Monotropism provides a far more comprehensive explanation for autistic cognition than any of its competitors, so it has been good to see it finally starting to get more recognition among psychologists (as in Sue Fletcher-Watson’s keynote talk at the 2018 Autistica conference). In a nutshell, monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist
Monotropism: Attention and Interest
Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings: Educational Review: Vol 73, No 1
Autistic children and adults are often described as ‘obsessive’ or as having ‘narrow’, ‘restricted’ or ‘circumscribed’ interests. And when this trait is associated with being ‘fixated’ or very repetitive, it’s generally considered to be highly undesirable, and some behaviour interventions actively set out to diminish or even ‘extinguish’ these ‘fixations’.
In fact, autistic academics such as Dr Wenn Lawson and Dr Dinah Murray have been writing and speaking about this for over two decades, with Dr Damian Milton, Fergus Murray and others also making important contributions over recent years. Framed by these writers as ‘monotropism’ – a tendency to focus on certain issues or activities in depth to the exclusion of other inputs – this fundamental autistic trait is presented much more positively here, although, importantly, the drawbacks are not ignored.Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion?
So how do autistic children learn? Well, a key concept, promoted mainly by autistic scholars, is ‘monotropism’, which is described as a tendency to focus on a single issue or activity, in depth, to the exclusion of all others (Lawson 2011; Murray, Lesser and Lawson 2005). A person who is monotropic in their thinking style might have a relatively small number of areas of interest, but they are experienced in a very deep and compelling way (Milton 2012b). Indeed, although monotropism can result in a difficulty in shifting attention from the area to interest to another (Murray et al. 2005), it appears to be a more positive way of describing autistic cognition, setting aside pejorative terms such as ‘fixated’ or ‘obsessive’, for example (Wood 2019). This cognitive disposition can be compared with ‘polytropism’, which denotes a tendency to attend to a number of activities or issues (sometimes called ‘multi-tasking’), but these are inevitably explored in less depth and with little sense of urgent preoccupation (Murray 2014).
Many school staff, and some of the parents, felt that autistic people are inherently ‘obsessive’ or set in their ways, showing that when a monotropic thinking style collides with an inflexible education system (Glashan et al. 2004), difficulties arise. And so, if an autistic child has strong interests in certain areas, and these don’t fit in with the school curriculum, it will be very hard work for school staff to try to persuade them to focus on something else, as well as potentially distressing for the children if they are simply unable to shift their attention.
However, some have argued that a monotropic thinking style should not only be accommodated, but also embraced and even celebrated. Lawson (2011, p.41), for example, posited that autism should be thought of ‘as a cognitive difference or style’, and presented the theory of Single Attention and Associated Cognition in Autism (SAACA). Lawson (2011) argues that autistic cognition simply operates differently from non-autistic intelligence, and that current educational systems fail to accommodate this difference. In addition, this intense concentration has been associated with a deep sense of well-being, or ‘flow states’ (McDonnell and Milton 2014; Wood and Milton 2018). So, given that specialising is currently only considered desirable at the later stages of education, let us now consider how we can harness the monotropic thinking style of autistic children in our school system in order to facilitate their inclusion.
However, one of the most striking findings from my study was the extent to which enabling autistic children to incorporate their interests (sometimes called ‘special interests’ or ‘restricted interests’) into their learning not only addresses the core issue of concentration and motivation, but also means that school staff don’t need to keep prompting them to stay on task. Indeed, being able to focus deeply on their areas of interest appeared to provide a range of positive functions for the autistic children, including helping them to cope with the stress of school, improved communication, better access to the curriculum and tests, greater independence, more socialisation and overall enjoyment of school. Therefore, I found that actively embracing the monotropic thinking style of autistic children often helps, rather than hinders, school staff and the autistic pupils.Inclusive Education for Autistic Children (pp. 96-99)
The biggest practical thing to take away from this is the importance of meeting the child, or adult, where they are. This is not an insight unique to the monotropism perspective, but nothing else I’ve seen demonstrates with such clarity why it’s so crucial. Treat interests as something to work with. Recognise what someone’s passionate about and learn how to become part of the attention tunnels which come with monotropic focus, rather than trying to just reach in and pull the person out of the flow states that are so important to us. Never pathologise ‘special interests’, and don’t assume that autistic interests are ‘restricted’ – there are plenty of ways to get us interested in new things, it’s just that they mostly involve taking existing interests and building on them.Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist
I believe being polytropic gives people opportunities of many sorts which are not accessible to people who are monotropic. Developmentally typical children are flexibly able to recognise and exploit opportunities that may pass monotropic children by. Among those missed opportunities are chances to contribute to a common interest, which is at the heart of inclusion (Bailey 1998). While polytropic children will swiftly find out how comfortably to cohabit in shared opportunity space, it may take a monotropic child far longer even to identify distinct cohabitants – let alone figure out how to fit in with them (D.K.C. Murray, personal communication, 21 April 2006).The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn
In Monotropism theory it is proposed that there exists a limited amount of attention available to anyone at any given time that may either be broadly distributed over many interests or concentrated on a few interests, and that differences, in the spread of attention available to individuals, follow a normal distribution pattern across the entire human population (Murray et al., 2005). Seen in this way ‘Monotropism is not a model of autism as such…[but]…a theory about human beings, in which autism has a natural role’ (Lesser, cited in Burne, 2005). Thus, according to Monotropism theory, the difference, between autistic and non-autistic, is in the strategies employed in the distribution of scarce attention, i.e. ‘it is the difference between having few interests highly aroused, the monotropic tendency [autistic], and having many interests less highly aroused, the polytropic tendency [non-autistic]’ (Murray et al., 2005, p.140). Monotropism theory therefore meets the ‘unique’ to autism criteria for ‘good’ theory proposed by Rajendran and Mitchell (2007, p.224).
