Kelly Fleming remembers the low point of raising her son, Jory.
He was eight years old when he spent an entire morning, afternoon and evening wailing uncontrollably. She still doesn’t know what set off the boy, who has autism and a metabolic disorder.
But the tough times seem more bearable now, at the high point. Last month, Jory, who is 22 with a feeding tube inserted in his stomach and braces on his legs, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship
In between came Ms. Fleming’s decision to give up on her own dream of practicing medicine, home schooling Jory, learning to read, a bird named Federer and finally college and a dog named Daisy.
“All children have amazing minds,” Ms. Fleming says. “Their brains are right there for developing and just like any other child you have to find a way to make that human connection.”
About 50,000 children diagnosed with autism turn 18 every year and about one-third enter college, according to a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics. College administrators say few graduate without support.
“They can have a lot of trouble with things like knowing when to interject during a conversation or to take the initiative and talk to the student sitting next to them in class,” said Ilene Gonzalez, autism services associate at California State University, Long Beach, one of a handful of schools with dedicated staff to help autistic students succeed.
On the long day of Jory’s epic meltdown years ago, college was the farthest thing from Ms. Fleming’s mind. Even though his public school had assigned an aide to stay with him all day, the aide frequently took him out of the class to calm his outbursts.
“He wasn’t learning, he wasn’t really doing anything,” Ms. Fleming said.
She had recently finished medical school and faced a choice. She could go to her residency or home-school her son. “It was the hardest decision of my life,” she said.
She chose her son.
After an aborted effort to teach him Latin, Ms. Fleming threw the books out the window and let Jory’s sense of curiosity guide her. Ever since he was a toddler, he had spent hours looking out the window at birds.
“I think I was first drawn to them because compared to their surroundings they are very disconnected,” he said. “They can escape their immediate surroundings and that’s something I wanted to be able to do.”
The Flemings bought a cockatiel Jory named after his favorite tennis player. He studied Federer’s movement so intently his mother said they started to communicate.
Before long, her once nearly nonverbal child was telling the family stories about his bird.
Soon, he began to devour books. One day, Ms. Fleming was a third of the way down a page she was reading to Jory when he asked if he could he turn the page.
It turned out Jory didn’t read from left to right but from the center of the page toward the top and bottom at the same time.
“I don’t really see the words,” Jory explains. “I see a moving image of what’s going on on the page.”
Jory says he doesn’t see a word like “progenitor.” Instead, he sees an Italian pizza chef who works in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in New York City and makes the world’s best submarine sandwiches.
“It’s a quick mental snapshot that I think is the result of my autism,” he says. “Language is difficult for me, but images are easy.”
His fascination with birds led him to the beach, which soothed him. There, he would watch the birds, which led to an interest in the ocean and then more broadly to geography and geophysics.
Though Ms. Fleming had never thought her son would go to college, he applied to the nearby University of South Carolina and was accepted. He lived at home in Columbia and stayed mostly to himself on campus.
But Jory had a secret weapon, a service dog named Daisy. “I’m flying blind,” when it comes to reading people, he says. But Daisy broke the ice and as one conversation led to the next, Jory’s confidence grew.
Between his stellar grades and community service, Jory won a series of scholarships, which led him to apply for the granddaddy of them all, the Rhodes.
His essay on how 18th-century British geographers connected philosophy and science with firsthand observation earned him a spot as a finalist and two days of interviews in Atlanta.
After the interviews ended, he texted his mother at the hotel where they were staying that he was ready to leave. Then a second text came, almost as an afterthought.
“I won,” it said.
Jory will head off to the University of Oxford in England later this year to study geography—along with Daisy and his mom. He hopes to one day go into public service, where he hopes his proficiency with imagery can help him visualize and solve complex environmental problems.
“My mom put so much effort into developing me, not only through teaching but to give me the mental strength and ability to control my autism,” Jory said. “Her example has propelled me toward public service.”