ChapterPDF Available

Monotropism – An Interest Based Account of Autism

Monotropism An Interest
Based Account of Autism
Dinah Murray
National Autistic Taskforce, London, UK
Attention tunneling,Hyper/hypo responses,
Intense interests,Passionate minds,Splinter skills
The central idea of monotropism (a word coined
for Murray in 1992 by Jeanette Buirski) is that in
autism, processing resource strongly tends to
localize and concentrate to the exclusion of other
input; an atypicality from which many other dif-
ferences can be seen to follow. Understanding this
concept fully requires a view of mind as a system
of interests which inform cognitive, perceptual,
and emotional processes. Hence this denition
briey sketches that model.
Interests are what we care about, what we
spontaneously give attention to, and what we
value (if only briey). In our model they are
fueled by a scarce resource (N =interestor
attention) of highly and dynamically varying
distribution both within and between different
individuals (see Murrays PhD, 1986), Language
structures interest systems (guaranteeing mental
overlap) and is an expressive tool for manipulat-
ing ones own or othersinterests. This dynamic,
ecological, model of minds (and sets of minds)
can help us see how the pattern of autistic intense
interests (in all DSMs and ICDs) leads to such a
complex and varied range of people and activity;
this model predicts innite neurodiversity, with
emergent patterns of resource distribution.
We hold this can make sense of a wide range of
autistic phenomena: all or nothingthinking;
coordination and integration issues at every
level; executive function and mentalizingchal-
lenges; hyper and hypo sensibilities; difculties
set switching; enhanced perceptual processing; in
addition, splinter skills(Dawson 2018) and
early language regression, particularly singled
out as puzzling anomalies by Rutter and Pickles
(2016). A scarce resource account, spoon the-
ory(Miserando 2003), which overlaps with an
interest model, has become popular among autis-
tic people (Memmott 2018).
The key implication reintervention of this way
of thinking has long been summed up in the old
autism as, Start where the child [person] is.
Some Significant Features of the Model
For anyone, the more intensively localized is
N (at any given time) the more keenly experienced
the current interest will be.
Endogenous absorption is likely to yield high-
performance within-interest:
#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018
F. R. Volkmar (ed.), Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders,
The more absorbing the ow, the more disrup-
tive diversion is likely to be and the more potential
there is for resource absence (inattention/zero pro-
cessing) elsewhere
Cross-ow intrusions across the switched on
area will tend to be highly turbulent and may
abruptly use up and replace available N and/or
become expressed in ways that may seem
angry or frightening to others.
Feedback via expression in rehearsal or real
action in the outside world may be trapped”–
unable to invoke wider activation, instead
feeding back to the same locus, risking over-
stimulation and a disabling crisis.
When ow is obstructed and spoilt, recovery
time is needed; turbulence needs to settle and
levels of N be restored and available for distri-
bution; this will take longer the more powerful
the disrupted ow.
Or a owstate may be achieved and in-ow
processing will ultimately replenish
N throughout the system.
Co-ordinating distinct interests (to forge a new
whole) will require extra effort.
Moving out of an endogenous focal interest
will require overcoming turbulence and
re-aligning: it will take extra effort; undergoing
that may be a strongly aversive experience. It is a
main use of speech and language to reach into
ones headand do things there; therefore, speech
can be powerfully aversive unless it goes with
the ow/starts where the person is.Also,
because ones own speech has an impact on others
too but one has minimal control over its effects,
those who do take up speech may give it up later.
The pattern of action above may predict long
Very uneven development of connections
Denser than typical, instantly available
Sparser than typical long-reach connections
Continuing developmental increases of
especially long-reach connections
Less blurriness, less room for manoeuvre,
and less socially oriented structuring of con-
nections than a more typical person
A strong drive for certainty derived from
personal investigation, as all else appears
Qualities of ow, turbulence, activation, inhi-
bition, expression, and connection seem likely to
have physical correlates. This model suggests
some possible meanings for those. Murray et al.
