Autism (Part 1) • Autism (Part 2) • Autism and job • ADHD • Monotropism
Quite curious, but some of the autism and ADHD traits described in this site are different manifestations of the same phenomenon
Monotropism is a theoretical approach to understanding attention and interest patterns, particularly in people on the neurodivergence spectrum. The term refers to a tendency to focus narrowly and intensely on one interest or restricted "attention tunnel" at a time. This means that the attention, instead of being distributed across multiple interests or stimuli, is deeply engaged in a limited range of interests or stimuli, filling the entire consciousness at any given time.
Conversely, polytropism is a more scattered attentional pattern. It would be the tendency to distribute attention over a wider range of interests or stimuli, which is inherent in most neurotypical individuals. It's hypothesized by some that this polytropic attention style is evolutionary advantageous for social species like humans. By attending to a wide range of stimuli, people can better navigate complex social environments, pick up on a variety of cues, and respond to changing circumstances.
This is not to say that monotropic attention doesn't have its advantages; the deep focus can lead to profound insights and expertise in specific areas. Monotropic people, when engrossed in their area of interest, might dive deeper into a subject than polytropic individuals. This can lead to a profound understanding and mastery of a particular domain.
Monotropism can have both strengths and challenges. In the context of autism and ADHD, it can offer insights into certain behaviors and experiences.
"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.
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. 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.
Since the amount of attention available to a person is limited, cognitive processes are forced to compete. In the monotropic mind, interests that are active at any given time tend to consume most of the available attention, causing difficulty with tasks that demand a broad attention span, including conventional social interaction.
Monotropic individuals have trouble processing multiple things at once, particularly when it comes to multitasking while listening. In order for a child to be diagnosed with an ASD, they must exhibit a restricted and repetitive behavior (RRB). These behaviors arise due to the inability of the monotropic people to shift attention and cause obsession with an object or ritual."
Some of the autism and ADHD traits associated with monotropism
Monotropism might relate to an intolerance to multitasking, the need for precise instructions, and can influence various cognitive processes such as abstract thinking and the ability to "see the big picture."
Let's look at these topics in more detail.
Intolerance to Multitasking:
- Deep Focus: The intensity of focus associated with monotropism means that when an autistic person is engrossed in a task or interest, they're deeply involved. Switching between tasks or trying to attend to multiple tasks can be jarring, inefficient and mentally exhausting, and may lead to sensory or information overload, increased stress or anxiety.
- Shifting Attention: Multitasking, by its nature, requires rapidly shifting attention between tasks, which requires people to continually break and re-establish their deep focus. For someone with a monotropic attention style, this frequent shift is challenging.
Need for Precise Instructions:
- Single Attention Tunnel: If the instructions provided are vague or ambiguous, it can be challenging for a person with a monotropic mindset to switch to another "attention tunnel" to fill in the gaps or intuit the expected outcome. Precise instructions ensure that the focus remains uninterrupted. They mean there's less room for ambiguity, allowing individuals to continue their engagement without the need for frequent context switching or clarifications. Clear instructions help in avoiding unnecessary shifts in focus (which can be energy-draining) and ensuring that the task is done correctly the first time.
- Literal Interpretation of Instructions: Many autistic individuals tend to think in more literal and concrete terms. Ambiguous or imprecise instructions can be confusing, leading to misunderstandings or unexpected outcomes. People with a monotropic attention style may deeply immerse themselves in a specific interest or task. Because of this, vague or ambiguous instructions can be particularly disruptive, pulling them out of their focused state.
- Routine and Predictability: Autistic people often find comfort in routine and predictability. Precise instructions help in maintaining this predictability and avoiding anxiety-inducing surprises.
Limited Abstract Thinking:
- Deep Dive into Details: Due to the deep and narrow focus associated with monotropism, an autistic individual might delve deeply into the nuances, intricacies, and minute details of a topic. This intense focus on details might sometimes make it challenging to engage in broad, abstract conceptualizations of the topic.
- Literal Thinking: Many autistic individuals can be quite literal in their thinking. This tendency might, at times, pose challenges when it comes to interpreting abstract concepts. However, it doesn't mean they're incapable of abstract thought; it's more about the route they might take to get there.
- Strengths in Specific Areas: The depth of focus in specific areas might lead to a deep and nuanced understanding of certain abstract concepts within those areas of interest. For example, an autistic individual deeply interested in programming might have a profound grasp of abstract programming concepts.
- Individual Differences: Not every autistic or ADHD individual will experience challenges with abstract thinking or holistic perception. Abilities and experiences vary widely within these populations. While the process of understanding abstract concepts or seeing the big picture might differ from neurotypical ways, it doesn't mean that autistic or ADHD individuals can't reach the same or even deeper understandings. They might just take different cognitive paths to arrive there. Some autists might excel in abstract thought and can easily see broader themes and patterns.
