Monotropism, Learning and Flow State

Reframing Autism - Monotropism and Learning

Monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time, leaving fewer resources for other processes.

Early researchers of Autism, including Leo Kanner in 1943, have observed that many Autistic individuals exhibit a narrowed and emotionally charged focus. This particular characteristic continues to be recognised as a significant diagnostic criterion for Autism. It is described as “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.”

In 2005, Autistic researcher Dinah Murray introduced the concept of monotropism, which has since been acknowledged by scientists as a means to elucidate the disparities in knowledge and cognitive processing between Autistics and neurotypicals. Murray identified monotropism as a distinct approach to attention that is preferred by Autistics, highlighting the fluctuation in attention intensity based on individual interests and motivation levels.

Many of us may have encountered this situation before, yet struggled to articulate it. In layman’s terms, we interpret this occurrence as the focused, heightened concentration we dedicate to particular interests, while disregarding all other stimuli in our surroundings.

The majority of our understanding of monotropism, particularly in relation to the unique interests of Autistic individuals, has been derived from the observations and experiences of Autistic children and their families. Consequently, certain terms used in monotropism research, such as ‘unusual’ or ‘special’, may reflect biases held by neurotypical individuals towards neurodivergent children and their ways of engaging with their interests.

However, it is important to note that monotropism is not limited to childhood and continues to manifest in Autistic individuals well into adulthood, offering certain benefits to our daily functioning.

The ‘interests’ model of monotropism presents a fresh perspective on how we approach and interact with our interests, which differs from previous findings in Autism research. This model effectively emphasises the advantages that can arise from having a few focused interests.

The concept of monotropism plays a crucial role in reshaping the perception of Autistic characteristics that were once labelled as ‘limited, narrow, fixated, and repetitive interests’ requiring intervention from educators and therapists. Monotropism is an integral aspect of the Autistic identity, and the states of monotropic flow hold immense potential for expanding knowledge, acquiring new abilities, and fostering creativity. By embracing monotropism, one acknowledges and appreciates the value of neurodiversity.

The interest model of Autism

Attention can be likened to a dark tunnel, with our focus acting as the beam of light illuminating the path.

Neurotypicals (non-Autistic people) possess a broad attention span, allowing their focus to be dispersed and encompass a wider range. Consequently, this enables them to absorb a greater amount of visual information from various regions within their attention span. As a result, they have the ability to hold multiple interests in their mind simultaneously, a phenomenon referred to as polytropism.

Due to the abundance of information occupying their attention, neurotypicals exhibit less concern for acquiring intricate details about a specific subject and are less emotionally invested in these interests compared to Autistic people. Moreover, they possess the capability to transition between different interests during a conversation, drawing from numerous sources of long-term and working memory.

On the other hand, for Autistic people, this attention tunnel is often significantly more narrow, shining brightly on a specific point while leaving everything else in the dark.

This intense focus on one interest can make it challenging to shift attention when needed, leading to difficulties in switching between different interests. It can be challenging for Autistic individuals to shift their focus between different topics during conversations. For example, an Autistic monotropic thinker may find it difficult to transition from discussing a niche topic (such as how an engine works) to a more surface-level topic (such as cars) with others. This struggle to switch attention between interests can sometimes lead to feeling left out or unable to actively engage in the conversation.

Lacking the knowledge of how to respond appropriately can induce stress, thus often prompting Autistic folk to seek an exit from the conversation. Due to a strong focus on their own interests, some Autistic people may struggle to divert their attention towards others involved in the discussion.

This can bring unwanted social difficulties, as others may grow irritated or even shame Autistic people for not giving them sufficient attention. They might perceive an Autistic person’s lack of interest in their thoughts as a sign of selfishness, associating it with our Autistic nature.

Monotropism may present difficulties in situations that demand quick changes in attention, but it can also be advantageous. As many Autistic people have a strong focus, this can enable efficiently tackling intricate tasks. However, it also entails a significant amount of effort to sustain. In this state of heightened focus, it becomes arduous to pay attention to anything other than the current task, such as engaging in conversations with others or even remembering to have meals.

