Whether we align our interests with others as in polytropism or follow the dictation of our dominant interest, as in monotropism, it’s all about ‘interest’.
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).
In a monotropic interest system connectivity is more streamlined but less diffuse than that of the typical population. This might be due to an interest system that is more ‘pure’ in the sense that it hasn’t been modified or contaminated by other people’s expectations (D.K.C. Murray, personal communication, 10 March 2005).
In AS, monotropic attention is not seen as a choice but as integral to our learning style.
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).
I suggest that problems in AS, such as building connections to concepts, are founded in monotropism, which leads to fewer connections between attention, interest and sensory and motor dynamics.
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.
I believe monotropism describes much of the autistic disposition, but it cannot be solely responsible for the full picture. If monotropism alone was responsible for AS, it would mean autistic behaviour might be evinced whenever any individual was focused upon one thing at any given time. However, this does not seem to be the case. Frequently NTs focus their attention but do not exhibit behaviours that qualify as a diagnosis of AS. Therefore, finding an explanation of AS that fits with the clinical picture described by the diagnostic criteria (see Appendix B) and experienced by us as autistic people might have a monotropic foundation, but it needs to have other flow-on applications.
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.
But the one thing we all have in common is the ability to focus intensely upon an area of interest.