Unlike many theories, which appear (to me) to offer no practical real-life benefit to the autistic community, Monotropism theory is used to propose a heuristic guide to facilitate positive engagement with autistic individuals (ibid, p.153). In addition, distinct from all other cognitive theories, Monotropism theory places value on the input of autistic voices (Milton, 2012). The original article, (Murray et al., 2005), is rich with descriptive accounts of autistic experiences, for which theoretical explanations, of the cognitive mechanisms at work, are proposed.
The authors demonstrate how Monotropism theory provides potential explanation for all aspects of the diagnostic criteria (DSM-5, 2013), and offers an alternative, difference in autistic processing, account for the cognitive difficulties previously hypothesised to be affected by deficits in theory of mind (empathy), executive functioning and central coherence (Milton, 2011; 2012). These earlier theories made assumptions based upon interpretations of observed behavioural traits (ibid) with no reference to how it ‘is’ to be autistic ‘from the inside according to how it is experienced’ (Williams, 1996, p.14).
Monotropism is the first theory of autism to attempt to draw on subjective autistic experience (Milton, 2012). Furthermore, whilst ‘[n]one of the three dominant cognitive theories of autism seek to explain the sensory aspects of autism’ (Chown, 2017, p. 235), also absent from E-S theory, Monotropism theory provides credible explanation for the sensory hyper- and hypo-sensitivities described by autistic authors (e.g. Blackburn, 2000; Grandin, 2006; Lawson, 2014), documented by Bogdashina (2016), and included in the revised diagnostic criteria (DSM-5, 2013). Thus Monotropism theory also potentially meets the ‘specificity’ and ‘universality’ criteria for ‘good’ autism theory (Rajendran and Mitchell, 2007, p.224), as well as that of ‘uniqueness’.
In my opinion, including an explanation of the sensory differences experienced by autistic individuals is essential if the non-autistic population are going to be enabled to achieve a comprehensive understanding of autism and be better able to identify and offer appropriate forms of support. This view is supported by Chown and Beardon (2017) who suggest that ‘good’ autism theory must ‘be capable of explaining the cognitive and sensory differences’ (p.7). In Monotropism theory, it is suggested that, with monotropic hyper-focus comes a general lack of awareness of one’s environment and thus a hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli outside the attention tunnel, because large areas of potential information are not registered (Murray et al., 2005). This, coupled with a lack of preparedness for interruption, results in hyper-sensitivity to unexpected sensory stimuli. As an autistic individual who experiences both hyper and hypo-sensitivity to noise, particularly when task- focused, this explanation seems highly plausible to me.Understanding how autistic pupils experience secondary school: autism criteria, theory and FAMe
We’re back to monotropism again, because attention is not only about being in cognitive love; attention can be focused on anything. It’s whatever you are doing in a particular moment that engages you. When you are monotropic you lock onto that thing. Your senses are engaged with that thing. You must build up energy to get into it and once you are there you enter what is called a ‘flow state’, where everything in your body is flowing towards the task in hand (McDonnell and Milton 2014). So, any deviation, any pull away from that flow, is difficult to deal with.
