What is monotropism? - Autism Awareness

What is monotropism?

Monotropism is a theory of autism which was first developed by autistics Dinah Murray and Wenn Lawson. Dinah and Wenn independently formulated the key ideas of monotropism, then later worked together for years developing, explaining and applying the theory. Their work has helped people to make sense of autism and how it manifests in themselves and others.

There is an excellent website, Monotropism, that provides extensive information on this subject. The definition of monotropism from their website is:

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. We argue that this can explain nearly all of the features commonly associated with autism, directly or indirectly. However, you do not need to accept it as a general theory of autism in order for it to be a useful description of common autistic experiences and how to work with them.

Fergus Murray, Dinah’s son, explains monotropism like this:

I believe that the best way to understand autistic minds is in terms of a thinking style which tends to concentrate resources in a few interests and concerns at any time, rather than distributing them widely. This style of processing, monotropism, explains many features of autistic experience that may initially seem puzzling, and shows how they are connected.

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.

Understanding monotropism helps reframe our perception of interests and see the pursuit and engagement in them as a strength. I’ve written several blog posts on supporting passions and interests. Remember – interests are motivating, engaging, conversation starters, friendship builders, build skills, are employable, meaningful, calming, enhancing, and expandable. Being able to pursue interests and enjoyable activities adds meaning and pleasure to a person’s life which in turn supports happiness and well-being.

Some Important Points About Monotropism

(from Fergus Murray’s article – Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism, The British Psychological Association)

Fergus Murray takes the key features of autism to provide an explanation of how monotropism looks within each of these features.

Autistic Inertia – This is the tendency that autistic people have to want to remain in a constant state. Why? Because it can cause discomfort when interrupted or having to change plans. The monotropic mind pulls a lot of processing resources into an interest, making it difficult to change tracks and turn one’s attention to something else.

Sensory Differences – It’s easier to process one thing at a time rather than having to distribute one’s attention in multiple areas. Monotropic thinking focuses the resources all in one place, rather than on other things that may be occurring at the same time. Think of how busy a classroom, restaurant, or workplace can be – taxing environments for monotropic thinkers.

Monotropism can impact social situations because if attention is focused elsewhere, auditory input may not register or be ignored. Fergus states:

Our brains throw a lot of resources at whatever our focus is on, which accounts for both the intensity of conscious awareness and the pain of distracting stimuli we can’t filter out. There is likely a developmental aspect to this: neural pathways that receive a lot of stimulation grow stronger, so perhaps autistic people are prone to long-term hyper-sensitivity in senses receiving intense attention, and under-sensitivity in channels we regularly tune out.

When sensory overload does happen, it can help to have predictable input such as stimming (rocking, hand-flapping or vocalizing). Stimming can make it easier to filter out sensory input, focus on something else, or deal with overwhelming feelings.

Social Differences – Autistic people need more processing time which can make social situations difficult because of multiple input through speech, body language, and eye contact. Conversation involves back and forth exchanges and pulling in all kinds of information both internally and externally. Monotropic thinking expects one thing to follow from another directly, but conversation tends not to work that way. My autistic colleague, John Simpson, used to tell me he had no idea what I was going to say next when we were conversing.

Autistic researcher Damien Milton talks about the double empathy problem which also comes into play in social situations. This means the communication breakdown between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue, caused by both parties’ difficulties in understanding. It’s not a one way street with the onus being on the autistic person to understand context and meaning.

Autistic focus can mean things are missed that register for other people. If processing power and attention are focused on one thing, it’s difficult to be able to process multiple streams of input that are coming in at the same time. Social interactions are so complex!

Interests and Passions – In the DSM V, one of the diagnostic criteria for autism is restricted or repetitive interests. In reality, what is really happening is there is an intense focus on an interest. No matter who you are, engaging in an interest is repetitive. I have an intense interest in figure skating and work on the same skills and patterns over and over again in my practice sessions. I’m never bored. I also can’t think of anything else when I am skating. It requires 100% of my attention and I find it difficult to work on patterns and talk at the same time.

Interests get defined as repetitive or restricted because of what those interests are – we place judgement on them as observers. Interests can change over the years, but many remain the same from childhood. My son has always loved Thomas the Tank Engine and still does. He has some Thomas time every day and often carries a train with him in his backpack or pocket. Over the years, he has expanded this interest to other types of trains and modes of transportation. Underground transport or light rail transit are his favorite ways of getting around a city.

My autistic daughter is passionate about puppeteering. Through her lessons and practice, she has been able to expand her ability to converse and understand emotions. She is able to use more nonverbal gestures in her own communication to convey feeling.

There are many fields of study that require an intense focus in order to be successful- science, technology, math, and the arts to name a few. Fergus says, “It can be hard to think about anything else when we’re particularly invested in a topic, and hard to imagine how little other people might care about it.” We need to see this focus as an asset and try to incorporate a person’s interests as best we can, rather than working against it.

Moving Forward, Supporting Interests

Reframe how you think about an autistic person’s interests and see these as strengths that can be expanded and built upon. I’ve written about some ideas on how to expand on an interest in a past blog post.

Engaging in interests can a create flow state. If you are new to this term, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow state as a mental state of operation where a person is fully immersed in an activity, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Look at this as a great way of being!

Humans need stability and predictability in their lives. In order to feel safe and secure, autistic people may engage in what comes across as restricted and repetitive behaviors. These behaviors can help a person feel in control, minimize mental load, cope with change, and alleviate stress and anxiety. Routines foster predictability and stability, and are an important part of daily life.

The individuality of autism may be because of different degrees of monotropism. Fergus eloquently states:

However the trait is distributed, the implication is that some people are closer to having autistic minds than others without qualifying as autistic themselves, and some autistic people have more atypical minds than others in terms of monotropism. This doesn’t make the spectrum linear: there are so many different ways for autism to manifest, and so many co-occurring conditions, that no one variable can come close to capturing them all.

Additional Resources

Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism


Monotropism: One Step at a Time (autism)

Monotropism Discussion with Caroline Hearst of AutAngel

Monotropism = Happy Flow State

Monotropism: The Most Accurate Autism Theory You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Monotropism Questionnaire & Inner Autistic/ADHD Experiences

Special thanks to my colleague Christine Jenkins, director of AUsome Consulting, who made me aware of this topic and was the inspiration for this post. 

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