Pete Wharmby on Monotropism & Special Interests

Pete Wharmby, autistic author and former English teacher, has written two books that talk about monotropism, and a chapter in a third (see below). I (Fergus Murray) recently had a chat with him about monotropism, education, writing and the internet, for AMASE. We also shared a panel with Elliott Spaeth on neurodiversity in education, at ITAKOM.

The book cover of Pete's first book. It shows an old-fashioned microphone.

Pete’s first book is What I Want to Talk About: How Autistic Special Interests Shape a Life, and it introduces the idea of monotropism on the very first page. In a sense it’s a book all about monotropism, but only the most obvious aspect of it: the intense interests, or passions, that shape every autistic life to a greater or lesser extent. He partly uses his own special interests as a lens to talk about his own life, but he insists that this isn’t a memoir.

His second book is Untypical: How the world isn’t built for autistic people and what we should all do about it. It’s essentially a book of the collective wisdom of the autistic community regarding autism, and what the existence of autistic people means for wider society. Katie Cebula wrote a great review of the book here.

Besides a couple of mentions of monotropism scattered here and there, there are four pages given over to it in the chapter ‘More than a Hobby’, for which he asked me to sum up some of the key ideas. Here’s a short extract:

There’s comfort to be found in the minutiae of life, something that I find whenever I give myself the chance to really zoom in on things and study the intricacies. Perhaps this is why miniatures of all kinds are very often popular with neurodivergent folks.

Monotropism as a theory helps us to understand why this is so often the case. We autistic people, as Dinah Murray’s son Fergus pointed out to me, “tend to concentrate our attention (or processing resources) on relatively few things at a time. That is, where most people are polytropic – meaning that they have multiple channels of processing going on, or multiple interests aroused at a time – autistic people are monotropic, having our attention fully occupied by a small number of interests at any moment.” As a result, we are able to devote enormous energy and time to singular focuses. We approach the world like laser beams, I suppose, rather than wider car headlights or floodlights, with everything within the narrow focus of our attention drilled down, into its very depths.

Untypical, p.120

Incidentally, Pete narrates his own audiobooks, and does an excellent job of it. His English-teacher training shows, and his reading helps bring out the humour in his writing.

Pete also wrote a chapter, Special Interests and Their Role in Keeping the Teacher in the Classroom, for Learning from Autistic Teachers: How to Be a Neurodiversity-Inclusive School. Edited by Dr. Rebecca Wood, this book is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Dinah Murray, whose work is archived on this site. Monotropism turned out to be a major theme of the book: as the foreword by Laura Crane and Francesca Happé puts it:

The autistic contributors to this volume certainly echo Wood’s (2021) recommendation that there needs to be greater consideration of the ways in which monotropism can be incorporated into curricular and pedagogical perspectives; both for the benefits of students and their teachers.

Learning from Autistic Teachers, p. 12

Monotropism is further discussed in chapters by Kieran Rose (who wrote and narrated the video on our Explanations page), Joan McDonald, and Claire O’Neill, who have all championed the idea in other arenas as well (see the links from their names).

Finally, Pete is giving a free webinar about Monotropism for SWAN on the 20th of February. “Pete will explore how monotropism shapes the lives of autistic people, using his own experience as a jumping-off point, and look into the huge benefits it can being, and also where we may need to be better understood.”

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