Once the task is completed, Autistic individuals often feel drained and require some time to recuperate. This is a common struggle for Autistic individuals within the framework of monotropism, as finding the right balance between involvement and disengagement with special interests can be challenging.

It’s important to note that the struggle to switch attention is not a personal failing, but rather because attention is a limited resource (and as such, Autistic folk are often intentional about how energy for attention is used).

Flow state, “monotrophic split” and Autistic burnout

Flow state is a term used to describe the experience of complete absorption in the present moment, and there is evidence that supports the idea that repetitive activities can achieve a flow state which also supports well being. For many Autistic monotropic people, their ‘special’ or ‘strong’ interests create flow states; this may be due to their interests being a source of safety, reliability, and predictability, which are all key factors to consider when reducing anxiety.

Instead of learning being an effort, if you are in a flow state, it may feel like a joyful, fluid, meaningful, rejuvenating experience.

It can be exhausting for an individual with a monotropic nature to attempt to split their focus among various channels. This may lead to fluctuations in their monotropic flow, causing it to slow down, become ‘stuck,’ or prompt individuals to seek alternative methods of self-regulation. This could contribute to feelings of anxiety and a sense of impending dread.

Some individuals may encounter a phenomenon known as a ‘monotropic split.’ The constant need to allocate attention to various tasks throughout the day, without sufficient time for rest and recuperation, proves to be unsustainable for numerous Autistic people. This can potentially trigger meltdowns or shutdowns, significantly affecting their ability to learn and their overall mental well-being, ultimately leading to autistic burnout.

Read more:
All about Autistic Meltdowns: A Guide For Allies

Monotropic learners may encounter greater difficulty in concentrating on a topic that lacks intrinsic motivation for them. Utilising fidget tools, engaging in doodling, and incorporating movement can all contribute to sustaining a state of flow, potentially aiding Autistic individuals in better regulation and coping. This approach has the potential to enhance concentration, improve learning outcomes, and transform the learning experience into a more pleasurable and less stressful endeavour.

It is important to note that monotropism is a dynamic concept, as what proves effective for one individual may not necessarily yield the same results for another. Additionally, the specific needs of individuals may fluctuate depending on various social, physical, and sensory factors.

Monotropism and AuDHD

Autistics face similar challenges in attention and task demands as individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both Autistics and individuals with ADHD may struggle with focusing on tasks that do not capture their interest or provide a sense of reward.

People with ADHD may also find it difficult to balance when to engage or disengage with an interest. As such, the monotropism model can be helpful to ADHDers or those with both Autism and ADHD (AuDHDers) in explaining how their experiences with executive function challenges may overlap.

Executive dysfunction and Autistic inertia

Executive dysfunction presents challenges in the brain’s high-order mental processes, impacting planning, organising, and task completion. This difficulty is commonly seen in neurodivergent individuals like those with ADHD, Autism, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. However, within the Autistic community, the term “autistic inertia” better captures the experience.

Autistic inertia goes beyond executive dysfunction, involving struggles in changing cognitive patterns, making tasks like starting, stopping, or shifting focus seem insurmountable. Monotropic minds find it challenging to redirect attention, making it difficult to engage in tasks unrelated to their current interest.

Tying back to monotropism, Autistic individuals may exhibit executive dysfunction behaviours due to a lack of motivation or interest in the task at hand, rather than a lack of ability. In essence, it’s not a matter of capability but rather a case of inertia.

Influences of monotropic attention

In the ‘interests’ framework, the utilisation of attention by Autistic individuals is influenced by two main components: affect and motivation.

Affect, which can vary from positive to negative, indicates the level of enjoyment someone experiences from their interest.

On the other hand, motivation determines the level of ease or difficulty in sustaining attention towards their interest. Being passionate about interests leads to higher engagement, requiring less effort to stay focused. Conversely, lack of interest or negative emotions can make it challenging to concentrate, resulting in missing out on other information in the environment.

