Believe the autistic person when he tells you how he is experiencing sensory input. However improbable, however vastly different from anything you might perceive this may be, it is absolutely clear that many autistic people process senses very different from the PNT.
The privilege of being oneself is a gift many take for granted, but for the autistic person, being allowed to be oneself is the greatest and rarest gift of all.
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.
Monotropism is promising as a unifying theory for both autism and ADHD. This list of 6 common features of autistic thinking applies also to ADHD. Autism and ADHD are interest-based operating systems.
These children are the population that was chosen to be the subjects of an experimentally intense, lifelong treatment within a therapy where most practitioners are ignorant regarding the Autistic brain—categorically, this cannot be called anything except abuse.
Why don’t we know what PTSD looks like in autistic children? Why don’t we have a clear idea how many are experiencing it? I sense that this is because of the deeply problematic core belief in society that autistic distress is a ‘problem behaviour’ that is to be trained out of us. Looking at that list, anger, depression, aggression, irritability, panic, hypervigilance…. I’m mindful of how many behavioural-intervention checklists I see where those items are listed as ‘autism symptoms’ and the individual is relentlessly trained and rewarded for making their internal terror invisible to outsiders.
I am repeatedly struck with the realisation that carers are unnecessarily complicating childhood and family life – while believing they have no choice. They would probably say that it isn’t their fault, autism did it. Or that they’re just trying to help their child to succeed. Or that noone else can understand (“Walk in my shoes!”). After many years of hearing this same bullshit, I realise it simply isn’t true. Autism didn’t make your kid’s childhood disappear – them being put into hours of therapy every week did that. Autism didn’t make your child feel like someone was always watching them – the constant attempts to correct their natural ways of being did that. Autism didn’t make your child stressed – ableism did. You did.
The movement that I want to see, is one toward more simplicity for our disabled children. Autism isn’t destroying your children – you are. And you can’t stop doing it if you won’t evaluate your role in it.
Another theoretical account which might fall under the broad heading of integration and complexity is the interest-based theory, monotropism (Murray et al., 2005). This theory, developed by autistic academics, posits that the defining feature of autism is atypical allocation of attention. The difference between autistic and non-autistic people is characterised as follows: “It is the difference between having few interests highly aroused, the monotropic tendency, and having many interests less highly aroused, the polytropic tendency” (ibid., p. 140). Consequently, this model places causal primacy on the intense focus apparent in the diagnostic domain of RRBIs, with other diagnostic features following from this underlying difference. To the extent that social interaction requires diffuse and distributed attention, autistic people are not well suited to that activity. Monotropic theory, which awaits empirical testing, provides a vivid description of the autistic experience of novelty and change, giving a valuable insight into the autistic experience of a crisis, or “meltdown”:
To a person in an attention tunnel every unanticipated change is abrupt and is truly, if briefly, catastrophic: a complete disconnection from a previous safe state, a plunge into a meaningless blizzard of sensations, a frightening experience which may occur many times in a single day. (Ibid., p. 147)
Monotropic attention would lead to the development of specialised skills but also difficultly dealing with change.
The only theory I’m aware of that seems to make a decent stab at explaining the many seemingly disparate features of autistic psychology – from inertia to communication problems to hyperfocus and spiky profiles – is monotropism. However, this theory (formulated by autistics who aren’t professional psychologists) has received relatively little attention from psychologists and awaits direct empirical verification.
And quite commonly on Twitter, I’ve seen people call ABA “dog training for children.”
When I see that, I tend to go on Twitter rants in reply to it, because from everything I have read and seen of ABA, it is NOT “dog training” for children.
…I would never treat a dog that way.
In any case, very few dog trainers use the radical behaviourism that’s employed in ABA.
Most of the dog trainers I know mix and match behaviourism with other cognitive science research and other methods to create a more holistic approach to training their dogs. This is because dog trainers understand the limits of behaviourism on canines, because it doesn’t address the whole dog.
One would hope that someone considering using radical behaviourism on a human being would also recognize its limits.
So if it isn’t sufficient to properly train a dog, is it sufficient in educating a child?
A good dog trainer doesn’t extinguish behaviours which improve the dog’s mental health and happiness. But an ABA practitioner may not think twice before doing this to a human child.
Dog trainers understand that dogs need to chew and bark and dig, but ABA therapists don’t understand that autistic children need to repeat words and sentences, flap their hands, and sit quietly rocking in a corner when things get too much.
I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” with a selection from “7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture | The Aspergian | A Neurodivergent Collective”.
Until one day… you find a whole world of people who understand.
The internet has allowed autistic people- who might be shut in their homes, unable to speak aloud, or unable to travel independently- to mingle with each other, share experiences, and talk about our lives to people who feel the same way.
We were no longer alone.
I updated “I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.” with selections from “Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings”.
…enabling 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.
The findings indicated four main reasons for repetitive behavior: enhancing the ability to function; reducing external stimuli and avoiding communication; coping with stress, distress, and excitement; and coping with social communication.
The findings suggest that repetitive behaviors play a functional role in people with HFASD and also serve as a way for these individuals to cope with their environment.
Functioning labels and medical model language aside, this study reinforces what autistic people have been saying about stimming.
For examples of popular stims, see this thread.