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).
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?
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.
Compare the portrayal of autistic special interest/monotropism in Fantastic Beasts with She-Ra & the Princesses of Power.
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.
She-Ra & the Princesses of Power is good. It has a lot going for it. I appreciate the body diversity, neurodiversity, inclusivity, and emotional range. I lost count of how many times I choked up. I like shows for the writing, and I like She-Ra.
I’m still processing the autistic and ADHD coded Entrapta. Entrapta has elements of the “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”, “Attention Deficit… Ooh, Shiny!”, and “Hollywood Autism” tropes. Her Autistic/ADHD hyperfocus conveys incredible scientific talent that she pursues to the exclusion of ethics, evoking “The Madness Place”, “Neurodiversity Is Supernatural”, and “Science-Related Memetic Disorder”.
I relate to parts of her characterization, but she’s pretty heavy on “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”, complete with “Dumb Muscle” manipulation by other characters. She often exemplifies the clinically un-empathetic autistic stereotype. In the episode that introduces her, she suggests taking She-Ra apart to see what’s making her sick—with an enthusiastic grin on her face and a gleaming scalpel in hand.
Entrapta says to Glimmer with scalpel in hand: “I’d have to take her apart to be sure.”
Glimmer takes the scalpel from Entrapta and replies, “You’re not taking her apart. She is a person.”
Glimmer also has some autistic coding with her social anxiety and hyper-empathy. Between Glimmer and Entrapta, we can piece together some satisfying autism representation. The most autistic-coded princess being evil by lack of “theory of mind” is a bummer, though. Lack of empathy stereotypes harm us.
I’m looking forward to seeing how both characters develop. Representing Entrapta’s monotropism with its flow states and attention tunnels without using “Lack of Empathy” to sociopathically disaffected levels would be nice for Season 2. I want Entrapta to lean less heavily on the aforementioned tropes and grapple more with morality, manipulation, and pursuing obsession. I hope her emotional and compassionate empathy are revealed to the audience as she confronts her “Moral Event Horizon”.
I can see myself in both Glimmer and Entrapta, except for taking people apart for the sake of curiousity. Dial back on the “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”. If she’s gonna break bad, give her some agency.
And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.
Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.
A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.
Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.
As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.
Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.
This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.
How autistic characters are used in “Lack of Empathy” tropes:
On the flip side, just because a character has empathy does not mean that they possess one ounce of compassion or sympathy, though the lack of either usually coincides with at least a diminished sense of empathy. For instance, someone with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder should not be confused with someone with Asperger’s or another form of autism. Narcissists and sociopaths usually have perfect cognitive empathy, but utterly lack affective empathy necessary for genuine compassion. Those with Asperger’s or Autism sometimes have defective cognitive empathy, but normal or even hyper-effective emotional or compassionate empathy. In short: narcissists and sociopaths are generally superficially charming and polite, but their pretense of empathy is simply that, a mere ruse to attain a tangible end. Autistic people, on the other hand, more or less invert this: they’re perfectly capable of feeling other people’s triumphs and tribulations – often quite intensely – but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from their face or tone of voice, and that’s assuming they have learned to identify them.
Source: Lack of Empathy – TV Tropes