For my non-Autistic folk, it may be easy to talk about their various interests simultaneously. However, an Autistic, monotropic thinker might find it difficult (or even painful) to pay attention to what others are saying. This could be because they are:

  1. Not very interested in what others were talking about (affect); and
  2. Concerned or preoccupied about their behaviours would be perceived by others (motivation).

As a result, an Autistic person might become distressed and need to remove themselves from the group or conversation setting. Here, their lack of affect about the topic at hand, combined with their motivation to mask their behaviours in a group setting, may prevent an Autistic person from paying enough attention to the conversation to respond.

Instead, they may have to engage in coping behaviours for some comfort. This might look like paying less and less attention to conversation until able to physically leave, or engaging in stimming or other repetitive behaviours that provide comfort.

Read more:
All about Autistic Shutdowns: A Guide For Allies

In monotropism, motivation and affect can impact an Autistic person’s engagement in work and/or school environments. For instance, a research study focusing on young Autistic students in educational settings revealed that numerous children struggle to focus on repetitive learning activities. This difficulty may stem from a lack of enjoyment, leading to frustration and the perception that the task is tedious or time-consuming.

Consequently, they may shift their focus towards more pleasurable pursuits, such as reciting lines from their favourite movies.

Monotropic adults in work settings may find it challenging to focus on tasks in a noisy or hectic environment. While being engrossed in interests allows an Autistic person to block out external noises and work more efficiently than neurotypicals, feeling fatigued or working on unfulfilling tasks can easily disrupt concentration. Even the slightest noise, like a door opening, can divert attention and cause frustration. Setting boundaries on the amount of time and effort that an Autistic person may dedicate to a task can help prevent burnout and minimise distractions.

Monotropism and learning

Monotropic individuals possess distinct sensory, social, and communication requirements in contrast to polytropic individuals as a result of their utilization of attention resources. Beardon (2017) emphasizes the significance of the environment in relation to Autistic individuals through his renowned equation ‘Autism + Environment = Outcome.’

Fergus Murray of the Scottish Autism Research group highlights the importance of the environment:

“In the right environment, Autistic people might enter this (flow) state of intense absorption many times on any given day – but few schools and workplaces are designed to accommodate that! It is also something that many parents fail to understand, so Autistic people are often wrenched out of their attention tunnels constantly – an experience that can be intensely unpleasant and disruptive, taking the place of something that could be relaxing and restorative.”

Monotropism does bring some benefits that can aid Autistic individuals in learning.

Creativity: Autistic individuals who exhibit monotropism often possess exceptional creative abilities, leveraging their intense concentration to produce original and groundbreaking artwork, music, or literature. This artistic flair is a clear manifestation of their monotropic cognitive approach, enabling them to think outside the box, perceive the world through a unique lens, and establish connections that may elude others.

A unique perspective: Monotropism can provide a unique perspective on the world, as it allows people to deeply immerse themselves in a particular topic or activity. This deep focus can lead to an understanding and knowledge of the subject, as well as unique insights and connections.

Problem solving: Monotropism can also prove advantageous in the realm of problem-solving. Autistic individuals, both children and adults, who exhibit monotropic tendencies may tackle problems in a distinctive manner. By harnessing their unwavering concentration and profound knowledge in a specific subject, they are able to uncover solutions that may have been otherwise obscure or left of field.

Monotropism and social learning

It can be challenging to navigate certain social situations when thinking monotropically, and this impacts the way that many Autistic people learn socially. This is because processing information that falls outside of an Autistic person’s current interests, such as social cues that are crucial for neurotypical communication, can be quite difficult while engaging in conversation.

When Autistic folk interact socially, we are often bombarded with a vast amount of information in a short span of time. Both verbal and nonverbal cues must be deciphered while formulating responses that are easily comprehensible to neurotypicals. Consequently, Autistic individuals may unintentionally overlook details that are essential for understanding the surroundings.

An example of a social cue that might be missed due to monotropism is small changes in body language. For example, if someone is telling a story where they roll their eyes, and people laugh, an Autistic monotropic thinker may assume that the rolling eyes behaviour was essential to the joke. But if the gesture of rolling eyes was missed, the meaning behind why people are laughing may become unclear.