(2005) compared monotropic distribution of N to
a torch beam vs. a lantern but we now prefer a
water analogy, as water has ow and turbulence,
and nds its way through any gap: monotropic
people appear especially good at spotting the
cracks and gaps. To seed the dry zonessuccess-
fully, irrigate them with interest rst.
On the basis of a monotropic, interest-based
interpretation of autism, of much research and of
our own long-term observations, we recommend:
encouraging and sharing delights, only redirecting
(going off-ow) when essential (as it often is),
building learning through interests and permitting
recovery time for all redirection (See also Lawson
2011). Shared interests foster mutual understand-
ing and fellow feeling, and help overcome what
Milton (2012) characterizes as the double empa-
thy problem,in which neither party grasps the
others intent. Instead people are equally engaged
with each other.
An interest system is a biologically grounded
value system. Executive function and social
adjustment challenges make demands on our pro-
cessing resource and interfere with our doing the
things we do most sweetly. Some of those things
may involve shared experiences with meanings
passionately connected to a common weal and
transcending issues of prot or gain. In contrast
to the notion of reading other individualsminds
in order to guess what they are thinking, or where
you stand in relation to them and using language
effectively to manipulate othersinterest systems,
this way of sharing experience is not about pre-
sentation of self to self but about a freedom of
shared joy and wonder that entirely transcends
self. Its difcult being a human, whoever you are.
2 Monotropism An Interest Based Account of Autism
References and Reading
Dawson, M. (2018). Splinter skills and cognitive strengths
in autism. In E. B. Braaten (Ed.), The SAGE encyclo-
pedia of intellectual and developmental disorders.
Lawson, W. (2011). The passionate mind: How individuals
with autism learn. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Milton, D. E. M. (2012). On the ontological status of
autism: The double empathy problem.Disability &
Society, 27(6), 883887.
Miserandino, C. (2003). Cited in Memmott, A (2018),
Autism and spoon theory. http://annsautism.blogspot.
com/2018/02/autism-and-spoon-theory.html. Accessed
28 Feb 2018.
Murray, D. K. C. (1992). Attention tunnelling and autism.
In Living with autism: The individual, the family, and
the professional.Durham conference proceedings,
obtainable from autism research unit. School of Health
Sciences, University of Sunderland, UK.
Murray, D. K., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Atten-
tion, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for
autism. Autism, 9, 139156.
Rutter, M., & Pickles, A. (2016). Annual research review:
Threats to the validity of child psychiatry and psychol-
ogy. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57,
Monotropism An Interest Based Account of Autism 3
... Monotropism (Murray et al., 2005;Murray, 2018Murray, , 2020) is a compelling interest-based account of autism, based within a dynamic, ecological, model of minds. However, it has received little mainstream attention since its conception 15 years ago. ...
... In those circumstances where increased mutual manifestness makes understanding less effortful (in both a technical relevance theoretic, and an intuitive sense), more cognitive resources are available for language production. Furthermore, according to the theory of monotropism, the attention of monotropic individuals is not simply narrowed, but also sharpened (Murray et al., 2005;Murray, 2018Murray, , 2020. In states of "monotropic superdrive" (Murray et al., 2005, p. 143) finer-grain details may carry heightened relevance. ...
Full-text available
A central diagnostic and anecdotal feature of autism is difficulty with social communication. We take the position that communication is a two-way, intersubjective phenomenon—as described by the double empathy problem—and offer up relevance theory (a cognitive account of utterance interpretation) as a means of explaining such communication difficulties. Based on a set of proposed heuristics for successful and rapid interpretation of intended meaning, relevance theory positions communication as contingent on shared—and, importantly, mutually recognized—“relevance.” Given that autistic and non-autistic people may have sometimes markedly different embodied experiences of the world, we argue that what is most salient to each interlocutor may be mismatched. Relevance theory would predict that where this salient information is not (mutually) recognized or adjusted for, mutual understanding may be more effortful to achieve. This paper presents the findings from a small-scale, linguistic ethnographic study of autistic communication featuring eight core autistic participants. Each core autistic participant engaged in three naturalistic conversations around the topic of loneliness with: (1) a familiar, chosen conversation partner; (2) a non-autistic stranger and (3) an autistic stranger. Relevance theory is utilized as a frame for the linguistic analysis of the interactions. Mutual understanding was unexpectedly high across all types of conversation pairings. In conversations involving two autistic participants, flow, rapport and intersubjective attunement were significantly increased and in three instances, autistic interlocutors appeared to experience improvements in their individual communicative competence contrasted with their other conversations. The findings have the potential to guide future thinking about how, in practical terms, communication between autistic and non-autistic people in both personal and public settings might be improved.
... In recent years, a growing amount of non-pathologizing approaches to autism, often championed by autistic researchers themselves (e.g. Arnold 2020; Milton & Bracher 2013;Murray 2018;Murray, Lesser, and Lawson 2005;yergeau 2013), have gradually begun receiving more attention. One such approach is the theory of double empathy, a novel approach to autism and empathy first proposed and developed by Milton (2012Milton ( , 2014. ...
Full-text available
The notion that autistic individuals suffer from empathy deficiencies continues to be a widespread assumption, including in many areas of philosophy and cognitive science. In response to this, Damian Milton has proposed an interactional approach to empathy, namely the theory of the double empathy problem. According to this theory, empathy is fundamentally dependent on mutual reciprocity or salience rather than individual, cognitive faculties like theory of mind. However, the theory leaves open the question of what makes any salient interaction empathic in the first place. The aim of this paper is to integrate core tenets of the theory of the double empathy problem specifically with classical, phenomenological descriptions of empathy. Such an integration provides further conceptual refinement to the theory of the double empathy problem while recognizing its core tenets, but it also introduces important considerations of neurodiversity to classic, phenomenological descriptions of empathy.
... Many autistic children and young people will also have single attention: otherwise known as monotropism (Murray, 2018(Murray, , 2020Murray et al., 2005). The typical cognitive styles of non-autistic individuals tend to comfortably entertain multiple simultaneous interests, each moderately engaged, whereas those of autistic individuals tend to maintain only very few simultaneous interests: each one highly engaged and intensely focused upon. ...
(OPEN ACCESS PAPER - Please visit DOI below) Poor mental health—compared to that of the neurotypical child population—is a serious concern for many autistic children and young people around the world. In the UK, we have an increasing number of autistic young people receiving care in NHS funded in-patient mental health facilities. While sensory processing differences have now been added to international diagnostic criteria for autism, recent autistic-led and co-produced, practice-based research commissioned by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce and delivered by National Development Team for Inclusion has identified that knowledge of autistic sensory differences and needs is institutionally absent. In particular, the sensory environments of NHS England-funded in-patient facilities were found to present sometimes extreme challenges for autistic young people that at best hinder wellbeing and at worst exacerbate existing mental health problems: instigating a cycle of progressing upwards through increasingly restrictive settings for some. This paper shares some of this learning, gained from the consultation with young autistic people who have experience of inpatient services and autistic Experts by Experience working on novel sensory ward environment reviews. We first introduce the framing of autism as primarily shaped by sensory and social processing differences and outline the significance of this perspective for the in-patient care of autistic young people and children. We then provide an overview of the current sensory challenges that exist in inpatient mental health facilities for autistic children and young people. Finally, we conclude with some suggestions for areas of future research around the impact of adapting ward environments, that have promise for broader and international settings.
... Yet what of so-called autistic 'special interests', where such difficulties may be less prevalent or reduced? Another theory looking at such autistic differences is that of 'monotropism' or an interest model of autism (Murray 1992;Murray et al. 2005;Lawson 2010;Murray 2018). In this theory, attention is seen as a scarce resource whereby it is our interests that help to direct it with differing interests being salient at differing times. ...
... Yet what of so-called autistic 'special interests', where such difficulties may be less prevalent or reduced? Another theory looking at such autistic differences is that of 'monotropism' or an interest model of autism (Murray 1992;Murray et al. 2005;Lawson 2010;Murray 2018). In this theory, attention is seen as a scarce resource whereby it is our interests that help to direct it with differing interests being salient at differing times. ...
