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Autism (Part 1)Autism (Part 2)Autism and jobADHDMonotropismQuestions for AI

Many autism and ADHD traits are different manifestations of the same phenomenon

Monotropism is an attention and interest pattern, or a cognitive strategy, posited to be the central underlying feature in people on the neurodivergence spectrum. In one of the videos, monotropism was named as the cause of autism. Although this statement sounds like bombastic rhetoric, there is a great deal of truth in it. Of course, monotropism is not the root cause, because it itself has its own reason (peculiarities of the physiological structure and operation of the neurodivergent brain).

So what is it, in simple terms?

Since the resource of attention available to a person is limited, cognitive processes are forced to compete for it. In the monotropic mind, attention is divided between fewer tasks than in most people, and the interest that is active at any given moment tends to consume most of the available attention resource (as opposed to a more even distribution in the neuro-majority). The term "monotropism" describes a restricted "attention tunnel" - focusing narrowly and intensely on a limited number of topics, or even one topic, at a time, and missing things outside of this tunnel. The attention, instead of being distributed across multiple interests or stimuli, is deeply engaged in a very limited range of subjects, filling the entire consciousness. So, monotropic people have difficulty processing multiple information streams simultaneously. Monotropism can lead to a highly specialized perspective and introduce challenges where a broad or flexible view is required, and make it harder to redirect attention. But at the same time, it provides benefits as well.

"Monotropism" means "tendency to one" in Greek. Yes, it could be just a tendency to focus on one object of interest, but very often it's a physical inability to focus on many, or an ability, but limited, with tremendous effort and energy consumption.

Conversely, polytropism is a more all-encompassing attentional pattern which uses many information processing channels simultaneously. It would be the ability (and 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 model 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 including danger.

This is not to say that monotropic mind 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. Anyway, monotropism is not an abnormality or a medical condition, and it can have both challenges and strengths. Human society as a whole only benefits from diversity of methods of processing and making sense of the surrounding world.

While the concept of monotropism offers a lens to understand some behaviors in autism and ADHD, it's essential to remember that they are spectrum phenomena. Not everyone on these spectrums will experience attention in the same way or to the same degree. As with all generalizations, individual variations abound. However, while there are even people on the spectrum who have a very polytropic mindset, monotropism is still very common and even typical in neuro-minorities.

Some of the autism and ADHD traits associated with monotropism

This section is written by ChatGPT (with a little editing by me).

  1. Immersion in Activity and Intolerance to Multitasking (Autistic Inertia):

    • Special interests:
      Monotropic people tend to delve deeply into narrow interests and tasks. For example, they may be very passionate about one topic and collect detailed information and facts about it. This may involve hours of study, collecting, creating articles and websites, socializing with like-minded people, or other forms of deep engagement with an interest. As a result of intense hobbies, autistic people may possess unique knowledge and skills, and become experts in their field. Because of monotropy, people on the spectrum may have a more limited range of interests than neurotypicals. This can manifest itself in the form of RRB - Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors.

    • Deep Focus and Shifting Attention:
      Autistic inertia can be understood as a state where an individual finds it difficult to start, stop, or change activities. This is not due to a lack of motivation or unwillingness to put in the effort but is inherent to how neurodivergent people process and allocate their attention. When a monotropic person is engrossed in a task or interest, they're deeply involved. Multitasking, by its nature, requires shifting attention between tasks frequently and rapidly, which requires people to continually break their deep immersion in the current task and re-establish their focus on something different. 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.

      Creating predictable and structured environments can help minimize the need for sudden shifts in focus, reducing the impact of inertia. Providing clear, advance notice of transitions between activities can help prepare an individual for the change, making the shift in focus easier to manage. Recognizing the value and intensity of a neurodivergent person's focus can lead to more effective strategies for engagement and learning, acknowledging that this focus is a strength, even if it comes with challenges in shifting attention.

  2. Intolerance to Uncertainty:

    • Need for Clear Instructions:
      Vague, imprecise or ambiguous instructions can be confusing and disruptive, pull out of the focused state, and lead to misunderstandings or unexpected outcomes. People with a monotropic mindset may deeply immerse themselves in a specific interest or task. That can be challenging for them to switch to another "attention tunnel" to fill in the gaps or intuit the expected outcome. Precise instructions help in avoiding unnecessary attention shifts (which can be energy-draining), and ensure that the focus remains uninterrupted. Less room for ambiguity allows individuals to continue their engagement without the need for frequent context switching to clarify a misunderstanding. This facilitates the correct completion of the task quickly and right the first time.

