When I meet other people, ‘autistic’ or not, there is something instinctive in me that looks for where systems in them match systems in me.

When I am around non-autistic people I soon know they function according to a generally alien system of functioning that makes little match with my own. I know this is because they are essentially multi-track and I am essentially mono.

Source: Autism: An Inside-Out Approach: An Innovative Look at the ‘Mechanics’ of ‘Autism’ and its Developmental ‘Cousins’ by Donna Williams

See also: Posts tagged monotropism

Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well. Thus, it is not hard to find accounts of autistic detailed listening that seem to describe a flow state:

“When I work on my musical projects, I tend to hear the whole score in my head and piece every instrument loop detail where they fit. It relaxes me and makes me extremely aware of what I’m doing to the point that I lose track of time.”

Source: Autistic listening


Monotropic minds are more prone to flow.

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).

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

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).

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

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.

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

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.

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn