Theory Vs Trait

Originally a Twitter thread.

I want to talk a bit about Monotropism as a theory of autism vs. monotropism as a cognitive trait.

The first thing to say is that it was always both: the trait was identified because it seemed to explain so much about autistic experience.

Dinah Murray (that’s my mum) started thinking about this around 1991, and first presented on it at the Durham autism conference in 1992. @WennLawson started arriving at the same conclusions around 1993. They first met in 1998.

Wenn & I wrote this history:

In 2005, Dinah and Wenn, together with Dinah’s friend and collaborator (and for a long time my mentor) Mike Lesser set out in the @journalautism how “having few interests highly aroused, the monotropic tendency” elegantly explains all the DSM-IV criteria.

They compared Monotropism with the dominant cognitive theories of autism, and they showed that it provided a neater and more comprehensive explanation than any of them.

Of course the diagnostic criteria for autism are flawed; I used a different framing

Now, what do I mean when I argue that Monotropism works as a unified theory of autism?

I mean that it provides an explanatory framework for making sense of autistic experiences and behaviours. There are some things it explains in an obvious way; other things, less so for sure…

I feel confident in stating that Monotropism provides a *more* comprehensive framework for understanding autism than any of its major competitors – but then, none of its major competitors are very good, despite still being taught widely at university!

Is it comprehensive ENOUGH?

Does it explain autistic senses being heightened or dulled, independently of focusing on them, for example? Maybe! But here I reach for speculative neurological explanations – senses are strengthened and honed by regular use.

Atypical resource allocation could lead to that, yes?

There are various aspects of autistic experience and cognition that require MORE than monotropism to explain, but that’s hardly surprising, and probably inevitable!

I mean humans are COMPLICATED y’know? Oh boy are we ever complicated. Even as individuals, let alone in societies!

So: I don’t take issue with people who don’t find Monotropism persuasive as a comprehensive account of how autistic differences arise, although I would always urge them to look into it deeper.

Understanding monotropism as a trait is vital for understanding autistics, either way!

A theory doesn’t need to explain absolutely everything, in order to be useful; social science is full of theories which apply much of the time, but not always, and phenomena that can be understood in different ways, using different lenses.

Still useful…

The main reason I push Monotropism as a theory of autism is because I think it’s a lens that can be enormously useful in making sense of autistic people’s experiences.

It works for a very diverse range of #ActuallyAutistic people, but maybe not all of us.

Other lenses may help!

There’s another big reason that I push hard for Monotropism to be taken seriously as a theory of autism: other theories don’t just have far more limited applicability, they are actively dangerous.

People should be learning about Monotropism, NOT those.

The final reason I push Monotropism as a theory of autism (not just a trait that everyone who knows autistic people needs to understand) is that I’m *really annoyed* that it’s taken so long for researchers to pick it up.

The 2005 paper *should* have stopped them in their tracks.

So, yes, I’m obviously emotionally invested in this: for my mum, who died a year ago today, the theory of Monotropism was a huge part of her life’s work.

She was dedicated to ensuring that autistic people were understood, listened to and taken seriously.

If you feel like Monotropism doesn’t describe your experiences as an autistic person, fair enough; maybe you’re not monotropic, or maybe you’re just not seeing it the way I’m seeing it…

There’s still a lot to hammer out in all this, I think.

I hope the discussion is fruitful.

I wanted to say a bit more about #monotropism as a trait, because you don’t have to accept the idea as a general theory of autism for it to be a useful way of making sense of autistic experiences.

Most autistic people find it relatively hard to process multiple things at once…

The monotropic tendency shows itself in lots of different contexts. Communication is an obvious one. Another is the characteristic (but not universal) intensity of autistic ‘special interests’.

Monotropism is sometimes thought of as being all about that.

It’s not, but it’s big.

Autistic people tend to keep returning to topics we’re especially interested in.

Other people do this too, but on average autistic people do it more often, more intensely and with more resistance to being pulled away.

Intense interests lend themselves to flow state and comfort.

Autistic ‘special interests’ have often been pathologised. ‘Restricted and repetitive interests’? Try ‘passions’.

The dominant non-autistic theories of autism have very little to say about this, and what they do say isn’t persuasive.

Many tragic misunderstandings have followed.

Even if someone takes nothing else away from the idea of monotropism, it counts for something if they at least start to have an inkling of the intensity, and the purpose, of autistic passions.

Failing to understand this trait will mean failing to understand most autistic people.

Related to the intensity of autistic interests is the idea of an attention tunnel.

Whatever captures the interest of a monotropic person, at any given time (which is not necessarily a ‘special interest’!) tends to *really* capture it – again, compared with a polytropic person.

Our attention tunnels might be about concerns, or they might be about something shiny that’s pulled us in just at that moment… OR, yes, they might be something relating to those ‘special interests’.

Regardless, being pulled out of them is usually uncomfortable, and takes time.

Originally tweeted by Fergus (@MxOolong) on 7 July 2022.

7 responses to “Theory Vs Trait”

  1. "Crunchy" avatar

    I have lost days pursuing a narrow interest at regular points in time, and always in response to not feeling like I fit in. I don’t know if I’m autistic, as a kid in the 60s and 70s, my mum protected me from diagnosis and I fell into a career that suited my apparent ND way of thinking (audio editor/producer in spoken word – editing, the autistic rabbithole!)

    Now I understand my focus and burnout. Now I understand why I felt like I was speaking english to my peers but it was like they were hearing me speak some other language.

    Now I understand when a project that involves research, learning and practical skills draws me in and shuts out the world. I’m retired now, I have a few projects, and I don’t have to meet a “normal” boss’ expectations of me. I am fulfilled, and now I’m grateful of an explanation.

  2. Naomi avatar

    This makes so much sense of so many things.
    -a 90s kid seeking diagnosis

  3. Debbie Davis avatar

    Thank you for working on this

  4. Martina Sundelin avatar
    Martina Sundelin

    Just got diagnosed with autism some months ago and have been doing a deep-dive into the research on the topic. Thank you for making this website, it’s an incredible resource.

  5. Ellen Roy avatar
    Ellen Roy

    Recently diagnosed 46f. This makes so much sense to me! It’s definitely like being in an attention tunnel and so soothing to get into when needed. That’s if I can find my way in sometimes… Difficult to get out of.

  6. Yolanda Brumbeck avatar
    Yolanda Brumbeck

    This makes so much sense…I have been seeking diagnosis for a while, but it’s so hard to be even taken seriously.
    I scored a 229/235
    Test read, that I’m more monotropic that 99% of autistic individuals, that was very surprising to me, how can that be??!!!???

    1. Fergus avatar

      To be fair, no psychological measure is likely to give a completely precise value for what it’s trying to measure, and this one is really on its first iteration!

      It may be that your result is especially high because you’re more ready than most people to say you strongly agree (or disagree), for example – a trait which is likely reflective of monotropism, but not necessarily to the degree it shows up in the figures!

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