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.

Source: Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

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.

Selections on Monotropism from Autism: A New Introduction to Psychological Theory and Current Debate

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.

Source: Happé, Francesca. Autism (p. 128, 129, 150). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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.

Source: Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings

I updated “I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.” with selections from “Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion? – woodbugblog”.

In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.

…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.

Source: Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion? – woodbugblog

Instead of being focused on pleasing the majority, the autistic quest for fairness and social justice is a constant theme. Instead of thinking everyone must show sophisticated interests in order to display a high social and intellectual rank, many autistic people have found joy in any number of wider interests. Those deep interests lead some to become the world’s experts in those topic, whether it’s forming world-leading and important collections, deep knowledge of subjects that benefit all of humanity, or a singular joy in a favourite topic or hobby.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Age, Wisdom

…when the autistic children were able to access their strongly held interests, the school staff didn’t need to prompt them anywhere near as much(or even at all), and the children were more motivated, independent and relaxed. Not only did this enable the supporting adult to take on a more constructive role, but the lighter-touch support meant that it was easier for peers to engage with the autistic children too.

…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.

In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.

Source: Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion? – woodbugblog

If autism, monotropism and a tendency to experience interests in an intense and compelling way are interlinked (Milton, 2017), there are potentially important implications for autistic children in schools. Indeed, notwithstanding some difficulties associated with a monotropic thinking style, such as not understanding the perspectives of others (Murray et al., 2005), enabling autistic children to engage with their strong interests has been found to be predominantly advantageous, rather than deleterious, in school environments (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016). Positive effects include improved learning and curriculum access (Hesmondhalgh & Breakey, 2001; Wittemeyer et al., 2011), better cooperativity and social skills (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016), increased participation in after-school clubs (Jones et al., 2008) and improved fine motor skills and social and communication abilities (Winter-Messiers, 2007). Furthermore, such an approach enables autistic children “to relax, overcome anxiety, experience pleasure, and make better sense of the physical world” (Gunn & Delafield- Butt, 2016, p. 411), and to moderate their levels of arousal, thus impacting positively on their emotional well-being too (Winter-Messiers, 2007).

Furthermore, longer-term benefits have been associated with the pursuit of intense interests, with relatively few negative effects overall (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016), which in themselves might only occur if autistic people are pressured to reduce or adapt their interests (Mercier et al., 2000). Such a disposition can lead to self-taught expertise, for example (Mottron, 2011), and so is associated with a high level of skill and even savant abilities (Mottron et al., 2013). Being able to develop strong interests can therefore constitute a potential route to employment (Koenig & Williams, 2017; Wittemeyer et al., 2011) and help create the possibility of a fulfilling adult life (Grove, Hoekstra, Wierda, & Begeer, 2018; Jones et al., 2008) providing, inter alia, a sense of well-being, opportunities for personal growth, social learning and development (Koenig & Williams, 2017; Mercier et al., 2000).

Source: Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings

Psychological models of autism tend to work on the cognitive level of explanation, with some attempting to make links to biological and neurological data. In order to produce cognitive models, all of them rely on accounts of behaviour to make inferences from. A major criticism of these models, is that they are formed (with the exception of monotropism theory, see section 2.5) from a perspective of a cognitive psychology overly restricted by its total adherence to scientific method as the gold standard, which do not value the input of ‘autistic voices’, or that of sociological viewpoints on autism. This has come about for a number of reasons, one of which being the splitting of levels of explanation into subject ‘silos’ (Arnold, 2010). Another was the triumphant victory that biomedical explanations earned at the expense of Bettleheim’s theory of the ‘refrigerator mother’. This victory would not just produce a rejection of this theory however, but it seems a total rejection of psycho-sociological reflection upon what it is to be autistic, a fatal flaw that only alienated the voices of autistic people further. The victory spared the mother, yet lay the blame at the neurology of the ‘autistic person’ themselves, in the sense that there was something medically deficient about the ‘autistic person’, and if one could only find the site of the ‘lesion’ one could find a ‘cure’ (Happe, 1994a). Assumptions of what autism is are enshrined in the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV (1994) and ICD-10 (1992) and based upon interpretations of observed behavioural traits. All the psychological theories base their models within this criterion of behaviour led framework, although in the monotropism theory (see section 2.5), this is thankfully balanced by the accounts of lived experience of ‘autistic people’ themselves, including one of the authors of the paper, Wendy Lawson.

The current psychological models seem somewhat inadequate at drawing the links between biology and behaviour, but even more so, between biology and the lived experience of autistic subjectivity, often attempting to obscure the ‘autistic voice’ or ignore it, in an attempt to reduce autistic behaviours to definable objective criteria. The theory of monotropism, is a welcome departure from this theoretical dominance however, largely basing its account in subjective accounts. In so doing, this theory is more applicable to the vast array of subjective differences experienced by autistic people, although perhaps not all. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have achieved the widespread recognition enjoyed by the other theories.

“…right from the start, from the time someone came up with the word ‘autism’, the condition has been judged from the outside, by its appearances, and not from the inside according to how it is experienced.” (Williams, 1996: 14).

Source:  So what exactly is autism? 

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.

Source:  So what exactly is autism? 

Newt Scamander as a compassionate portrayal of autistic monotropism (special interests):

While I am not the first to notice this – as Newt Scamander’s autistic tendencies such as his lack of eye contact, his subdued voice and, of course, his ‘special interest’ have been pointed out and praised by many – I do believe that few people have managed to accurately capture what it is about Newt’s hidden condition that makes his potential diagnosis so worthy of praise.

Of course this could, as always, just be coincidental. But, if not, then I love the idea that something which so many autists pride as their special interest: Harry Potter, has, in turn, been used to spread a positive message which our community can also cherish.

Source: Why ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is the Autism Film We NEED – Autistic & Unapologetic

Compare the portrayal of autistic special interest/monotropism in Fantastic Beasts with She-Ra & the Princesses of Power.

On monotropism:

Monotropism is a cognitive strategy posited to be the central underlying feature of autism. A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel. The theory of monotropism was developed by Dr Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser starting in the 1990s, and published about in the journal Autism in 2005. Wenn Lawson’s further work on the theory formed the basis of his PhD, Single Attention and Associated Cognition in Autism, and book The Passionate Mind.

A tendency to focus attention tightly has a number of psychological implications. While monotropism tends to cause people to miss things outside their attention tunnel, within it their focused attention can lend itself to intense experiences, deep thinking and flow states. However, this hyperfocus makes it harder to redirect attention, including starting and stopping tasks, leading to what is often described as executive dysfunction in autism, and stereotypies or perseveration where a person’s attention is repeatedly pulled back to the same thing.

Source: Monotropism – Wikipedia

While we’re here, Newt Scamander as a non-toxic portrayal of masculinity:

Newt Scamander, the protagonist of this Harry Potter spinoff, is a refreshingly atypical male hero for a fantasy adventure blockbuster. This video essay is a detailed character study of Newt Scamander’s performance of masculinity.

Source: The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander