Nobody Really Understands How I Think

The insights of a young man with autism offer a window into the way the so-called normal mind works.

Photo of Jory Fleming
(Courtesy Curtis Brown Co.)

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Diagnosed with autism at age five, struggling with severe language delays, and unable to succeed in a traditional elementary school, Jory Fleming wasn’t expected to graduate from high school. There was no guarantee he could complete four years of college. The thought that he would be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study for a master’s degree at England’s prestigious Oxford University was practically unthinkable to almost everyone, including Jory himself. Yet today, Jory has an M.Phil. (Master of Philosophy) from Oxford appended to his name.

Jory is the first to say he does not want to be a poster child for autism or think he can provide an easy answer key to autistic understanding. “I’m certainly not expecting anyone to completely understand autism who doesn’t have it. That’s unreasonable. In the same way, I can’t fully understand them.”

Rather, Jory may give a window into what it is like to live in a world constructed for neurotypical brains when your mind is not. As he shares his insights into thinking and navigating in a neurotypical world, it may lead you to question basic assumptions about how all of our minds work.

 

LW: What would you say to a parent whose child has just been given the diagnosis of being on the autistic spectrum?

JF: At the danger of sounding really cold, I don’t think there should be too much of an emotional reaction. I would hope that as things get more normalized and the family becomes more familiar with autism and has more context for autism — that their first reaction maybe wouldn’t be that negative. Recognizing that there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, wondering what they will need to learn to be a good parent, things like uneasiness or confusion, those types of negative emotions are fine.

Jory Fleming and his dog, Daisy
Jory Fleming and Daisy (Courtesy Curtis Brown Co.)

It’s possible to acknowledge someone’s response without agreeing with the response. I would acknowledge any response, but then I would be most concerned to make sure it’s not negative, such as, “Now I think my kid is less,” whatever less means.

I also feel labels are particularly unhelpful, because labels get you to think about so many other things which may not have happened yet. If all you have heard about autism are horror stories, then that’s going to be what you think about. Maybe you have fear. And you will probably think, “This is going to be me.” I find that hard to understand, because the child — who that child is — has not changed after receiving a diagnosis. From my understanding, raising a kid is really difficult regardless of whether or not they have autism.

I generally consider myself to be kind of a strange person. I like to have fun but not in the ways that other people like to have fun typically. I like to play board games. I like to talk about weird things. I hate small talk. I like to hang out with other people with similar lines of interest. I don’t like meeting strangers. If you become my friend, you’ll know that you’re part of a small group but one that I value really highly. I like to meet people, but I don’t like to call many folks my friends.

I see things from an entirely different vantage point and on an entirely different plane.

I get confused when researchers try to find cures to autism. Why? For someone like me, where I do face a lot of challenges as a result of not being able to order off the same menu [as a neurotypical person], I still wouldn’t choose to have a different menu after having lived with this one. I’m really appreciative of the way that I think. Even if I had new opportunities, I feel like I would lose as well. It’s not a win or a win-win — it’s a loss. And I wouldn’t like the losses. Some of the benefits I wouldn’t want to lose are not being able to be as easily influenced by emotion and my memory. There are other benefits, like methods of thinking; I seem to have more visual thinking than other people, and that’s a benefit.

Nobody can really understand how I think. Their basis of comparison is themselves and other people who think neurotypically. But this also means that in many situations, I can potentially bring something entirely different to the table. I can even say the equivalent of why are we focused on a table, why aren’t we talking about a carnival? Everybody else will be like, “Whaaat?” But that is the way I see things. I see things from an entirely different vantage point and on an entirely different plane. I’d be the first to say that I’m very limited in what I can do that other people are good at, but the same is true in reverse. The small number of us out there who think differently, whether it’s from autism or some other reason, might have something valuable to bring to the discussion. Generally speaking, I find simple tasks really draining, while thinking tasks are not really draining for me.

What causes me to feel stress, such as social interactions, tends to be very different from what causes stress in other people. Some people even find it weird because situations where other people think I should have stress, I don’t. I can’t remember the last time I was stressed about anything academic. It’s not that I don’t care about the outcome, but I don’t think that worrying would be helpful anyway. I don’t have much fear either. Some people might be concerned about death, whereas for me that’s completely irrelevant because I have the perspective of, well, statistically speaking, either of us could have a heart attack at any moment and that’s just the way it is, right? There’s nothing you can do about it. I’d be fine getting any number of corporeal diseases which led to my death except for maybe Alzheimer’s or anything that leads to general amnesia or loss of memory. I wouldn’t enjoy that.

