The thing that I think is interesting about this vile, vile man [Australian cult leader Ken Dyers] is that people described him with terms like "charismatic" etc, and obviously many people must have felt some form of attraction towards this man, who was apparently a paedophile many times over. So why did this guy leave me feeling as cold as a dead fish? Why do I feel that there is no way in the world that I would ever have viewed this man as anything but a self-serving arsehole? According to the results of various tests and questionnaires I have the psychology of a person who has Asperger syndrome. That is supposed to mean that I am socially blind; organically unable to tell a con artiste from a true friend. I'm supposed to have no sense at all when it comes to people. I'm supposed to be unable to understand the good and bad intentions of others. Then why did I find this man, and all of the many people of his type, to be basically yuckity-yuk-yuk? When I meet people like this I just can't get away from them fast enough, because I know, and I'm sure they know just as well, that we are just wasting each other's time, as we can get nothing that we need or desire from each other.Catana pointed out in the comments, and I agree, that cult leaders target potential victims specifically, and "work" particular emotional angles --- we, the outside observers, do not see the same side of those people that their acolytes do. It's therefore misleading to compare our impressions of cult leaders from the glimpses we get on TV with their followers' experiences with them; they're putting on an act for the faithful that they don't bother to put on for the rest of us.
Am I just kidding myself that I'm so smart? Well, I've never been a member of any group that is anything like a cult. I've been an atheist since late in my religious childhood. But according to all the theories about AS and autism I'm supposed to be ripe for exploitation and as naive as a young child. Perhaps that is true of some autistic people, I don't know. According to the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, men are supposed to have less "social skills" than women, with autists possessing even less social sense than "normal" average males. Then I wonder how Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the champion of this theory, would explain why it appeared that females greatly outnumbered males as members of this truly harmful and exploitative Australian cult? Shouldn't these very feminine-looking women with supposedly superior "mind-reading" abilities have had the inborn people-skills to read what was on this dirty old bastard's mind?
It wasn't cults that Lili's post inspired me to think about, though; it was broader, society-wide patterns of socialization. Social norms, it seems to me, propagate themselves by suggestion: people see other people acting a certain way and learn to act that way themselves, and to think it perfectly natural to act that way, and feel surprised and somewhat repulsed when they see a person doing otherwise. The more insular the group, often, the more outlandish the beliefs and behaviors that emerge (this is where cults and episodes of mass hysteria/mass delusion fit in --- these are not, in my view, exotic psychological phenomena but exaggerated instances of normal acculturation).
Autistic people are well-known for their resistance to socialization: we don't fit in (often, don't even try to fit in) as children; we don't fit gender roles; we don't follow the usual scripts for social encounters. Is this because we're not suggestible? Do ideas coming from other people not penetrate our minds and take hold subconsciously the way they do in most people? Or is it something else, perhaps our failure to imitate others?
Googling "autism and suggestibility" brought me two studies from 2007, both testing the susceptibility of autistic children to suggestion of false memories. The first study had 24 Aspie schoolchildren and 27 age-, sex- and IQ-matched NT children watch a scene involving two actors pretending to be visiting artists coming to photograph the children, then try to remember specific details about what had happened the next day. Their recall was tested several ways: first, by a "free recall," where the interviewer just sat there and let the children tell everything they remembered; next, the interviewer asked questions to jog their memories (both general questions like "What were [the visitors] wearing?" and specific ones like "When the woman had trouble with the [camera] tripod, what did she say?"); and, finally, the interviewers asked leading questions based on false assumptions (like, "What color was the man's scarf?" when he wasn't wearing a scarf) after briefing the children that it was OK to say they didn't know or to correct the interviewer if he or she got something wrong.
Where that study tested suggestibility in eyewitness memory, the second looked at autobiographical memory. This study had 30 children on the autism spectrum and 38 age-matched NT children split into two groups (a younger group with an average age of around 7, and an older group with an average age of 9) answer questions about events they experienced, first about events in their lives prior to participating in the experiment and then about an event (a magic show) put on by the researchers. An interviewer asked them, first, to tell her everything they remembered about the magic show, and then began to ask specific, leading questions, half of which contained false assumptions.
Both studies found that the autistic children were just as suggestible as their NT peers; their memories of events, whether merely witnessed or actually experienced directly, were equally likely to be influenced by leading questions. So it's not suggestibility per se that underlies the obliviousness to social cues that characterizes autism.
Given identical levels of suggestibility in autistics and NTs, I'm going to have to modify my theory a bit: it's not that we're resistant to suggestion in general, it's that we don't perceive as many things as suggestions as NTs do. Both of the above experiments featured very clear-cut scenarios: the interviewers were asking questions about actual events, and the wording of some of the questions introduced misleading details. This is a much more explicit interaction than many of those that constitute the ongoing process of becoming a fully socialized member of one's own culture. In those, the suggestions are often entirely unspoken urges to imitate certain people (and avoid certain others). There was a bit of confirming evidence for this hypothesis in the eyewitness-memory study: one of the elements in the short scene the actors pretending to be photographers performed was something the researchers termed a "socially salient sub-scene": the actors would be trying to use a tape measure, and the man would pretend to hurt his hand and get angry, and the woman would apologize, and ultimately they would abandon their tape-measuring project altogether, such was the anxiety it caused their characters. Now, when the children were asked to describe whatever came into their heads about the scene the next day, the NT children focused more on this sub-scene than on the "neutral" sub-scene, and in this preference they differed markedly from the AS children. The NTs' attention was drawn selectively to the social and emotional content of this scene, while to the AS children it was just another set of events.
I think this lack of selective attention to the social significance of events goes a long way toward explaining our relative resistance to socialization. It is not a complete resistance, as I've argued before with respect to gender, but it's enough to distinguish us.
By way of analogy, it might be interesting to compare how much the average autistic person remembers from school (or from recreational research!) with how much the average NT remembers. I find that I have retained a whole lot of knowledge from high school, while to a lot of people my age it's just a blur. If they remember high school, they're more likely to remember what their lives were like, who their friends and crushes were, and what they did on the weekends than what they learned in class. For me, it tends to be the other way around. I told my mom, when she marveled at how much I could recall, that it was only because I perceived so much less in high school that I remembered so many details: with fewer streams of data going in, you can devote more energy to retaining each one than if you were trying to attend to zillions of different channels at once, as most NTs do.