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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.
... A guide to what a good theory looks like is located on page 77 that combines scientific method with community perspectives. A sign of the conflicting views is the minimal coverage of what is regarded by many autistic persons as the strongest autism theory, Monotropism (Murray 2018;Murray, Lesser, and Lawson 2005). On page 150, Furgus Murray notes it is lacking empirical investigation. ...
This is a book review of the "Autism: a new introduction to psychological theory and current debate" authored by Sue Fletcher-Watson and Francesca Happ�e, (2019). The book review has not been peer reviewed. Free to view versions of the article are available through this link:
... The concept of monotropism nevertheless constitutes a more constructive way of appraising the cognitive dispositions of autistic people, setting aside pejorative framings such as "fixated" (APA 2013) or "obsessive" (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 1999), to be replaced instead by an "interest model" of autism in which the advantages of this cognitive style are promoted (McDonnell and Milton 2014;Murray 2018). Moreover, this model also creates opportunities to revaluate weak central coherence theory -a posited difficulty in understanding the general meaning of information rather than focusing on individual details (Briskman, Frith and Happé 2001) -as well as the disparaging notion of "repetitive behaviour" (Bodfish et al. 2000), which could also be usefully reconsidered from the perspective of monotropism (McDonnell and Milton 2014). ...
Full-text available
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. Meanwhile however, and notwithstanding efforts on the part of school staff to provide support, the inclusion of autistic children in the school curriculum and additional activities is poor. Therefore, in this article, by employing empirical examples from a case study based in five mainstream primary schools in England, and elucidated via thematic analysis, I consider the role and functions of the strong interests of the 10 autistic children who participated, incorporating the views of school staff (n = 36), parents (n = 10) and a sample of autistic adults (n = 10). I delineate how the school staff responded to the intense interests of the autistic children and argue how accepting this cognitive trait can be related to a range of educational, social and affective advantages for the children, as well as less effortful, more empathetic and skilled support on the part of school staff, including a reduction in prompting and task repetition. Furthermore, by suggesting comparisons with the interests and motivations of all children in school, I posit that autistic children in particular, and all children in general, might gain from a deeper cognisance of this trait, which could therefore be incorporated profitably into curricular and pedagogical practices.
Full-text available
Autism is still widely seen as mysterious – so much so that the most widely recognised symbol of it (unpopular in the autistic community) is a puzzle piece. Various psychological theories of autism haven’t helped all that much, largely because all of the most established ones leave vast swathes of autistic experience completely untouched, and tend to leave people with harmful misconceptions. The one theory I think comes anywhere close to explaining the whole shebang – monotropism – has been largely overlooked by psychologists. Full article:
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.