Young man seated on bench, with dog (Courtesy of University of South Carolina)
The University of South Carolina's Jory Fleming with his service dog, Daisy. He suspects he won't be the first Rhodes Scholar dealing with autism, a condition that's not always obvious. (Courtesy photo)

Newly selected Rhodes Scholar Jory Fleming is the most honored student in the University of South Carolina’s 215-year history. The 22-year-old geography and marine science major has perfect grades and has won three other prestigious awards.

Every Rhodes Scholar has sterling credentials. What sets Fleming apart is that he is autistic. He also has a metabolic disorder.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is the name for a wide range of disorders that make it difficult to communicate, make eye contact and engage with other people. It’s a mild impairment for some, severe for others.

“I was diagnosed when I was really little,” said Fleming, whose mother abandoned plans to practice medicine and home-schooled him. At first “Mom would be there teaching, but starting in middle school and especially high school it was all independent learning.”

And he started to come out of his shell, taking some classes with other home-schoolers and joining their Shakespeare drama club. His favorite role: playing in the bumbling troupe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The inhibitions are still there. “I’ll never find a big social setting enjoyable. But at a certain point my thinking changed. The positives outweighed the negative.”

Geography professor Jean Ellis, his academic adviser, steered Fleming to apply for a Hollings internship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Goldman and Truman scholarships followed, then the Rhodes.

Ellis recognized Fleming’s potential from the start. “I looked at him for everything he was, not for any of his learning disabilities,” Ellis said. It was quickly evident he could absorb voluminous amounts of information in a way other students could not match. “He has everything — so intelligent and yet so personable and modest.”

Fleming’s service dog, a Labrador named Daisy, will accompany him to the University of Oxford.

Before the Rhodes, “nobody knew my name, but everybody knew Daisy’s,” he said. “I got to talk with lots of students who were homesick for their dogs.”

Now he’s a celebrity, honored at halftime of a university basketball game with a jersey and autographed football helmet.

Once only close friends knew he was autistic. “It was never a conversation topic, like, ‘Oh, hey, I have autism. How are you today?'” he said. “It’s that way for many people with autism. They either don’t display visible signs or, like me, are really good about controlling them in public.’

Fleming, who aims to earn a doctorate after a master’s degree at Oxford, sees a lesson in his story for everyone, not just those with disabilities.

“The reason I won is because I applied. It sounds simple, but you’re never going to win anything if you don’t stick your foot out there and try something new,” he said.

“Most of the time it ends up in rejection, but sometimes it ends up the other way. If you don’t take that step, you’ll never find out.”

He joins 31 Americans and 64 from other countries recently selected for the scholarship that mining magnate Cecil Rhodes endowed in 1902.