As a parent entering into the realms of Autism, ADHD, PDA or any other neurodivergence it can feel overwhelming. Not just because of the weight those labels hold and possible difficulties with your children at home and school, but also because of the language used within the neurodivergent communities. One of the words that is starting to creep into conversations is monotropism. This article will discuss:-
Definition of monotropism
Benefits of embracing monotropic flow
Possible difficulties with monotoprism
PDA and Fluidity
Monotropic split and autistic burnout
Monotropism & good mental health
What is monotoprism?
The theory of monotropism was developed by Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser and published in the journal Autism in 2005. They stated, 'at any one moment, the amount of attention an individual can give is limited”
(Murray et al., 2005).
Monotropism is often considered to be the underlying principle behind autism. Fergus Murray in their article Me and Monotropism: A unified theory (2018) describes monotropism as a 'pull'. Murray describes montropism as resting on, 'a model of the mind as an interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel'. Monotropism = Happy Flow State
I would describe monotropism as being like a force that draws autistic people into a specific channel of interest much like a river, monotropism has momentum. The current within this channel of interest, creates an intensity of focus which can lead to high levels of engagement and motivation. Monotropism can create a happy flow state. A monotropic way of thinking and processing can sweep you along, it can be a wonderful experience of escapism, a 'happy place' where you become so hyper focused nothing else matters. This feeling and experience is validated by Pete Wharmby (2022) in his book, ‘What I want to talk about’ and also in his new book ‘Un-Typical’ (2023). Wharmby (2023) describes special interests as, ‘interests that are of huge importance…that seem to take up more space in our heads than regular hobbies do for neurotypical people. He goes onto say they ‘nourish and sustain us and can feel important enough as to give my life meaning at times where everything else seems hopeless.’ In the right environment, with time on your side, this enables you to tune out all other distractions (sensory and social) and enter a deep state of flow. When in a deep state of monotropic flow it is easy to lose track of time and everything around you melts away, this can be comforting and feel like a safe state to be.
Benefits of embracing monotropism
Attention to detail
Gain deeper knowledge and skills
High levels of focus
Better mental health Predictable Reassuring
Reliable Sensory regulation Calming Reduces anxiety
Reduces depression Joyful experience
It can enhance social experiences and communication (if that is what you want)
Embrace Monotropism Being in a state of monotropic flow can help to regulate your sensory system and mind, and I believe it can provide a relief from stress and anxiety, a chance to recharge and re-balance your energy. A point that Wharmby (2023) remind us of again in his new book by saying, ‘special interests help us to regulate our moods and manage our stress levels. This is an extremely important aspect that is often overlooked.’
Having a monotropic mind is something special and needs to be embraced and nurtured. Embracing children's special interests allows them to gain a deep insight into their 'play' or a subject of their own interest. This can sometimes lead to new areas of interest or other times allows a richer, deeper understanding and engagement of a particular interest. It is an opportunity for the mind to be free and for creativity to flow.
Being in a flow state is good for mental health and can also be a way of socialising, it gives opportunity to share these deep interests alongside or amongst other people that value the same experiences. At home or at school it may be worth exploring special interest clubs that autistic children can join in that provide opportunity for socialising with a shared interest and passion. Studies by Rebecca Wood (2021) show how beneficial this is for young people and Wharmby (2023) reinforces that for a ‘group of people who can struggle to find ways to interact with others, this can be an invaluable benefit'.
How monotropism may be misunderstood
For some children if their interest falls into the current trend of the time such as 'Minecraft', this could mask their autistic monotropic focus as all their friends could also be seen to be 'obsessed' with 'Minecraft'. However, the interests that engage autistic people are often more intense. Some interests may last far longer than a current trend and will be more consuming; it is the intensity of the interest that will have significance. When autistic children hyperfocus on their special interest they may not be able to easily switch or change their attention channels and re-engage in a different task or interest without it impacting on them. If it takes too much energy than they have reserves for then it can result in overwhelm or shutdown.
Wharmby (2023) proposes the idea that, ‘there’s a very real likelihood that much of what we see as ‘autistic behaviour’ is simply a collection of ordinary responses to prolonged and traumatic moments’. This would mean that it what is seen as ‘restrictive repetitive behaviour’ is actually a way of regulating and to be embraced and not inhibited.
PDA & Fluidity Autism is not linear and monotropism is not just a single track. Everyone's needs are fluid and having a monotropic mind does not necessarily mean you are limited or restricted. With a change of perspective it can be a wonderful positive attribute and having an intense passion can make life is richer and more meaningful. Having a monotropic mind means that autistic people often have what is called a spiky profile. This may be a reason why some autistic people are very good at some things and find other areas and subjects much more difficult o engage with. For many children their monotropic interests fall outside of the realms of a traditional school curriculum and need to be embraced and developed either in alternative settings, through home education or a balance of trying to navigate their authentic monotropic interests alongside or woven into the national curriculum. For those with a PDA profile this can have additional challenges as the demands from other people can make it even harder to be able to change channels of attention and engage in other tasks. Some non-autistic people may mistake this flow state as an autistic person being unable to concentrate and focus, they may view it as having 'restrictive or repetitive behaviours'. I would argue it is in fact the opposite, and it demonstrates a great ability to focus and engage at a very deep level, monotropism is something to be embraced. In a school setting this may need more careful consideration of how it can be woven into the curriculum or possibly met in other ways.
Difficulties of monotropism
Having a monotropic mind may present difficulties when demands exceed a person's capacity to manage. This may occur when there is a need to change channels of attention and re-direct energy to a different focus or task. This shift of energy, flow and concentration can affect executive functioning, the ability to complete everyday tasks successfully, manage time, organise and plan. All of these additional stresses can then cause a rise in anxiety and a reduced capacity to manage other sensory, social or communication and without time to rest, recharge and recover can result in overload or shutdown experiences.
Monotropic split and autistic burnout A school day, particularly a mainstream secondary setting does not lend itself to meeting the needs of an autistic person's monotropic mind. The impact of a school environment not meeting needs, possibly increasing sensory, social and communication difficulties that occur and a complex timetable cause constant shifts of attention, re-setting and breaking flow states. We need a better understanding of autistic identity and the benefits of understanding concepts such as monotropism. Within a school day there are frequent lesson changes, frequent changes of teacher and frequent changes of environment as pupils move from room to room. For each of these lessons to have a positive learning outcome it involves a whole shift of attention, change of energy and a redirecting of a pupil’s social, communication and sensory needs. For an autistic person this may feel like constantly having to ‘reset’ the body mind system into a new channel of thought. It is exhausting having to try and change channels of thought. The constant demands of having to split attention in this way without enough time to rest, recover and recharge in your own authentically autistic way can result in what David Gray-Hammond and Tanya Adkin (2022) describe as monotropic split which can lead to autistic burnout and mental health difficulties. Tanya Adkin's theory suggests that if autistic people are in 'environments where they must perform like a polytropic person, the amount of attention to detail they apply to multiple attention streams doesn’t decrease, all that happens is the monotropic mind experiences trauma by being pushed into trying to give more attention than any individual can cognitively give'.
Tanya Adkin calls this, 'monotropic split. The monotropic mind is having to split its attention and give more mental energy and attention than it has available to be able to withstand the environment it is in and remain safe'. I believe being in a state of monotropic split over an extended period of time can lead to autistic burnout and severe mental health difficulties. It can also lead to some people becoming stuck in a monotropic channel of negative or intrusive thoughts which can further exacerbate mental health.
Every person has their own capacity regardless of their differences of neurotype, these are all affected by who they are as an individual and their own background and intersectionality (race/ gender/age). In order to have successful outcomes (e.g. learning outcomes in school or be successful in work) and have good mental health, autistic people need space and time to engage in their natural monotropic flow state and special interest.
There are several factors that I believe need to be in place for this to happen, firstly Luke Beardon's golden equation points out we need the right environment.
Autism + Environment = Outcome
I believe we need to understand and accept neurodivergent differences and not focus on them as deficits. Positive outcomes can only be achieved by establishing compassionate connections and positive relationships to allow time and space, in the right environment for autistic people to engage in their monotropic interests and enter flow states. I believe engaging in monotropic flow states supports mental health as well as the learning outcomes of young people.
Environment + Positive connections + Understanding + Time + Space = Happy Monotropic Flow State
If autistic children feel unable to be their authentic selves at school, (or the rules of the setting do not allow this) and they don't have time to re-charge, and re-balance themselves, then, over time this could lead to autistic burnout and mental health difficulties.
If a child is experiencing autistic burnout then time away from the usual demands of life and more time nourishing their sensory system and engaging with the special interest and entering flow states will help support their mental health. We need to provide time and space in nurturing environments, so children feel safe to explore their interests. Wharmby (2023), suggests that embracing an autistic person’s special interest can go a long way. He states that, ‘this is particularly powerful with autistic children, who will often talk about their interests anyway, whether you are listening or not. Just sometimes, actually tune in an participate’.
Connections, positive compassionate understanding relationships are key to supporting good mental health, alongside being in an enabling environments that meets your individual needs. This combination provides the opportunity for autistic people to benefit and develop their potential through the joy of being in their authentic monotropic flow states.
Monotropism feels like it is at the very core of autism; it affects everything from communication, sensory systems, social functioning, ways of thinking, processing information and managing the demands of life from outside of the monotropic channel. The natural autistic monotropic mind needs to be understood and embraced to allow the creative potential to flow allowing both for deeper knowledge and a more regulated sensory system. Embracing Monotropism and providing opportunity to engage in special interests and flow states supports good mental health and a happier environment for everyone.
Monotropism = Happy Flow State.
A guest blog for PDA Space - original article here: Monotropism = Happy Flow State (thepdaspace.com) (March 2023)
cited: https://emergentdivergence.com/2022/07/14/guest-post-what-is-monotropic-split/ Adkin, T. & Gray-Hammond, D. (2022) Autistic people and the burnout-psychosis cycle - Emergent Divergence. cite: https://emergentdivergence.com/2022/07/12/autistic-people-and-the-burnout-psychosis-cycle/
McDonnell, Andy and Milton, Damian (2014) Going with the flow: reconsidering ‘repetitive behaviour’ through the concept of ‘flow states’. Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), 139–156. Murray, F. (2019). Me and monotropism: A unified theory of autism. The Psychologist, 32, 44–49. Wharmby, Pete. (2023) Untypical: How the World Isn’t Built for Autistic People and What We Should All Do About It. Harper Collins Wharmby, Pete (2022) What I Want to Talk About: How Autistic Special Interests Shape a Life, Jessica Kingsley Publishers Wood, R. (2019). Inclusive education for autistic children helping children and young people to learn and flourish in the classroom. London: JKP. Wood, R. (2021) Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings, Educational Review, 73:1, 34-54,
**Article written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher. Knowledge gained through various personal research and neurodivergent communities.
Autistic Realms is a space for parent support and teacher guidance.
I am not a medical professional or therapist**