    • Routine and Predictability:
      Autistic people often find comfort in routine and predictability. Precise instructions help to maintain this predictability and avoid anxiety-inducing switch of the single "attention tunnel" to a another context.

  3. Limited Abstract Thinking and Holistic Perception ("Seeing the Big Picture"):

    • Literal Thinking:
      Many autistic individuals can be quite literal in their thinking. They perceive only what they see "in the here and now". This tendency might, at times, pose challenges when it comes to interpreting abstract concepts.

    • Focus on Details Overshadows the Overarching Theme:
      Holistic perception involves the ability to integrate and synthesize information from various sources to form a comprehensive understanding. Monotropism may make it challenging since monotropic individuals are highly detail-oriented - they might dive too deeply into one separate nuance of a situation and become so absorbed that there is no room left in the consciousness for anything else. While this is very advantageous in tasks that require precision or in-depth analysis of a particular minute detail, it might cause these people to inadvertently overlook other crucial aspects of a situation, neglect the interconnections between various elements and fail to see how individual details fit into the broader context. That impedes the abstract conceptualization of the bigger picture and limits effective analytical and strategic thinking. Based only on narrow, isolated information, without consideration of the more general context, a person makes an incomplete assessment of a situation, which can lead to inaccurate conclusions and making wrong decisions.

    • Difficulty in Identifying of Complex Cause and Effect Relationships:
      Despite increased logical thinking, some autists find it difficult to determine what has led to a given outcome if a whole chain of events has occurred. Even if each individual event is concrete and monotropism does not interfere with comprehension (and even helps), the entire sequence is an abstract set of many stimuli. The desire to delve deeply into a single sub-problem reduces flexibility of thinking, i.e. the ability to see the interrelationships between different elements and to understand how changes in one part of the system can affect other parts. This makes it difficult to analyze and understand complex systems that may involve many variables and factors, and to solve technical problems that are the indirect result of remote root causes. Many neurodivergent people also have difficulty anticipating the consequences that an event may lead to, which interferes with everyday life (e.g., when planning personal finances or predicting the reactions of others to certain words and actions).

    • Problem with Memorizing the Sequence of Actions:
      When a monotropic person focuses on the current step of a multi-step process, that fills up the entire working memory (a cognitive resource that is used to temporarily store information while performing tasks). This leads to a loss of overall context, i.e., connection to the process as a whole, and forgetting the next steps. To cope with this challenge at work or in everyday life, it can be helpful to create detailed instructions or checklists with step-by-step descriptions of the algorithm of actions.

    • Not Necessarily!
      Not every autistic or ADHD individual experiences 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 all neurodivergent people are incapable of abstract thinking. Many of them might just take different cognitive paths to arrive there, which could possibly require more time or effort. In fact, many can reach the same or even deeper understanding. While the immediate perception might be too concentrated on small elements, many people on the spectrum can construct a holistic understanding by meticulously piecing together the details they've focused on. Some of them might even excel in abstract thought and see broader patterns than are apparent to neurotypicals. There are many examples of autistic workers offering very unexpected while working solutions.

  4. Limited working memory and difficulties in oral business communication:

    • Limited working memory
      Humans have two kinds of memory:

      Working memory: short-term storage of a small amount of active information that either comes from the environment or is retrieved from long-term memory. This information is directly used for ongoing thinking activities such as reasoning, solving logical problems, comprehending complex information, and decision making.

      Long-term memory: passive information storage, which is activated only when necessary. It provides long-term storage of information received from the working memory, and is reloaded into the working memory at a later time.

      These terms were introduced in the 1960s in the context of theories that compared a brain to a computer.

      Working memory is a system of very limited capacity. Because monotropic individuals can focus intensely on a narrow range of interests, their working memory can quickly fill up with information related only to those interests. This can lead to difficulties in perceiving, retaining, and processing new information.

    • Problem with memorizing a sequence of actions
      When a monotropic person focuses on the current step of a multi-step process, that step fills the entire working memory. This leads to losing the overall context, i.e. the connection to the process as a whole, and forgetting the next steps. To cope with this challenge at work or in everyday life, it can be helpful to create detailed instructions or checklists with step-by-step descriptions of the algorithms of actions.

    • Difficulties in oral business communication
      Business communication often requires rapid processing of incoming information and adaptation to changes in the evolving topic. In the course of a discussion, new information may "erase" ("overwrite") previous information, making it difficult to follow the flow of the conversation and leading to a loss of the narrative thread. Or new information may not be perceived at all because the brain is still busy processing the previous information. For a person with monotropism, remembering several aspects of a discussion can be painful and exhausting, or even impossible.