Problem with "Seeing the Big Picture":
- Challenge with Holistic Processing: The intense focus on specific details might sometimes overshadow the broader context or the overarching theme. This can make it challenging for some autistic individuals to immediately grasp the "big picture."
- Piecing Together: While the immediate perception might be detail-oriented, many autistic individuals can construct a holistic understanding by meticulously piecing together the details they've focused on. It might just take a different process than for neurotypical individuals, and require more time.
If you care about the wellbeing of autistic people, you need to try to understand autism. If you want to understand autism, you need to understand monotropism
As a trait, monotropism is a tendency to focus on relatively few things, relatively intensely, and to tune out or lose track of things outside of this attention tunnel.
Monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time, leaving fewer resources for other processes. We argue that this can explain nearly all of the features commonly associated with autism, directly or indirectly. However, you do not need to accept it as a general theory of autism in order for it to be a useful description of common autistic experiences and how to work with them.
Monotropism is just a different strategy for allocating attention, or processing resources, with advantages and disadvantages. There could be good reasons why humankind evolved to feature many people who are quite polytropic – prone to spreading their processing resources widely, better at keeping track of disparate things – while a few people are monotropic, tending to focus intensely and for prolonged periods, at least under the right circumstances.
Most human communication is based on several channels going on simultaneously. People use words, prosody, tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions (large and small) and body language, all at once – and they expect us to do the same. All at the same time! And all while keeping track of what it means that you are interacting with this particular person, in this particular capacity, all while resolving ambiguities in each of these channels, often by reference to the others!
If your processing style lends itself to using a small selection of channels at any given time, communication is naturally going to be different. Autistic people tend to miss some of the subtleties, and those of us who use words tend to rely on them much more heavily than many others – saying exactly what we mean, rather than leaving it to our faces and bodies to do most of the talking, or assuming subtext.
All of this means that sometimes, we miss things that seem totally obvious to our conversational partners – and vice versa. What’s obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to me!
Eye contact, for example, is not something we’re just randomly bad at; it can capture too much of our attention, using up processing resources we could be using to follow your words or notice your facial expressions. Those of us who have ‘flat affect’ might find that modulating our voices and arranging our faces would be too much to handle along with all the other things we’re trying to keep track of. If we are ‘literal-minded’, it’s likely to be thanks to a combination of expecting people to communicate more like us (saying what they mean!) and struggling to find the processing power to resolve ambiguities, while simultaneously keeping on top of all the information channels people expect us to be using.
A lot of the difficulty autistic people tend to have with task-switching and initiation is best understood in terms of inertia, which I see as a natural result of monotropism. Flow, or monotropic absorption, means giving yourself over to an activity more-or-less completely – really investing your mental resources in it. Because of that, it takes time to get into gear, and it takes time to get back out of it again. We need to shift a greater load of mental resources, because it is so much harder for us to divide them.
Most of the problems autistic people have with ‘executive functioning’ can be understood through this lens, and I think it does much more to explain them and suggest strategies than the label of ‘executive functioning’, which I’ve always seen as a useful but woolly concept.
There are many things that could help to make life easier for people with spiky skill sets who tend to throw themselves wholeheartedly into what interests them. Unfortunately, none of them are easy to achieve in a neoliberal society.
Employers could come to understand that neurodivergent people can be extremely good at their actual jobs, and that they are losing out by discriminating against people who don’t also have a wide range of barely-relevant skills, or who don’t fit with their idea of a “team player”. I don’t know what it would take for this to come about though, and I think we’re probably moving in the opposite direction.
Whilst most people will subsequently spend their day mentally juggling what to pay attention to, the theory of monotropism proposes that, when the autistic mind reaches maximum capacity, we disassociate, throw up a ‘do not disturb’ sign and become intensely preoccupied with what we have set our minds to.
According to the theory’s founders: Dr Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser, this way of thinking is best illustrated if you imagine that an autistic person has the ‘mind of a hunter’; an unquestionably awesome analogy which states that, when in the moment, distractions are not an option.
If it is indeed true that all autistic actions are brought about by an unbreakable concentration of limited priorities, then this fascinating theory provides solid evidence behind some of the most recommended techniques of how to support autistic people.
If autistic people are unlikely to shift from a task once it is set, then it only makes sense that you don’t overload us with more jobs than a high school employment fair. This means that, when it comes to organising our workload, longer tasks are preferred over short ones as, speaking from experience, it’s exhausting when we have to constantly shift from one chore to another.
You can find more details in Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism.
In conclusion, while the concept of monotropism offers a lens to understand some behaviors in autism, it's essential to remember that both autism and ADHD are spectrum conditions. Not everyone on these spectrums will experience attention in the same way or to the same degree. As with all generalizations, individual variations abound.
Autism (Part 1) • Autism (Part 2) • Autism and job • ADHD • Monotropism