The Link Between Influence and Autism

Autism hasn’t always been considered a disability. In some of the most brutal and barbaric cultures, people with autism had incredible influence. In this article we will examine one of those stories which comes from the book SWAY; The Link Between Autism and Influence.


Think of a loved one you have lost. I’m sure you remember their face, or a particularly memorable event you shared. You may remember their home, car or clothes. At some point you will probably think of an adjective that describes something about them. 

“Grandma was a fabulous cook, grandpa was a kind man,” or, “uncle Allan was a bad drunk.”

But you don’t remember them as that adjective.  AutismEven if you do think of your loved one as fabulous, you most certainly don’t call them that adjective as their name. You don’t say, “I miss fabulous Grandma.”

The Man With an Adjective for a Name

Ivan Vasilyevich’s adjective not only describes almost the whole of his person, but it also became his name. His actions have defined him for centuries, replacing his full name with an adjective in English. That adjective is terrible.

Ivan the Terrible

By 1543 Ivan had witnessed the torture of countless people. Ivan’s own uncle Yuri, who challenged his birthright to the throne, was tossed in a dungeon and starved to death. His mother, Jelena Glinsky, died suddenly after ordering the execution of other family members. It was poisoning, administered by angered relatives of murdered opponents that killed her. Prince Ivan Obolensky was beaten to death by his jailers for his loyalty to Glinsky, within a week of her death.

A Reign of Terror

Finally, on December 29, 1543, Ivan ordered Prince Andrew Shuisky arrested and executed. He had Shuisky thrown to a pack of starving dogs. This was the symbolic beginning of Ivan’s reign over Russia. 

He was 13.

During his governance, it was nothing for Ivan to have people drawn over powder kegs and blown up. People were tortured and murdered in front of their families and boiled or skinned alive. 

In one story, Ivan had a peasant stripped naked and used her as target practice. Ivan’s weapon of choice was a staff with a pointed, metal, spear tip affixed to the top. In a fit of rage he ran the same spear through the skull of his favorite son, killing him. The death was the culmination of an argument between the two. Ivan had beaten his pregnant daughter-in-law and caused the miscarriage of his own grandchild during a prior fit of rage.

The Peasant Who Changed Everything

At one point a peasant approached Ivan and rebuked him for not paying attention during church. So Ivan did something unthinkable. 

He sat up and paid attention in church. 

Remember, Ivan thought nothing of committing horrible acts to clergy, during church, in front of the congregation. He also used peasants as target practice. But when Ivan was approached by this peasant in church something different happened. The peasant did the modern equivalent of grabbing Ivan by the ear. He told Ivan to sit up straight and pay attention, and Ivan did.

In fact, not only did Ivan listen, he sent the peasant a gift, which the peasant gave away publicly!


This same pauper once engaged Ivan during Lent, in which observers, including Ivan, abstained from meat. As he approached Ivan at dinner, he dropped a large piece of bloody meat on the table in front of Ivan. Ivan explained that he did not eat meat during Lent. The peasant said, “You eat and drink the blood and flesh of those you kill and torture.” In other words, “Ivan, you are so deplorable, that eating this steak during Lent is not really going to matter when it comes to your salvation.”

How did Ivan react? By acting as a pallbearer at this mans funeral years later, when he died of natural causes. It was plainly obvious that Ivan loved, and listened to this man. In fact, it seems that this person had carte blanche when it came to speaking into Ivan’s life, more so than any other person.

The Peasant Remembered

If you visit Moscow today, just outside the Kremlin stands a beautiful building. It’s oversized domes and intricate paint scheme makes the building stand out as a unique, worldwide treasure. Most people have seen it in pictures because it is one of the most photographed pieces of architecture in the world.

It’s name is St. Basils Cathedral, named after the pauper who had so much influence over Ivan, Vasily Blazhenny or simply, Basil.


At the age of 13, (oddly the same age as Ivan when he ordered his first execution) Basil dedicated his life to Christ and remained for over 70 years. He wore very little clothing, even during the harsh Russian winters. Basil had an incredible sense of passion, lived in the moment and opened the doors to a much deeper and higher sense of worship than those around him. He was not typical, but he fit the description of a very small group of people throughout history who acted similarly. They were called, “The Holy Fools of Russia,” and they seemed to have something that others did not.

