, "I’d love to see a book." That’s kind of a weird email to get, but it got me thinking. I don’t know it’s as important that people know more about me, but it could be a way to start conversations about autism.

In my case, the university was a place I was able to grow and expand and develop into who I am today.

Jory Fleming

What Lyric and I were hoping to do with the book was to help people — especially a reader who doesn’t have a connection to an autistic individual — to learn about autism through the lens of one person, me. I think the structure of the book really helps to accomplish that. I was hoping a reader could envision themselves in Lyric’s shoes in the book, entering a conversation with me.

I think conversations about autism, about disability, are important, and everyone can and should be participating in those types of conversations.

That’s what the story of the book and the structure would be: avenues toward that dialogue.

Writing a book was a phenomenal process, in part because I was able to work alongside Lyric. We met virtually and in person. She came to stay with us at Oxford for a period of time. We had very wide-ranging exploratory discussions about what’s most important that we most want to share with people. Some of those ideas came from me, some came from Lyric. That’s what makes the book really cool and dynamic. It’s a collaboration and a conversation. That meshes well with my personal goal for the book, to give people a perspective on autism and to have that conversation.

When it comes to communication, for example, people can change how they communicate if they are trying to communicate with a child or someone speaking a foreign language. They don’t always show that same grace when they talk to autistic people. Maybe the book can be a part of that dialogue.

I’m hoping people can read the book and encounter a different perspective. I hope they come away with a positive view, and to be able to find value in something that’s different from you.

About his work at UofSC

I work as a research associate in the geography department with CISA. The CISA team’s main goal is supporting decision makers by helping them access and incorporate the best available climate science. The function of the team is to be a bridge between the knowledge and data that’s out there but maybe that’s not convenient to access or maybe that’s not the most interpretable. The CISA team is based here, and there are members based at UNC Chapel Hill as well. It’s funded by NOAA, and it’s one of a number of teams around the country. This team covers North Carolina and South Carolina.

My favorite part is it’s just focused on the Carolinas. I get to live and work in South Carolina, where I grew up. To find a climate job actually back home was a great opportunity.

I’ve also had the pleasure of being able to teach in the department as well. I taught Geography 105 (the Digital Earth, one of the Carolina Core classes) last fall, and I’ll be able to teach in the upcoming fall.

I enjoyed teaching it quite a lot. I was able to bring in some of my own experiences and make the content more personal to students. I think students, based on what they said in the emails and conversations I had with them, seem to enjoy the class. I hope they got a lot out of it. I know I certainly got a lot out of it.

About his time at UofSC

As a geographer you always like to think about meanings and great things that come out of particular places. In my case, the university was a place I was able to grow and expand and develop into who I am today. That, in part, was (gaining) knowledge. But, also it was in part character development. And that, as much as anything, was driven by the people I was able to meet at the university then and continuing in my time here now. Whether that’s mentors, friends or student colleagues, the people are what stand out the most.

And Daisy, the service dog?

Daisy is doing well. She’ll be able to be in the classroom in the fall. With virtual teaching she was not on camera. I’m sure she’ll get plenty of attention as Professor Daisy in the fall. And she’s looking forward to that.

Established in 1994, the Office of National Fellowships and Scholar Programs assists top UofSC students in their efforts to earn prestigious national fellowships.

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