 

LW: How do you see your life going forward? What matters to you? What principles do you hope will guide you?

JF: I don’t want to be one of those people that just kind of sits in the back and thinks about things. At some point, you have to stop thinking and get moving. You’ve got to pick something you want to work on and try to do it.

There are trees in Oxford that have been here for longer than the U.S. has existed. But you also have all the flowers which are here one day and gone the next. It’s a sense of beauty, which is kind of like an individual person. Because people are also here one day and gone the next. People always think they’re going to live longer than they do. But that’s no guarantee for anybody in particular.

Nature is a good example of thinking about that in a positive context. I’m not going to be the stately tree that’s going to be around forever, but maybe some of the ideas and things I can do for the world could have a lasting impact that goes beyond my lifetime.

But even if I don’t achieve the legacy of a tree, I can absolutely achieve the memorable joy of a flower, where I can try my best to have positive interactions with people and help people when they are sad or dealing with those pesky emotion things. They are things that will be forgotten but still mean something. We shouldn’t ignore the wonders of the flower or the stately tree; we should focus on both.

At the end of the day, we are all just living on the planet. If you actually think about it, we always have to depend on others and on the entire biological and ecological system. We as humans don’t even make our own oxygen. I’m not self-sufficient. You’re not self-sufficient. Nobody’s self-sufficient.

Be Direct, Avoid Metaphor

Jory describes communication strategies that are helpful to him

A collection of speech bubbles with various punctuation marks.
(Shutterstock)

Since language is a struggle, Jory and I discussed what communication strategies help him process language. But while the suggestions are “Jory-specific,” they are universal enough that they could apply to other people with language-processing issues, even those not on the autism spectrum.

1. Use observation and variety. I respond well to both observation and variety. If you’re talking about an idea, and I can see the idea in action, that’s good. Let me observe it directly.

For example, say you are trying to tell me how to use a new type of vegetable slicer or some other kitchen tool. If you can’t let me see it directly, then help me triangulate it by talking about it in multiple ways. Explain to me how you visualize something and then also tell me about it. That way, I will have two different ways of trying to translate. Using more than one method helps me reduce errors or misinterpretation.

2. Use repetition. I’m definitely helped by repeating ideas, concepts, statements, and directions.

3. Avoid dual meanings. I have a lot of difficulty with phrases either that have a dual meaning or where the majority of the meaning comes from emotions, phrases such as “he can’t help himself,” “I’m not buying it,” or “it doesn’t hurt to.” Otherwise I’m going to miss the full meaning because I don’t have the context most people have, whether that’s emotional or something else. Or at least if you inform me of that meaning, then it goes a really long way to helping me interpret it. For me, not only are the connotations of words difficult but also the denotations are difficult. I think a lot of denotations actually require subconscious processing. And I don’t understand and probably won’t get sarcasm at all.

4. Avoid assumptions. Leaving things unsaid is very hard for me. That tends to happen when it’s about a common cultural thing. Idioms and figures of speech often test me because I won’t automatically recognize it as a figure of speech, and I’ll have to process that. “Bent out of shape,” “speak of the devil,” “two peas in a pod,” phrases along those lines have been difficult for me to understand. If a person uses a lot of phrases like that, I might miss the overall picture.

5. Use words, not body language. If you rely on body language or gestures, and especially if those are conveying the opposite meaning from what you are saying, I won’t pick up on it. Don’t communicate with lots of nonword signals that I am supposed to “pick up on.”

6. Avoid speaking too fast. Rapid-fire speech is something that I have trouble with. Either speak at a reasonable pace or pause for a few seconds every now and again to let me catch up in case I’m still processing.

—Jory Fleming with Lyric Winik

Jory Fleming received a Master of Philosophy in environmental change and management at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar — the first young person with autism to be awarded the prestigious award — and now works as a research staff member in the University of South Carolina geography department. Lyric Winik is an award-winning writer who has collaborated on more than 14 books, including the memoir Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.

From How to Be Human: An Autistic Man’s Guide to Life by Jory Fleming with Lyric Winik. Copyright © 2021 by Jory Fleming, reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This article is featured in the November/December 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Courtesy Curtis Brown Co.

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Comments

  1. A wonderful article by Jory. Thank you for publishing it. I’ve always enjoyed The Saturday Evening Post. Also, you used to have wonderful medical articles written by a cardiologist, although I can’t remember his name, just now.

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