So what did Basil have that made him so dedicated, so passionate and so influential? How could a man, with almost none of the typical makings of stature in his culture, who spoke so bluntly, become revered and beloved by the tyrant who murdered his own son?

Basil’s Gift

Some historians believe Basil had an incredible brain anomaly that caused him to act the way he did. People affected by this anomaly have a surplus of synapses, or connections between brain cells. This happens when the natural pruning of these synapses which usually takes place in our brain, doesn’t occur the way it should. It has many symptoms and causes different results in the people it affects. Historically it has gone by many different names.

Today it is most simply know as autism.

This article is reformatted from the introduction of SWAY, The Unlikely Connection Between Autism and Influence. 

We think we are the most advanced society in history, but we are wrong. Our view of people with autism is dwarfed, even by the standards of ancient, and often brutal societies. Are we missing the mark when it comes to our view of autism? Find out here.

The Case for Autism

John Donavan and Caren Zucker explained this rationale in their bestselling book, In a Different Key, The Story of Autism. The following is an excerpt.

-Half a millennium ago, a Russian shoemaker named Basil, born around 1469, was spotted walking about naked in winter, spouting incomprehensible utterances, while remaining inattentive to his own needs, even for food. The populace did not see this as madness. autismThey thought, rather, that they were witnessing extreme holiness. The Russians called this “foolishness for Christ” and reared Basil’s self-abnegation as courageous, difficult, and a pious path, which Basil took in order to allow Christ to speak through him. Even the tsar-Ivan the Terrible- who was known to have waiters executed for serving the wrong drink at dinner, let Basil criticize him in public. He believed Basil could read his thoughts, and he took it to heart when the wandering shoemaker scolded him for letting his mind wander in church. It was said that Basil was the only man Ivan truly feared.

The Autism Idea

In 1974, a pair of Russian-speaking scholars at the University of Michigan suggested that something other than pure foolishness or holiness might have been at work in Basil, and in a few others with similar stories. Natalia Challis and Horace Dewey dove deeply into the available accounts of Basil’s life and some thirty-five other “Holy Fools” of bygone days, all recognized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. Challis’s and Dewey’s academic specialty was Russian history and culture, not autism. But Dewey had a son, born in the 1950’s who had been diagnosed with autism, and that gave him insights into the behaviors of the ancient wanderers. He came to believe that autism, not insanity or divinity, might explain the Holy Fools’ behavior.

“Unhampered by Society’s Preconceptions”

This set of individuals were “unhampered by society’s preconceptions” and content to live in a state of social isolation. Certain of them were wedded to rituals. They noted that Basil’s tolerance of extreme cold which let him “walk barefoot on the frozen Volga”  was reminiscent of how some people with autism appear indifferent to extremes of cold, heat, or pain. The Holy Fools were also observed to get by on limited sleep and food-again, similar to some people with autism.

While some remained mute, several were known to echo the words of others, and still others spoke in riddles. And legend has it that some blurted out what they were thinking into the faces of the powerful. That tendency was a major part of what endeared the Fools to the Russian public. In a culture where few dared to question authority, their impertinence was reminiscent of the great prophets of the Old Testament.-

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Is Autism Influential?

Was autism the secret tool Basil used to influence one of the most horrible people that lived? Could the personality of those on the autism spectrum lend itself, in some ways, to persuasion and influence? Consider a person you know with autism. If you are realizing that some of the traits they exhibit do seem persuasive, you are not wrong.

In July of 2017, published their Top 10 Positive Traits of Autistic People. The article garnered some negative reviews because of the generalization of people on the spectrum. People with autism are referred to as being on the autism spectrum. Autism results in set of personal characteristics somewhat different from what we consider average. But not every person with autism has all of the characteristics listed on the spectrum.