I needed forward-planning, clear and direct communication, consistency, more autonomy and trust that I knew what I was doing. But most importantly I needed to be validated and seen for who I was: to be seen through a lens of strengths.Learning From Autistic Teachers (p. 65)
The term monotropic describes single attention and single channels for accessing and processing information (mono: single; tropism: direction/channel). NT developing individuals, although able to be single-minded at times, can respond to another interest or situation and shift their attention whether interested or not. This means they can use polytropic attention, which necessitates dividing their attention between a number of differing concerns simultaneously (poly: many) and accommodating many channels of information at any one time. Polytropism in typical individuals is argued to be their default learning style. This concept will be explored in more detail in this chapter.
I know that for many of us, shifting attention from an aspect of interest to one that we are not interested or invested in is very difficult. However, in AS this is often the reason we prefer sameness and routine, and why we may even appear to have one sense that dominates another. I suggest we use single attention connecting with and processing information one step at a time, which is the monotropic disposition, as our default setting. Therefore, attention and the interest system will work hand in hand to create an attention, interest, sensory-motor loop leading to a cognitive style.
Monotropism, or having the ability to home in on one aspect of communication or on one interest at one time, can happen to NT and AS individuals. However, rigid monotropism often occurs in an AS individual’s world, and we are said to have ‘tunnel vision’ (Attwood 2007) or, as parents often say, ‘my child seems only to be interested in his or her interests’. Monotropism will mean, for most of us, difficulties coping with change because we are single-minded. For many, this is demonstrated in our difficulties with change in routine, expectation, instruction, daily schedule, movement of attention or incorporating another set of demands into the present scenario. For example, coping with change can involve listening and then being required to participate in decision making without due time to process information; thus, being forced to move from one channel to another (Kluth and Chandler-Olcott 2008).
For many of us the discomfort at encountering change is one consequence of being attention-tunnelled or monotropic (e.g. Bogdashina 2006; Greenaway and Plaisted 2005; Murray et al. 2005).
SAACA suggests that most AS individuals are monotropic and that the monotropic disposition informs AS cognition and subsequent learning styles. This implies only being able to focus on one thing at one time, as long as it’s within our interest system. The implication of having a monotropic disposition is that generalising one’s experience and understanding is difficult. This could also have an impact upon the understanding of time because time might not be noted as a concept but rather only as a hindrance to being able to stay focused upon the thing that is holding our attention.
This is why the ideas associated with traditional theories of AS are being questioned in this book and the newly developed theory of AS concerning the concepts associated with the use of single attention and associated cognition in autism (SAACA) are suggested. SAACA is argued to be responsible for the pattern of characteristics seen in AS and experienced by us as the AS population. SAACA, which was developed from the idea of monotropism, explains the autistic learning style unlike any other. Current traditional theories of AS have too many gaps and fail to accommodate the clinical picture seen in AS. Within this new approach a particular learning style is said to be responsible for the current criteria for an AS assessment and the AS individual’s experience.
SAACA suggests the autism spectrum should be considered not as a terrible tragedy that needs to be cured or redeemed, but as an important learning style. As we will see in later chapters SAACA provides ways to accommodate, work with and develop an individual’s fullest potential.
Without interest, Dewey stated, attention and connections to learning not only are less available, but individuals lack the needed perceptions to stay motivated, and their needs, as well as their relationships and values, cannot develop to their fullest potential.
The most important discovery I have made is that attention and its partner, interest, operate differently according to the type of brain one has. By ‘type’ of brain I mean whether you are AS or NT. Murray’s work on monotropism (tightly focused interest) and polytropism (diffused interests) (Murray 1986, 1992, 1995, 1996) is foundational to this thinking.
Whilst if you are monotropic and autistically developing, such as I am, you will be good at either thinking, or feeling, or noticing, but in serial fashion, one at a time. I can multi-task, but only if I have available attention, am interested and have energy resources within my interest tunnel. This suggests that attention and interest are partnered differently according to whether you are NT or not.
Entering flow states – or attention tunnels – is a necessary coping strategy for many of us.
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
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.Monotropism
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
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
SpIns and Infodumps
I don’t know who invented the phrase “special interest.” Probably some researcher. Autistic people don’t really love the term because the term “special” has become tied so closely with terms like “special needs,” which we resent.
Nevertheless, somewhere down the line “special interest,” commonly shortened to SpIn (“spin”), became the term for the characteristically-autistic tendency to develop an obsession with something specific and often obscure.
Some special interests are short lived, and some last the lifetime of the person; but, however long they last, they are intense, delightful, and a vital part of autistic culture.
So integral are special interests to autistic culture that autistic people will post about feeling depressed and unmotivated because they don’t have an active SpIn at the moment.
