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Embracing Autistic Children’s Monotropic Flow States

Article originally written and published for Neurodiverse Connection (Sept 2023)

Autistic and ADHD people are more likely to be monotropic than the rest of the population (Garau, V. et al., June 2023). This means they focus more energy and resources on fewer interests/tasks/ sensory input at any one time compared to non-autistic polytropic people. Developing a deeper understanding of monotropism and flow states can help support autistic children and young people both at home and in educational settings.

Monotropism

Monotropism is a non-pathologising theory of autism developed by Dr Dinah Murray, Dr. Wenn Lawson, and Mike Lesser in their article, Attention, monotropism and the Diagnostic Criteria for autism (2005). Embracing monotropism can lead to exciting new possibilities; it allows the potential for deep knowledge, new skills, and the engagement of flow states, which support sensory regulation and good mental health for monotropic people.

Flow States

Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). McDonnell Milton (2014) also supports the idea that repetitive activities can achieve a flow state which also supports well being. For many autistic monotropic people, their ‘special’ or ‘strong’ interests create flow states; this may be due to their interests being a source of safety, reliability, and predictability, which are all key factors to consider when reducing anxiety. Instead of learning being an effort, if you are in a flow state, it may feel like a joyful, fluid, meaningful, rejuvenating experience. Lawson (2011) argued that monotropism was a cognitive difference’; this difference needs celebrating!

Importance of Understanding and Embracing Autistic Identity

The theory of monotropism is helping to positively reframe autistic traits that may previously have been described as ‘narrow, restricted, obsessive, repetitive interests’ that needed interventions from teachers and therapists. Monotropism is an intrinsic part of autistic identity. Monotropic flow states are full of possibilities that can lead to deeper, wider knowledge, new skills, and creative potential. Embracing monotropism demonstrates that you value neurodiversity.

Environment & Monotropic Learners

Monotropic learners have different sensory, social, and communication needs compared to polytropic people due to how their attention resources are used. Beardon (2017) highlights the importance of the environment for autistic people in his famous equation: ‘Autism + Environment = Outcome.’ 

Fergus Murray (SARG, 2023) highlights the importance of the environment. They state;

“In the right environment, autistic people might enter this (flow) state of intense absorption many times on any given day - but few schools and workplaces are designed to accommodate that! It is also something that many parents fail to understand, so autistic people are often wrenched out of their attention tunnels constantly - an experience that can be intensely unpleasant and disruptive, taking the place of something that could be relaxing and restorative.”

Fluctuating Flow

It can be draining for a monotropic person to try and divide their attention across multiple channels. This could result in a person’s monotropic flow fluctuating, slowing down, getting ‘stuck,’ or people seeking other ways to try and regulate themselves. This may add to the anxiety and ‘impending dread sort of feeling’ that was described in the research looking at the ‘Experiences of social interaction from the perspectives of autistic adults’ (Black et.al. 2023).

Adkin (2022) describes how some people may experience a ‘monotropic split.’ Having to divide attention resources multiple times a day without time to rest and recover is not sustainable for many autistic people and can result in meltdowns/shutdowns and can seriously impact learning outcomes and mental well-being and lead to autistic burnout.

Providing opportunities for students to immerse themselves by learning in a flow state can help prevent mental health difficulties. However, this needs to be monitored for some people, as McDonnell and Milton (2014) and Grove et al. (2018) highlight. There is a fine line between ‘flow and negatively experienced compulsions’, which may also negatively impact mental health for some people.

Benefits of Monotropism

The research by Wood (2019) highlights some of the wonderful benefits of embracing flow states and the strong interests of autistic children, such as:

  • Incorporating the interests of autistic children in all aspects of their time in school can be highly beneficial for children and staff. (Children need less support if motivated)

  • Enabling autistic children to focus on their interests can have a positive impact on their ability to communicate.

  • Enabling autistic children to access their interests could facilitate their socialisation, especially with like-minded peers.

Ideas to Support Embracing Flow States

Transitions

As Ross Greene (2008) famously said, ‘Children do well when they can.’ Collaborative planning, and providing flexibility around the timetable, and extra transitional time between subjects could be beneficial not only practically but spending time discussing this can also enhance and strengthen relationships between staff and pupils. If a young person does not have enough time to rest, regulate and recharge when moving between attention channels (changes of staff/subjects/rooms), it can lead to sensory overload and meltdowns/shutdowns, attendance difficulties, and potentially burnout.

Keeping a flow state flowing

Monotropic learners may find it more challenging to focus on a subject that is not intrinsically motivating for them. Fidget tools, doodling, and moving can all help to maintain a flow state, which may help some children cope better and be more regulated. It could improve concentration and learning outcomes and make learning a more enjoyable, less stressful experience. Monotropism is fluid; what works for one person may not work for another, and needs may vary from moment to moment depending on many social, physical, and sensory factors.

Interest clubs

For many autistic young people, playtimes and dinnertimes can be a source of increased anxiety, masking, and social and sensory overwhelm; it may not feel like a ‘break.’ Having a club to go to or a chance to enjoy their interests may give young people something to look forward to. It could provide moments of relief, joy, and an opportunity to socialise and build meaningful relationships with those who share their interests too (Wood, 2019). Teachers may even find an improvement in their student's learning after they have had time to engage in their interests as they may feel recharged and rested.

Embrace Flow States

Embracing flow states allows monotropic learners to gain deeper knowledge and new skills, which can help build confidence and support their mental health and well-being. Monotropism is part of neurodiversity; by embracing children’s monotropic flow states, we can create more possibilities for them to achieve and explore their potential and enjoy their learning experience.









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