The most important discovery I have made is that attention and its partner, interest, operate differently according to the type of brain one has. By ‘type’ of brain I mean whether you are AS or NT. Murray’s work on monotropism (tightly focused interest) and polytropism (diffused interests) (Murray 1986, 1992, 1995, 1996) is foundational to this thinking.

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

Whilst if you are monotropic and autistically developing, such as I am, you will be good at either thinking, or feeling, or noticing, but in serial fashion, one at a time. I can multi-task, but only if I have available attention, am interested and have energy resources within my interest tunnel. This suggests that attention and interest are partnered differently according to whether you are NT or not.

Source: The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

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