Waterfall falling over the mouth of a cave


Entering flow states – or attention tunnels – is a necessary coping strategy for many of us.

Fergus Murray

People need to feel appreciated and safe, to give themselves to an activity; and they need to feel like they are making progress to keep giving themselves to it. To get into The Zone, you need to know you’re getting somewhere, that you’re in the process of mastering a skill – you need ongoing feedback, whether from another person or another source. There is also something uniquely satisfying about working with other people effectively, towards a shared goal; in my experience there is no substitute when it comes to building a community.

Flow states are the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation, where somebody wants to do something for themselves, for the sake of doing it and doing it well.

Flow allows us to recharge, to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and a kind of respite from the often-baffling demands of the school social environment.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles
Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

When focused like this an Autistic person can enter a ‘flow state‘ which can bring great joy and satisfaction to the person experiencing it.

However it can make switching between tasks and other transitions difficult.


If you imagine that an autistic kid at school is likely to be wrenched out of their attention tunnel multiple times every day, each time leading to disorientation and deep discomfort, you are on your way to understanding why school environments can be so stressful for many autistic students. If you can avoid contributing to that, you may find that you have an easier time with your autistic students: try entering into their attention tunnel when you can, rather than tugging them out of it. Parallel play is one powerful tool for this; start where the child is, show interest in what they’re focused on. If you do need to pull them out of whatever they’re focusing on, it’s best to give them a bit of time.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

If an autistic person is pulled out of monotropic flow too quickly, it causes our sensory systems to disregulate.

This in turn triggers us into emotional dysregulation, and we quickly find ourselves in a state ranging from uncomfortable, to grumpy, to angry, or even triggered into a meltdown or a shutdown.

This reaction is also often classed as challenging behavior when really it is an expression of distress caused by the behavior of those around us.

How you can get things wrong:

  • Not preparing for transition
  • Too many instructions
  • Speaking too quickly
  • Not allowing processing time
  • Using demanding language
  • Using rewards or punishments
  • Poor sensory environments
  • Poor communication environments
  • Making assumptions
  • A lack of insightful and informed staff reflection
An introduction to monotropism – YouTube

Pressure comes in many forms

It can be literal demands, or more subtle things like changing scope or moving deadlines

A ‘pressure budget’ can be useful… having a limit helps us to identify & act when pressure is an issue preventing us from getting into a flowy tunnel.


Interaction badges are a great way to keep us psychologically safe enough from pressure, discomfort, and interruption to enter flow states.

Studio III Atlass – Damian Milton on Monotropism and flow states

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

In My Language

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.

What is ‘flow’?

Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well. Thus, it is not hard to find accounts of autistic detailed listening that seem to describe a flow state:

“When I work on my musical projects, I tend to hear the whole score in my head and piece every instrument loop detail where they fit. It relaxes me and makes me extremely aware of what I’m doing to the point that I lose track of time.”

Autistic listening

flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

“Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake. In reviewing some of the activities that consistently produce flow—such as sports, games, art, and hobbies—it becomes easier to understand what makes people happy.

In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

What Is The Flow?

Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

I think process is something that we shouldn’t try to hack our way out of. Because it’s beautiful.

Free Your Fingers, Free Your Mind: A performative presentation with DiViNCi | Loop

Time flows differently when children work together, the older becoming aspirational peers for younger children, no bells demanding that they stop what they are doing to move in short blocks of time from math to reading to science to history in a repetitive daily cycle. Instead, they work on projects that engage them in experiences across content areas and extend time as they see the need.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

In flow states, time dilates.

Flowing stream in slow motion

Csikszentmihalyi has described eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

These characteristics describe the process needed to experience ‘flow’ in Csikszentmihali’s terms. Being in a state of ‘flow’ is thought to deepen learning or at the very least make learning more enjoyable.

The Meaning of ‘Flow’ in Education – Jenny Connected