 The Autism Spectrum

For example, some of the characteristics on the spectrum are as follows:

  • Intense or focused interests
  • Repetitive body movements such as spinning or hand flapping
  • Unusual sensory interests such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving objects
  • Insistence on sticking to routines
  • Sensory sensitivities including avoidance of everyday sounds and textures

(You can learn more at

A Range, Not a Definition

Though these are a few of the behaviors on the spectrum, not every person with autism will exhibit all of these behaviors. While Down Syndrome is quantifiable; every person it affects has an extra chromosome, autism is not, and because of that, the symptoms vary. For example a person with autism may insist on routines, but might not show repetitive body movements. Because the range of behaviors can be so varied, the term “autism spectrum” is used to describe the set of possible behaviors of a person with autism.

Some Traits

But the people at believe that most people on the spectrum share a common set of endearing characteristics. They are:

  1. People with autism rarely lie
  2. Those on the autism spectrum live in the moment
  3. People with autism rarely judge others
  4. Those on the spectrum are passionate
  5. People with autism are not tied to social expectations
  6. Those with autism have terrific memories
  7. People on the spectrum are less materialistic
  8. Those with autism play fewer head games
  9. People on the autism spectrum have fewer hidden agendas
  10. Those with autism open new doors for neurotypicals

People With Autism Speak the Truth

These are obviously not scientific explanations or descriptions of people with autism. But I think it’s fair to say, at least anecdotally, the people on the spectrum whom I have met do live up to this high praise. Think of it. Frequently someone on the spectrum will say things that seem socially inappropriate. But it is usually inappropriate because it is awkwardly true and said passionately without judgement. Simply a momentary fact, most of us wouldn’t say. They call neurotypicals on our facades at times and in places we think awkward. This very common trait associated with autism is the embodiment of numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 9 and 10 from the list. It is hard to argue these traits and, when shown in the proper light, these traits are endearing.

This article is reformatted from the introduction of SWAY, The Unlikely Connection Between Autism and Influence. 

We think we are the most advanced society in history, but we are wrong. Our view of people with autism is dwarfed, even by the standards of ancient, and often brutal societies. Are we missing the mark when it comes to our view of autism? Find out here.

Just Personality Traits

Most of the items on the list are really just personality traits many of us would love to have more of. We can all play fewer head games or judge others less. At least some of these positive traits describe a personality that is not only attainable, but influential. It is the description of a person that is someone to whom I am likely to listen.

Is the personality describes also common in influencers? Could their list be a little-known set of influential characteristics that inherently reside with those on the autism spectrum? Are those characteristics integral in ethical persuasion or principled influence?

How Pivotal is Personality?

Were these the keys to Basil’s personality that put him in such high regard in the eyes of the serial sadist, Ivan?

And just how pivotal is personality when it comes to persuasion and influence? What mattered more, who Basil was, or what he said and did?

A huge portion of potential influencers spend mountains of time finessing the message, campaign or product.But they spend less time developing the personality of the influencer or messenger. This is a huge mistake. That the message, campaign or product has to be high-quality and good for the audience should be a given. But focusing on small details around the product or message is a mistake if the messenger doesn’t resonate with the audience.

Influence and Medicine

In the incredible book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he unequivocally proved that the personality of the messenger is not only pivotal, but actually has more to do with influence than the messages themselves. I arrived at this conclusion when Gladwell described the real reasons doctors are sued for medical malpractice. And it has much less to do with medical malpractice than we think.

Gladwell writes, “The overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. Patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care  – and something else happens to them.”

Two Groups

He continues,

-Recently the medical researcher Wendy Levinson recorded hundreds of conversations between a group of physicians and their patients. Roughly half of the doctors had never been sued. The other half had been sued at least twice, and Levinson found that just on the basis of those conversations, she could find clear differences between the two groups.

The surgeons who had never been sued spent more than three minutes longer with each patient than those who had been sued did (18.3 minutes versus 15 minutes). They were more likely to make “orienting” comments, such as “First I’ll examine you, and then we will talk the problem over” or “I will leave time for your questions” – which help patients get a sense of what the visit is supposed to accomplish and when they ought to ask questions. Those were the group more likely to engage in active listening, saying things such as “Go on, tell me more about that,” and they were far more likely to laugh and be funny during the visit.”