Full-text available
With the rise of large-scale data-driven innovation in AI, data annotation tasks found in digital work environments present an employment opportunity for neurodivergent individuals. Though work in data annotation can potentially ease the high unemployment rate of neurodivergent individuals, limited research focuses on the experience of neurodivergent workers in data annotation micro-tasks. To aid in understanding the experience of neurodivergent crowd workers, we conducted a user study with ten neurodivergent workers between the ages of 18–30. Participants completed three types of micro-tasks in a custom web-based data annotation platform. With the data collected from the platform, we examined individual responses within data annotations, work completion, the time to complete work, and calculated a potential “effective hourly wage,” for each participant based on their responses. Through a survey and semi-structured interview following each task, we learned about the experience of all participants regarding each of the data annotation tasks. Results of the study show: 1) our participants provide diverse annotations that are valuable for employers in digital data annotation work environments; 2) when calculating the “effective hourly wage” of all participants per task, some of our participants would earn less than minimum hourly wage on tasks; and 3) participant perceptions of the tasks matched their responses in the tasks presented.
Full-text available
Few qualitative studies have explored the lives of autistic women diagnosed in adulthood, despite this knowledge being essential to inform awareness of the intersection of autism and gender. This systematic review was undertaken to synthesise available qualitative evidence on the lived experience of autistic women diagnosed in adulthood. The accounts of 50 women from nine qualitative studies were synthesised using thematic analysis and four super-ordinate themes were identified: wanting to ‘fit in’; making sense of past experiences; developing a new ‘autistic identity’; and barriers to support. The autistic women spent many years without a diagnosis or autism-specific support, felt misunderstood, and experienced social exclusion. Following their diagnosis, they reframed these experiences into new ‘sense-making narratives’, used social media to contact other autistic people, and developed neurodiverse-affirming autistic identities. The studies suggested that health and social care professionals were not always able to recognise, refer, diagnose, and support autistic women effectively. • Points of interest • In childhood, the autistic women who participated in the nine reviewed studies remembered feeling that they were ‘weird’ or ‘alien’ and being bullied due to their difficulties with socialising • These participants imitated their more ‘easy-going’ friends in social situations to keep up appearances and look as if they were in control • After their diagnosis, the autistic women felt more able to be themselves, rather than trying to be the ‘ideal’ person that others expected them to be • The women who participated in the studies believed that, if they had been diagnosed in childhood, they would have coped better with dangerous situations they had encountered during their lives • Most of the women in the studies felt proud of their autistic identity and the success they had achieved, despite the number of challenges they had faced
Full-text available
Estimates suggest as much as 17% of the U.S. workforce may be neuroatypical (CIPD, 2018; Sargent, 2019), a term used to describe individuals whose neurological functioning is at the tail ends of the distribution of naturally occurring variation. Although the neuroatypical population has a history of under- and un- employment (Roux et al., 2015; Taylor & Seltzer, 2011; Austin & Pisano, 2017), their inclusion in the modern workplace (i.e., promotion of neurodiversity within organizations) is gaining recognition by scholars and organizations as an important dimension of organizational diversity (Brinzea, 2019). Despite this burgeoning interest in examining neuroatypicality in the context of organizational diversity, surprisingly little research has been conducted that bridges these two research areas. The literature that does exist is scattered across several different academic disciplines, largely outside of industrial-organizational psychology, and rarely examines the employment of neuroatypical workers explicitly from a diversity perspective. In this article we argue that as the nature of work evolves and jobs continue to become more specialized, neurodiversity will become an increasingly relevant dimension of organizational diversity, and is likely to play a key role both in terms of individual employees’ well-being and performance outcomes, as well as organizational success.
Full-text available
The concept of inclusion remains a topic of many discussions between professionals and researchers. At the same time, many children with autism are included in mainstream school with their neurotypical peers. Research has shown that many children with autism are socially excluded in mainstream schools. This review paper aims to explore the perspective of pupils with autism on inclusive education. The main results were grouped by the following themes: relationship with peers, relationship with teachers, environment and sensory issues, interests, and what children need in mainstream schools. This narrative review has shown that from the perspective of pupils with autism educational inclusion is still not achieved.
