“So to sum it up, human communication is 45% tonality, 45%body language, and 10% are the actual words….90% of the time we’re communicating without actually speaking.”
– Jordan Belfort, The Way of the Wolf
My true passion is helping the ignorant understand what autism is so that our world can be safer and more inclusive. Sometimes it feels impossible to address all the factors that make life so difficult for autistic people.
But one book in particular stood out to help me in my mission: The Way of the Wolf by Jordan Belfort (the guy played by Leonardo De Caprio in 2013’s award-winning The Wolf of Wall Street).
Belfort breaks down how much language and body language affects how a person is perceived. If you know anything about Belfort; he’s blunt, clear, and often, right in his estimations. He is not just a natural-born salesman; he’s studied neurology, the impact of meditation, and linguistics. In chapter four describes the average person’s perception on a first encounter:
“You have about four seconds until someone rips you apart, judges you, and then puts you back together in the way that they perceive you.”
Because most people have a narrow understanding of what autism is, when an uninformed person sees an autistic person that exists outside of their subconscious expectation, they tend to label the autistic person in question as some variation of “weird.”
In fact, Belfort discusses this in his book, calling the kid at school who talks oddly or moves in an unusual manner as one with “cooties” and how the natural desire is to get away from them. Ironically, he also notes that these kids tend to be exceptional later on because of how they think. But he drops the thought right there, which is a darn shame.
In Belfort’s experience, social success is about the majority’s perception, or that is to say those who are in the position of social power to choose or not choose the person in question. I don’t think he is wrong.
But I’m here because most of us don’t know what we’re looking at when we see autism in real life and so we unwittingly marginalize autistic people.
Most of us don’t know why this is so important unless you are personally connected to an autistic person. But some facts to help you care: 87% of autistic adults are unemployed, they are more than twice as likely to be detained by police, to be sexually assaulted, and to die by suicide.
If you have an autistic child like I do, I would love it if you keep reading on, so we have a shot at reducing these statistics.
I’ve no doubt that every single person wants to help the autistic community thrive. Understanding what we’re looking at when we see an autistic person in the moment is the only way to not make negative split-second mental judgments when we see an autistic person in real life.
While a wide smattering of traits are needed to qualify a person as autistic, and while there are an infinite combination of traits an autistic person can have, there are some commonalities amongst autistic people that are important to know.
Most autistic people have a heightened sensory profile, which means sensations like smell, taste, sound, touch, etc. are usually either experienced at a significantly higher or lower rate than a non-autistic, or allistic person.
In addition, many autistic people exist in space in a noticeably different way than an allistic person. Sometimes their posture is markedly different (e.g. commonly known as “t-rex arms” when a person holds their arms bent at the elbow and close to their sides).
Sometimes you can notice a difference in gait, often appearing “clumsy” or noticeably labored.
Sometimes it’s a pitch of voice that’s a bit too loud, too high, too flat…whatever it is…it’s considered different (and often that means worse).
Sometimes the facial expressions of an autistic person does not match the situation at hand (e.g. not smiling in an exciting situation). This often makes allistic people uncomfortable, sometimes causing them to judge the autistic person as not empathetic or intellectually disabled because of their facial expressions.
I write this out because I want to stop this misunderstanding. Autism does not mean either of those things, but it is a common ignorant stereotype.
Belfort goes on to say that how you hold your body, how you appear, how your face looks are profoundly important for social situations. This is the traumatizing part for autistic people: the way they naturally exist is often considered “wrong”. Even if an autistic person verbally explains themselves when questioned, it’s often considered suspicious or weird. He goes on to remind the reader that this is more important than being able to explain yourself:
“The simple fact is that the right words don’t exist. No combination of words are profound enough and stealthy enough to sneak past the logic center of your prospect’s mind and create an emotional reaction that goes straight to their gut. For it’s there, in your prospect’s gut l, where first impressions get formed in fractions of a second, and they’ll guide them until you prove them wrong. So, if your words won’t do it, where do you turn?”
Belfort’s ability to explain this nuance of socialization pinpoints why autistic people have such traumatic social interactions on a regular basis.
He goes on to explain how tone of voice, the way a person dresses, their appearance and scent, and body body language impact a person:
“The answer is simple: your tone of voice. Specifically, how you say what you say has a profound impact on how it’s perceived. And for that matter, how YOU are perceived. And not just during those first four seconds, but throughout the entire conversation as well. You see after millions of years of evolution, the human ear has become so adept at recognizing tonal shifts that even the slightest one can have a dramatic impact on a word or phrase.”
So how does an autistic person cope? What we end up getting is one of three things:
- Some will want to “help” autistic people, which usually means teaching the autistic person to be less authentically themselves and more “socially acceptable” by trying to train their movements, their voice, everything that can possibly be altered (usually this is under the umbrella of ABA therapy). This puts the autistic person in the position to attempt to memorize and act in a way that people like Belfort say is allowed. The result of this “help” is that some autistic people master this mimicry, which almost always leaves them depleted of their true self.
- Or despite their best efforts, they don’t quite get it right, and people can tell they’re “faking”, leading to judgment and scorn or ridicule. They will keep trying to please others despite their internal compass begging them not to. This often leads to serious burn out, and is likely a key reason autistic people are more likely to suffer from debilitating depression and be sexually assaulted.
- Or the autistic person realizes the way they are isn’t considered acceptable, but they continue to exist as authentic themselves, often gambling that they’ll find someone who will accept them for who they are, realizing they cannot ever win at the game Belfort so meticulously explains.
This post is intended to help autistic people be accepted for who they truly are, without shame or judgment.
So what can you do right now? If you are interacting with a person who perhaps isn’t making “the right” amount of eye contact, or is moving in an unusual way, or their tone of voice “seems off”, consider that they might be autistic instead of judging. Trust that they’re not a suspicious person, even if they’re not acting in a way you expect. Meet them with love and grace. See what happens.
Bonus! Even if the person is not autistic, this manner of interacting still works well! It’s miraculous!
I would love to know how this goes! Send me a note here!
P.S.- I should also point out that while Belfort was exceptionally gifted at sales and making money, he also was indicted for money laundering and securities fraud. He eventually pled guilty to fraud for his pump-and-dump schemes which, according to some estimations, cost his investors upwards of $200 million. For his crimes, he spent a little less than two years in prison.
And why do I share this? Because even though he is a criminal, I can still learn from him. And also, a criminal knows how to get things from his victims. Maybe his perception isn’t completely right and maybe we should question this manner of thinking that negatively impacts so many.