No Difference in Care

Interestingly, there was no difference in the amount or quality of information they gave their patients; they didn’t provide more details about medication or the patient’s condition. The difference was entirely in how they talked to their patients.-

In a nutshell, the personality of the doctors determined if the patient would sue them for medical malpractice, not the quality of care. Gladwell goes on to explain situations where patients wanted to sue because they felt they were given inadequate care. But when they realized the suit would hurt the people in the office whom they liked, they chose not to continue.

The Influence of Personality

This is the power of personality. It is the engine that drives influence. It is a measuring stick by which most of us gauge the degree of influence we allow someone to have in our lives. We do not accurately evaluate every decision, purchase or vote and come up with rational choices. In the context of influence, the personality of the influencer is what researchers call a heuristic. Heuristics are gauges, or rules of thumb that we have gathered to make processing information easier. Often they are very often wrong.

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Real World Examples

In Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, he explains some of these mistakes in practical, real life, economical examples. He explains that a man who suffers from hay fever mows his own lawn. When asked why he doesn’t hire a kid from the neighborhood to mow the lawn for $10 the man says it isn’t worth it. In other words he would rather save $10 by mowing a lawn and suffering through the hay fever.

So, in logical, analog terms, hay fever is worth $10 to that man. When he is asked if he would mow a lawn roughly the same size for $20 the man says no. But this thinking is irrational. If hay fever is worth $10 to the man then it should definitely be worth $20.

The man is reacting to a heuristic that behavioral analysts call loss aversion. As a rule we over-value what we already have to very inaccurate results. The man with hay fever is valuing the $10 he is saving more than the $20 he would earn mowing the other lawn.

Irrational Heuristics

Loss aversion is an example of an irrational heuristic that influences most people. These heuristics, irrational or not, are usually the guardrails of our decisions. They offer us the ability to make decisions in multiple contexts.

But context can often change the heuristic.

Imagine I approach you in a shopping mall and ask your help with a math question. You agree to help, so I present the following problem. There are two pieces of railroad track, each one is a mile long, laid end to end. The tracks are secured at each end and touch in the middle. The railroad tracks each expand by one inch, into each other lifting the middle in the air. Also imagine they do not flex. Instead they are perfectly rigid, forming a triangle with the ground as the base. Here is the question, how high do the tracks raise?

Two Inches

The average guess is two inches. Each track expands an inch and there are two tracks so two inches. Most people use the information readily available as a heuristic, make a guess and move on.

Now suppose you are in a geometry class. The topic is pythagorean theorem or the measurements of right triangles. Your teacher explains that any triangle with two equal legs can be divided into two right triangles. This is done by drawing a line from the point of the triangle to the center of the hypotenuse. The newly drawn line can be measured by applying the pythagorean theory to each triangle. It works as long as you know the length of the other two legs. Then she explains the same problem a different way. The leg of a right triangle is 5280’ or one mile long. The hypotenuse of the same triangle is 5280’ 1”, one mile and one inch. She hands you a calculator and asks, “what is the length of the other leg?”

The Right Answer is . . .

Now the context is different but the problem is the same. You have the formula and you have a calculator. In just a few seconds you arrive at the right answer, which is 29.6 ft. Notice that the average answer of two inches is way off. The heuristics or rules of thumb we use in the absence of all of the information is often extremely wrong.

The context of the mall scenario is so different than the classroom. Even people who know the pythagorean theory, and have a calculator on the phone often get the answer wrong. Most of us would need to be in the presence of the right context in order to arrive at the right choice. Even if we have access to all of the necessary information. But most of our decisions and choices are made in a context lacking complete information. Which is why the personality of the influencer usually affects the choice of the majority of consumers more than facts or data.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When we cast our vote we don’t usually do it with a full set of information. Typically our logic goes something like this, “I am a gun-owner and he supports the NRA,” or, “I have glaucoma and she supports medical marijuana.” We don’t think in actual terms like, “She supports medical marijuana, unless Congress has been overwhelmingly filled with right-wing candidates on the back of a huge growth of Christianity and she thinks the constituents are moving away from supporting legalized medical marijuana.” That is foolish. We assign people fundamental attributes and assume those attributes span every situation.

