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One day in college, Jory Fleming was walking across campus with his service dog, Daisy, when a stranger approached and declared that he was being cruel to the animal.
The dog, the man insisted, was unhappy and shouldn’t be a slave to anyone.
Onlookers were horrified, worried that the insensitive remark had wounded Fleming. But the encounter only spawned a fleeting thought in his head: “Oh, that was a very rude thing to say.” Then he kept walking to class.
Fleming has autism, and his brain works differently, especially when it comes to emotions. While he recognizes emotions and certain environmental stimuli might create feelings within him, they affect him less than most people. For example, he might see a large spider but “struggle to think of a reason why fear would be appropriate.”
Fleming explains how his mind works in his new book “How to Be Human: An Autistic Man’s Guide to Life” (Simon & Schuster), out now.
“I thought it would be a cool goal to have a book make its way out into the world, not so people can learn about me individually, but so they can see an individual with autism and what that means in viewing the world,” Fleming, 26, told The Post.
As a child growing up in South Carolina, it was unclear that Fleming would ever graduate high school, much less become an author and a prestigious Rhodes scholar who recently completed a graduate degree at Oxford.
He had language issues and didn’t play well with other children. He couldn’t stand to touch anything squishy and would occasionally have hours-long screaming fits if someone changed the order of his carefully arranged toys
Diagnosed with autism at age 5, his mother began to homeschool her son when he was 8. Fleming gradually improved, eventually attending the University of South Carolina and earning an undergrad degree in geography and marine science.
“I feel like my journey from childhood to adulthood was less about a specific breakthrough and more of a journey that a lot of people cared for me and helped me along the way,” says the author, who also has cerebral palsy and a metabolic condition that keeps him from properly digesting food.
Even with advanced degrees, Fleming still has trouble processing language. His brain is literal almost to a fault.
Phrases with dual meanings, such as “I’m not buying it,” sometimes go over his head.
Recently his mom asked him to “see” if the store had something she needed. Fleming returned empty-handed, declaring, “Yes, they have it.”
He also has difficulty connecting with some forms of humor. For example, he likes puns but doesn’t get sarcasm, because it’s so dependent on tone. And comics don’t really register for him.
“With a comedian, I don’t know this person, I don’t have any connection to this person,” he writes. “If I laugh, it doesn’t have any meaning behind it. It has more memory value if it comes from people I know.”
But Fleming, now is now 26 and a research associate at South Carolina, says there are advantages to being autistic, including being less driven by emotions.
“I see enough of them being weaponized,” he writes, to know that feelings aren’t always a force for good.
He’s more anxious about hurting other people’s feelings if he fails to read their reactions or pick up on nonverbal cues.
And he says there’s a lesson everyone can learn in how he approaches the world. Because his brain doesn’t necessarily read and automatically generate a reaction to a situation, he’s forced to make a conscious decision about how he’s going to behave.
“Because I’m not able to do things on autopilot, it helps me decide who I want to be,” he says. “And that’s something that everyone can do.
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