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.
When you’re autistic, the entire world is a puzzle, challenges lying in wait whether you’re ready to work them or not. You can’t parse the language of a teasing friend. Authority figures bear inscrutable faces. Personal truths bubble up from your guts at the worst possible moment. No one makes sense, and no one seems to care. When our circuits overload and we retreat to safety, protect ourselves, we’re perceived as being rude and cold and distant.
We make you uncomfortable, but you can go home and change. Autistics can’t, no matter what abled activists and allies insist.
As his mom, I know there would have been telltale signs throughout the day. But they’re small clues that can be easily missed, as he would have been largely compliant, so therefore no one would have realized there was any problem. But I know as the day progressed, his complexion would have become paler as the energy sapped out of him with each passing hour.
He may have struggled to eat his lunch due to high anxiety. A nervous giggle would have squeaked out when his teachers tried to speak to him. He would have put his head down on the table during lessons or possibly rocked back and forward on his chair to calm himself down. And as the pressure mounted and the clock ticked toward home time, there may have even been some finger picking and sleeve chewing.
My son shows these signs of stress through his body language and gestures. He can’t always communicate his needs verbally, so they can get missed.
The can be a common challenge facing many children on the autism spectrum. Some children are able to contain their feelings all day at school, with the teacher blissfully unaware there’s a problem. However, the stress hormones are slowly building and building inside. This creates a situation that can put incredible pressure on families— especially if teachers don’t understand or believe what the parents are telling them. So let’s think about it this way for a minute…
I updated “Neurodiversity in the Classroom” with selections from “Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?”.
The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person. A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students. Deafening noise. The stench of different smells. The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes. School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.
In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to. It’s so hard. My brain doesn’t want to tune the rest of the noise out. Apparently I’ve been asked something, but I miss it. The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me. The intense stares overwhelm me. The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin. Only six more hours of hell to go…. only six….
Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without ‘time out’ to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day. Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.
We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Fluorescent lighting. Endless noise. Everywhere, bright patterns and overloading information. Groupwork and social time. Crowded hallways and relentless academic pressure. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago. Not a hope now.
We cannot simply exclude autistic pupils for entering meltdowns. Meltdowns are part of autism for a good number of autistic young people.
Whilst mindful that of course everyone needs to be safe, the way to achieve safety is to stop hurting the autistic children. Punishing them for responding to pain is not something any of us need to do.
What schools need to do is to understand autism. In understanding it, we can help to stop putting the children in pain and exhaustion. It’s actually quite easy. And quite cheap.
Meltdowns are intense, harrowing experiences that make nearly everything impossible. It takes a long time to recover and even longer to rebuild trust in the people who triggered them or made them worse. Do not be those people. Do not tolerate it when your friends or relatives do this to their autistic children. Do not do this to your autistic child. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Just don’t.
Source: Autism Acceptance Month Master Post – Apparently in Deep Contemplation