      It is difficult to simultaneously listen, process information by overlaying it on previous information, apply it to a problem and formulate an answer. The realization that this may become visible to interlocutors and affect professional reputation is not only traumatizing, but is itself an additional channel of information processing that needs a place in the working memory, which only aggravates the situation.

    • Recommendations
      Direct participation in discussions that require analyzing a situation and seeking possible solutions can be difficult for individuals with monotropism, and the need to respond "in real time" is often a highly traumatic experience. Exemption from such meetings respects their natural communication needs and preferences.

      If attendance at a meeting is unavoidable, it may be helpful to provide information in writing in advance, including the agenda. This will allow the person to review the information in a relaxed environment, prepare for the conversation and think about their issues.

      After the meeting, it is highly desirable to provide a written summary of the meeting, the conclusions reached and clear instructions for action. Analyzing the outcome of the meeting in a relaxed environment without having to immediately respond to verbal information can greatly facilitate planning the next steps. This will allow monotropic workers to contribute to projects and tasks more productively, drawing on their unique ability to focus deeply on aspects of work that interest them. This approach helps retain the valuable insights and observations they can offer.

  5. Social life:

    • Reduced Awareness of Surroundings:
      Some monotropic individuals may be less aware of their immediate environment or social cues because of their intense focus on their current thought. This can hinder their ability to understand broader social dynamics.

      Social gathering neglect is an example of such behavior - people may fail to notice social cues around them. They might not recognize when other people are trying to join the conversation or when someone is trying to introduce them to new acquaintances. As a result, they may miss out on valuable social interactions and fail to perceive the broader social dynamics at play in the gathering. There have been many cases where people have found themselves uninvolved in the neurotypical "social dance", causing them to be considered rude, even though they didn't mean to offend anyone (this is a perfect example of judging others by themselves, and prejudging and disrespecting people with a different type of brain).

      There can be also a problem with workplace interaction oversights. Consider monotropic people working in an office environment. They are highly focused on their specific tasks and are known for their deep expertise in a particular area, like software development. They often engage in detailed technical discussions with colleagues. However, in their pursuit of excellence in their specialized field, they may neglect to pay attention to broader workplace dynamics. They might not notice subtle changes in team dynamics, office politics, or shifting project priorities. This can lead to difficulties in adapting to changes in the workplace or collaborating effectively with colleagues who have a broader perspective. The narrow monotropic focus on their expertise may limit their awareness of the holistic workplace environment.

    • Avoiding eye contact:
      For some autistic people, eye gazing can be unpleasant or intrusive and they prefer to avoid it. How is this related to monotropism? The fact is that eye contact is an important non-verbal element that conveys a lot of information, including emotion, level of engagement, and intentions. So, it's a separate "attention tunnel" in and of itself. The autistic person looks away or down so as not to take resources away from the main communication channel of in the conversation, concentrating fully on it.

    • Slow and intermittent speech:
      People can process information deeply and intensively within their focus of attention. This means that when they express their thoughts or ideas, they may carefully weigh every word to convey information accurately and completely because they feel that every detail is important for the other person to understand. Accuracy and diligence in speech requires additional resources, which can lead to slower conversations and even micropauses for thinking, giving the uninformed interlocutor the mistaken impression that the person is unsure of what he or she is saying. The tendency to talk "like everyone else" (i.e., quickly and confidently) is an example of autistic masking (as is forced eye contact). But monitoring your speech is a separate "attention tunnel", for which you may not have resources due to monotropism.

    • Infodumping:
      The term describes a situation where a person "loads" people with information about his or her special interests regardless of whether it is of interest to anyone else - without picking up on the signals of interlocutors that they are not eager to listen and don't interrupt the monologue just out of politeness. As mentioned above, monotropic people can have difficulty shifting attention from one task to another and can be slow. This can lead to the fact that when they begin to talk about their interests, they may continue to share information without considering how interesting or relevant it is to the listener. Autistic people may also have social difficulties, including difficulty in assessing the interests and needs of others. They may not always pick up on non-verbal cues that indicate their information may be annoying or inappropriate in the moment, because the "attention tunnel" is occupied by someone else.

      Autistic people have a natural need to talk about their special interests, it's an autistic way of communicating. So infodumping is not just about "loading" people with information that is not interesting to them, but is often a way of showing your desire to communicate with these people, form a connection with them and find a "common ground".


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 [a set of such phonetic features as tone, volume, tempo, general timbre coloring of speech], 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' [a reduced emotional expressiveness] 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.

From Monotropism: The Most Accurate Autism Theory You've Probably Never Heard Of:

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.

Autism (Part 1)Autism (Part 2)Autism and jobADHDMonotropismQuestions for AI

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