Typically we say, “Thomas is kind.” We don’t say, “Thomas is kind, unless he didn’t sleep all night, and the barista is rude and messes up his order.” This is called the fundamental attribution error. It is another heuristic or rule of thumb that we use to make decisions in multiple contexts to make our life easier. It would be impossible to go into every decision armed with all of the information about that situation. So in our day to day dealings with people, we assign fundamental attributions to them. If the messenger attracts poor fundamental attributions, it won’t matter what the message is.

The Truth About Influence

Heuristics, context and fundamental attributions are why the personality of the influencer is so critical.

Book purchases are a perfect example. People do not buy books because of the information in them. If that were true then people would need to read the book before they buy it to find out if the information is worth paying for. People buy books based on their view of the author, or the personality of the friend who recommended it, or the context of their need and the answer promised by the cover. But no one purchases a book because they have read it and evaluated the information first, and then choose to buy it. Hardly any influence is made in that manner. The personality of the messenger, the context of the situation and fundamental attributions almost always hold sway over influence and persuasion.

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The Message or the Messenger?

So when the message, product or candidate is a decent choice, the consumer uses context and the personality of the influencer to make their choices. If we spend our time polishing and honing the product or message, but we get the messenger wrong, it won’t matter. People choose influencers using heuristics, context and fundamental attributions, not spec sheets and charts.

Incredibly, history has proven some of the traits from the list to be pivotal in creating that influential messenger. Our ideas can only spread when they are offered by the right person. That person is someone whose personality of positive fundamental attributions, can build a heuristic of trust and create the context in which influence grows.


In my book SWAY, I dissect a few of the personality traits on the list of positive attributes of people on the autism spectrum. I look back at history and find people who had the opportunity at influence. In each section of the book I explore one person who used a trait from the list to exercise influence, and one person lacking the trait, who was unable to leave their mark.

Understand that when we studied someone with influence, it didn’t necessarily mean these were people who advanced society. In some cases the most influential people used a trait, or the science behind the trait, to influence humanity for the worse.

Six Influential Traits

In the book, I focused on six of the traits which I found to be common in the history of influence. They are:

People with autism are passionate

Those with autism rarely judge others

People on the spectrum play fewer head games

People with autism are not tied to social expectations

Those on the autism spectrum live in the moment

People with autism open new doors for neurotypicals

Some of History’s Examples

I examined the story of a man who had every opportunity to save an immeasurable number of babies and their mothers. His passion and use of it had everything to do with the amount of influence he had. We explored a businessman who acted completely contrary to the world around him, and what effect it had. The book dives deep in the world of psychopaths and determines the degree of their influence and what science tells is so effective and ineffective about their persuasion.

We recount the story of one of the originators of the concept of the atom. What trait on the autism spectrum did he use and how was it received?

9/11 and The Queen of England

We look closely into the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the psychology that led up to the attack and how it could’ve been avoided.

Plus we explore how one person single-handedly caused the fall of a 230+ year old bank that, up to that point, had survived WWI, WWII, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and financed the Louisiana purchase. We explain how that person, exploiting one trait from the autism spectrum, caused the collapse of the bank that held the Queen’s money.

And that isn’t all.

History, Autism and Influence

History is ripe with examples of successful and failed influencers. The personality of the influencers seems to be the common denominator in the amount of persuasion each person had. What’s more, the specific parts of their personality that had the most effect on their influence seem to fit within the six characteristics from the autism spectrum that we examined.

My hope is that SWAY will do four things.

  1. Help you sniff out the charlatans and crooks who try to coerce influence by manipulating one or more of the traits, or the science behind the trait.
  2. Spread the idea that it is more important and effective to develop the messenger, than to manipulate the message.
  3. Help you have more influence for the positive changes you are trying to make.
  4. (Perhaps most important) Shine a different light on those with autism.

Society considers 16th century Russia a brutal and barbaric place. But were they ahead of us when it comes to their view of autism? Did they know something we have forgotten?

Find out here.

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