Autism is typically characterised by impaired social communication, with pragmatic deficits commonly attributed to diminished theory of mind abilities. As such, autistic communicators have traditionally been used as a test case to evidence the explanatory power of relevance theory for ostensive-inferential communication.1 However, recent studies have begun to demonstrate the various difficulties that non-autistic people also have in understanding autistic people, such as problems in inferring autistic affective and mental states. These findings support the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012), which argues that intersubjective problems between autistic and non-autistic individuals are rooted not in one individual's deficient cognitive system but in a mutual failure to reach consensus. This paper challenges the way in which relevance theory has traditionally been applied to a so-called autistic pragmatic ‘impairment’ but argues that relevance theory—and in particular its central concept of mutual manifestness—may still offer crucial insights into these breakdowns of mutual understanding between autistic and non-autistic people.
Full-text available
In recent decades there has been much debate over the ontological status of autism and other neurological ‘disorders', diagnosed by behavioural indicators, and theorised primarily within the field of cognitive neuroscience and psychological paradigms. Such cognitive-behavioural discourses abstain from acknowledging the universal issue of relationality and interaction in the formation of a contested and constantly reconstructed social reality, produced through the agency of its ‘actors'. The nature of these contested interactions will be explored in this current issues piece through the use of the term the ‘double empathy problem', and how such a rendition produces a critique of autism being defined as a deficit in ‘theory of mind', re-framing such issues as a question of reciprocity and mutuality. In keeping with other autistic self-advocates, this piece will refer to ‘autistic people', and ‘those who identify as on the autism spectrum', rather than ‘people with autism'.
Full-text available
The authors conclude from a range of literature relevant to the autistic condition that atypical strategies for the allocation of attention are central to the condition. This assertion is examined in the context of recent research, the diagnostic criteria for autism in DSM-IV and ICD-10, and the personal experiences of individuals with autism including one of the authors of the article. The first two diagnostic criteria are shown to follow from the 'restricted range of interests' referred to in the third criterion. Implications for practice are indicated.
Intellectual disability (or intellectual development disorder) is characterized by deficits incognitive and adaptive abilities that initially manifest during the developmental period. Inthe United States, the prevalence of intellectual disability is estimated to be between 1and 3 out of every 100 individuals in the general population. Most individuals have mildintellectual disability and the cause is generally not identified. A small percentage ofindividuals have severe deficits and who will need lifetime supports. The diagnosis ofintellectual development disorder requires formal psychometric testing to assess theintelligence quotient and adaptive functioning. Management is based on providinggeneral medical care, treatment of specific behavioral symptoms, early intervention,special education, and variable degrees of community based supports.
Background: Suggestions have been made that many claims concern false-positive findings in the field of child psychology and psychiatry. Methods: The literature was searched for concepts and findings on the validity of child psychiatry and psychology. Findings: Substantial progress has been made in some, but not all, areas and considerable challenges remain in all. Conclusions: The two major threats to validity concern the inability to examine brain tissues in life and the evidence that there is a high overlap among disorders. We emphasize the need to follow published guidelines on preplanned analyses and we note the dangers associated with unregulated flexibility in data analysis. We note the very important clinical and developmental findings that have been ignored, perhaps partly because of an excessive focus on technologies. Nevertheless, we are positive about both the accomplishments and the ways in which challenges are being met.
The passionate mind: How individuals with autism learn
  • W Lawson
Lawson, W. (2011). The passionate mind: How individuals with autism learn. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Autism and spoon theory
  • C Miserandino
Miserandino, C. (2003). Cited in Memmott, A (2018), Autism and spoon theory. http://annsautism.blogspot. com/2018/02/autism-and-spoon-theory.html. Accessed 28 Feb 2018.
Durham conference proceedings, obtainable from autism research unit. School of Health Sciences
  • D K C Murray
Murray, D. K. C. (1992). Attention tunnelling and autism. In Living with autism: The individual, the family, and the professional. Durham conference proceedings, obtainable from autism research unit. School of Health Sciences, University of Sunderland, UK.