The theory of Monotropism (Murray et al., 2005) argues that the central core feature in autism refers to an atypical strategy being employed in the distribution of attention, which is suggested to be the basis of the ‘restricted range of interests’ criteria inherent in the diagnostic criteria of both the DSM-IV (1994) and ICD-10 (1992), and further found in the testimonies of subjective experience from autistic people themselves (Grandin, 1995; Lawson, 1998, Williams, 1994). Monotropism suggests that the amount of attention available to an individual at any one time is necessarily limited, as can be found amongst numerous cognitive studies. Thus the shaping of many cognitive processes depends upon a competition between mental processes for this scarce resource. Murray et al. (2005) propose that strategies for the way attention is used is normally distributed, and to a large degree genetically determined, between those with a broad use of attention, and those who concentrate attention on a small number of ‘interests’ (likened to the difference between a dissipated ‘diffused light’ and a ‘torch beam’). The authors propose that those at the tightly focused end of this spectrum are those diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. It is suggested by Murray et al. (2005) that social interaction, the use of language, and the shifting of object attention (implicated by other psychological theories) are all tasks that require a broad attention, and are inhibited by a narrow use of attention.
This theory suggests a number of features found in autistic subjective accounts that are not attended to by the other psychological theories, including E-S theory (see section 2.4). For instance, how individuals on the autism spectrum show a tendency toward either being passionately interested in a task or phenomena, or not interested at all, or how an unanticipated change ‘within the attentional tunnel’ can lead to a catastrophic disconnection from a previously ‘safe’ state of mind.
If employing a monotropic interest system, the ability to use information gained in the past is compromised, as information is gained only in relation to a narrow set of interests. Thus ‘top- down’ or ‘whole picture’ processing is not ‘dispreferred’ as such, but will tend to be idiosyncratic and resistant to change or criticism. This resistance is not fully explained by a ‘systemising’ tendency (Baron-Cohen, 2008).
Monotropism also suggests a reason for the sensory integration difficulties found in the accounts of autistic people, as they suggest there is a ‘hyper-awareness’ of phenomena within the attentional tunnel, but hypo-sensitivity to phenomena outside of it. Also, that an interest in the social world may not occur in the early years of life:
‘We suggest that the uneven skills profile in autism depends on which interests have been fired into monotropic superdrive and which have been left unstimulated by any felt experience.’ (Murray et al. 2005: 143).
Indeed, the recognition of others may only occur if connected to the fulfilling of interests that the autistic individual has, otherwise the existence of others may not be registered at all. A monotropic focus leads to a fragmented view of the world, and from such a viewpoint it is exceptionally hard to make sense of social interactions, leading to potentially both apparent and real ‘theory of mind’ difficulties. Rather than being a ‘core deficit’ however, this is described as a tendency produced as a consequence of a monotropic interest system.