Difficulty understanding the conversation and providing an appropriate response can cause distress for Autistic people.

This is due to the potential for feeling disconnected or misunderstood when innate reactions do not align with neurotypical expectations, especially if the Autistic person is trying to mask their behaviours to better “fit in” or belong. As a result, this stress may lead to coping mechanisms like withdrawing or disengaging from the interaction, leading to increased feelings of isolation.

Despite the challenges posed by cognitive processes, the responsibility of social communication should not solely rest on the shoulders of Autistic folk. Labelling cognitive differences as an “impairment” for Autistic individuals unfairly shifts the burden of social interaction onto neurodivergent individuals, rather than a shared load.

This perspective perpetuates the ableist notion that neurotypical communication styles are the norm and should dictate what is considered acceptable.

It is unjust to expect Autistics and other neurodivergent individuals to conform to standards that may not align with what is natural and beneficial for them in order to fit into mainstream, neurotypical society.

The concept of a double standard in communication is exemplified in the double empathy problem identified by Autistic researcher Damian Milton. Initially, this problem was introduced to challenge ableist notions regarding our ability to empathise. It proposes that if neurotypicals dedicated a comparable amount of effort to understanding Autistic communication processes as Autistics do with neurotypical communication styles, our interactions would be more seamless.

You can read more about Milton’s Double Empathy Problem in our article here.

It is important to note that not all social interactions pose challenges for Autistic individuals. Many of us engage in meaningful and enjoyable conversations in our daily lives. For instance, when discussing our passions and areas of expertise, individuals with a monotropic focus can engage in lengthy discussions and possess a vast amount of knowledge on their specific interests.

In one particular scientific study (Heasman & Gillespie, 2019), it was observed that when Autistic children had the chance to connect with others who had similar interests, such as fellow Autistics who shared a similar special interest, there was an increased sense of social connection. In this particular study, this connection was established through the act of playing video games together.

The researchers discovered that by exchanging references from popular culture, such as quotes from movies like Crocodile Dundee and Tron that related to the events in the game, these children experienced heightened enjoyment and active participation during the gaming session. This demonstrates how Autistic individuals can also find avenues for enjoyable social interaction in different aspects of life by exploring novel ways to engage with their interests.

Embracing monotropism

Monotropism is a distinct cognitive style characterised by a strong concentration on specific interests or activities. It provides a unique viewpoint on the world. While it may present challenges, especially in the context of Autism, embracing monotropism is essential for fostering a society that is more inclusive and accepting towards neurodivergent individuals.

Educating others about monotropism plays a crucial role in this process. Understanding how monotropism is connected to Autism enables us to comprehend and appreciate the distinct way in which Autistic individuals engage with the world. Moreover, providing accommodations and support that are tailored to address the challenges posed by monotropism helps create environments that promote success for those who possess this cognitive style. This may involve offering flexible schedules or alternative approaches to completing tasks. Ultimately, we should celebrate the inherent differences in monotropism.

Recognising and valuing the unique perspectives and insights that monotropism brings enriches our society, fostering diversity and understanding.

Embracing monotropism propels us towards a more compassionate and accommodating world, where differences are not only acknowledged but also celebrated.

References

Monotropism – An Interest Based Account of Autism (Murray, 2020)

Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (Murray, Lesser, & Lawson, 2005)

On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ (Milton, 2012)

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings (Wood, 2021)

Reconsidering autistic ‘camouflaging’ as transactional impression management (Ai, Cunningham, & Lai, 2022)

The passionate mind: How people with Autism learn (Lawson, 2011)

Going with the flow: reconsidering ‘repetitive behaviour’ through the concept of ‘flow states (McDonnell & Milton, 2014)

Flow theory and research (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009)

Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health (Mitchell, Sheppard, & Cassidy, 2021)

Intensity and Variable Attention: Counter Narrating ADHD, from ADHD Deficits to ADHD Difference (Rosqvist et al., 2023)

Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding (Heasman & Gillespie, 2019)

Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey (Nowell et al., 2021)

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