Having a special interest is like having a crush or being newly in love. It is consuming and delightful. We love to share our special interests and a common example of autistic empathy is encouraging others to talk in great detail- “infodump”- about their SpIns.
It is considered a sign of caring and friendship to encourage someone to talk to you about their SpIn- whether or not you actually share their interest- because nothing makes an autistic person happier than discussing, learning about, or sharing about, their SpIn.
It is also quite acceptable in autistic culture to “infodump” on a topic whenever it happens to come up. To autists (an insider short-hand for autistic people), the sharing of knowledge and information is always welcome.7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture » NeuroClastic
One almost universal trait of autism is what is known as the ‘special interest’ or ‘hyperfixation’, as I prefer to call it. When in the process of diagnosis, autistic people might be asked about topics, hobbies or interests that are particularly important to them, that are a refuge when feelings of stress are high, or all-consuming. As far as the autistic community is concerned, I believe that having hyperfixations is entirely normal and healthy, and many autistic people celebrate their interests and take pleasure in the fact they have these hobbies that mean so much to them, proud of the knowledge and understanding they have of these varied topics. These hyperfixations can be on any subject imaginable; the stereotype, of course, is trains and locomotives, with Pokémon and video games generally bringing up the rear. However, this is mostly a relic of the extremely male-centric world of autism research and discussion that dates back to the twentieth century, and is not very useful now, when we are increasingly aware of the huge diversity within the autistic community.
The reality is that if it exists, you can reasonably assume there will be an autistic person to whom that thing is the subject of intense obsession and time spent, from blankets to drain covers (both of these are special interests of people in my acquaintance) and pretty much anything in between. When engaging in a special interest, autistic people are typically calmer, more relaxed, happier and more focused than they would otherwise be – for many, it is a form of release or even self-medication: a well-timed foray into a special interest can stave off meltdown and be a generally extremely positive force in an autistic person’s life.
But one thing is particularly important to my purposes here: our hyperfixations adore company, and if an autistic person is given the opportunity to share their passion for the subject with friends, relatives or complete strangers, then you can expect high levels of enthusiasm, enormous amounts of data and information to be delivered, and impressive levels of knowledge. In short, if you want to be taught something, you can do a lot worse than be taught about it by an autistic person for whom it is one of their special interests. I have been taught about various subjects by openly autistic people and the experience has invariably been truly fantastic, and my understanding of the topic afterwards deep and thorough.Learning From Autistic Teachers (pp. 30-31)
Autistic people created the concept of fandom. In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman describes how Autistic nerds in the early 1900s traveled across the country by car, on foot, and even by hopping trains in order to meet people who shared their niche interests.
Autistic people are also a foundational part of most fandoms and conventions centered around shared hobbies—we devote a lot of energy to finding and creating spaces where we can interact with people who share our interests, and within nerdy fandom spaces, social norms tend to be more forgiving and relaxed. It turns out that special interests aid us in becoming more outgoing, well-rounded individuals.
This frequently plays out in fandoms and nerdy communities, where neurodiverse people with mutual special interests find one another, socialize, and sometimes begin to unmask.Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity (p. 153, 218)
Listening to the monotropic people in your life infodump about their SpIns is a love language.
Is there something you’re not telling me You’re not telling me what floats your boat It can be anything you want it to be Only you can decide what floats your boat Let me tell you what floats my boat It’s writing songs that change the world Maybe just a little bit I said just a little bit Can you please tell me what floats your boat That’s all I want to know Is there something you’re not telling me It’s up to you Maybe I can help you float your boat We’ll write a song to sing along And let it float away let it float away Anything can float your boat That’s all I want you to tell me So everyone can see --Floats Boat by Josephmooon
Stimpunk Ronan is lyricist for Josephmooon, a distributed, multi-age, neurodiverse band. Floats Boat is about special interests and inviting others to infodump.
Embrace the “Obsession”
Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.” “In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.” “…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.” “[E]nabling autistic children to engage with their strong interests has been found to be predominantly advantageous, rather than deleterious, in school environments.” “Furthermore, longer-term benefits have been associated with the pursuit of intense interests, with relatively few negative effects overall, which in themselves might only occur if autistic people are pressured to reduce or adapt their interests.” “Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.” “Though they come with challenges, enthusiasms often represent the greatest potential for people with autism. What begins as a strong interest or passion can become a way to connect with others with similar interests, a lifelong hobby, or, in many cases, a career.“We’re Autistic. Here’s what we’d like you to know.