Dimensions of Difference

By Dr Dinah Murray

From The Neurodiversity Reader (2020). Pre-publication version.

This chapter is based on an ecological, embodied, enactive and exploratory account of minds.  It offers an alternative to both medical and social models of disability, as it assumes that autistic differences have an embodied material basis that relates to resource allocation, and that those differences are not usually a medical matter. Like the social model, it sees the environment as often disabling. It locates both strengths and issues within an interest model of mind (and society) that amplifies the narrative about intense interests which threads through every set of diagnostic criteria that has ever been proposed.  It proposes that flow, force, direction and distribution of energy are essential features and that this directed force can be thought of as emotional (see Asma & Gabriel 2019). 

Outline of model

In both life and theory, Information, attitudes and points of view are welded together in interests; interests are what change when new information arrives (there are material correlations of this; they change by ruling out possibilities and assuming a new form as a result.  The process is more like digestion, sorting out the valuable from the waste, than the application of logic to propositions (see Asma and Gabriel 2019 and the philosophical appendix).

All humans have only partly overlapping concerns and histories (Murray 1986; common sense). The integrated account of minds as interest systems proposed here, argues that the varied nature of interests  – in focus, in topic, in subjective including sensory experience, in intensity, in motility, in use of feedback loops, in longevity, in social acceptability, in capacity to tolerate inconsistency – can be seen to underpin the varied personalities and dispositions of all human beings.

Mainly, I use the word “interest” in a way that fits with its very wide range of ordinary meanings, ie more as a natural than a scientific term –  but this chapter is partly meant to show how thinking about it within a dynamic mathematical model can be illuminating.   “Interests” range from fleeting moments to lasting passions, from narrow fixations and self-seeking plots, to duties and universal concerns; and communities of interest can extend from family and friends, teams, gangs, brands and nations with long histories, to casual folk at bus stops; and from mutual aid to the self-seeking vested interests of corporations and their actors, and the bureaucratic interests of the state.  Interests prepare us for action and for interaction.  Though this is mainly about humans, all living things have survival interests and act to further them.  Interests are where you direct your energy: energy is a scarce resource (Lesser and Murray 1999, Goldknopf 2013) which is constantly needed and must be distributed effectively and with minimum waste, both cognitively in the brain, and through processes of actual digestion.

Basic idea re autism as a human variant

This model depicts a far from equilibrium system, which in autism I suggest tends towards more extreme polarisation across whole systems, with steeper gradients  which create strongly differentiated positions in contrast to areas with an absence of defining information. This hyper / hypo pattern seems to recur at many levels (Holiga et al 2019, Cohut, citing Anderson 2019, Xu et al 2018 and see a multitude of personal reports).  It must I think have a deep physiological basis that is hinted at in the research of Pfaff and Barbas (2019), which suggests an “imbalance in the fundamental dichotomy between behavioral approach and avoidance” may be crucial to understanding autism. 

Distinctive intensity of interest has been in the diagnostic criteria for autism at every stage, yet has been little explored (see, though, Wood, 2019; Leatherland, 2018; Russell et al 2019; Lawson 2010; Murray D 1992; Murray et al 2005; Goldfarb et al, 2019).  We think self-generated activity in autism, including the activity of seeking  (see Asma & Gabriel 2019 who cite Panksepp, Friston  []) has a mono thrust (Lesser and Murray 1998; Murray D 2018): more processing resource goes to the focal interest with higher levels of subjective intensity and perhaps of objective local arousal, contrasting with areas lacking in structure and focus that have not yet been explored and hence not yet been sculpted by relevant experiences or transformed into ‘priors’ (ie prior beliefs) and competencies.  

That sharp contrast is a key part of the overall picture which tends to be pervasively forgotten because of the negative shadow that pathology casts over interpretation.   There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence about a phenomenon that implies the opposite of Pellicano and Burr’s ‘weak priors’ (2012)  – ie the extreme distress and emotional meltdown of many, especially younger, autistic people when confronted with unexpected change.  In autism the contexts for interpretation, when they are active, may be atypically vivid rather than weak – in extreme contrast with areas in which  ‘priors’ may be completely absent.  I suggest that the less autistic a person is the more thinly spread and tenuously connected their ‘priors’ will be over all, versus being connected strongly or not at-all.  The strength of those socially typical priors will tend to derive from their being widely shared, rather than from their inherent reliability, consistency or vividness.  This is a way of interpreting the ‘weak central coherence’ idea that allows for inherent compensations (Chown 2014, Leatherland 2018).

Areas of lack tend to be the dominant focus in the autism industry.   These are where the money goes, so the wider their mouths the more they can swallow.   Caveat emptor!  Let the buyer beware: the pressures to buy are huge, the ads seem authoritative and the criteria for atypicality are presented as pathological: all set to embrace more and more types of human as essentially ill just for being who they are.  So those who care about these diseased people must be obliged to make them better if it’s humanly possible (see ed Russell, Milton, Bovell, Timini Kapp 2019).  

The intensity of interest which is seen as criterial to identifying autism in all Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of Mental Disorders (DSMs 1-5) may enhance speed, accuracy, volume, duration, thoroughness, dedication, engagement, commitment.   These are known features of autistic people who have been blessed with the chance to contribute those qualities to the human pot.  If they are lucky enough to recognise and appreciate them in themselves – as I have always been – that can make the difference between chronic depression and the ability to act effectively in the world  (Russell et al 2019b; Shah 2019). 

The  impact of this intensity on emotional state is likely to be Either very X or Not X at-all (cf Pfaff and Barbas 2019).   This can be associated with catastrophic despair and a polarised desire for permanent avoidance.  Or the opposite may occur, as super ecstatic joy thrills through the whole body and bursts out in excited expression, likely to be way beyond what anyone around is tuned to expect.  From the outside both these types of emotional expression are likely to be stigmatised as inappropriate and unwelcome; that means that the exchange of emotional support which is a feature of happy communication and mutual connection is much less likely to occur (Sasson et al 2017; Milton 2012; Bolis et al 2019; Goffman 1959, 1964; Stern 1985; Jaswal and Akhtar 2018).

Extreme polarisation may be the key to monotropic patterns of resource distribution in autism (Murray F 2019, Lesser and Murray, D 1999, Goldknopf 2013), creating areas of relative consistency and stability (ie ‘priors’)- enduring within a highly dynamic n-dimensional system, which alternate with unstructured and untuned areas or ‘gaps’.  These patterns guarantee extreme variation within and between individuals, accepting that is key to understanding where and how one can intervene when those idiosyncratic patterns are causing social disruption and attracting the concerned gaze of parents, teachers and clinicians.   Because of problems with social embeddedness there is a strong tendency for other people’s concerns to be magnified and elevated at the expense of the individuals’ who are being worrying.  Parents are there to know best and all children are on a learning curve that needs support.  However lovingly these concerns are felt and expressed, they can impose negative expectations which become part of a person’s identity, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of their lifelong wellbeing.

It follows from the extreme variety of autistic skills, preferences and dispositions I have been describing, that interpreting large scale results in autism research is a hazardous business in which much information can be too easily lost if the sensitivity to individual detail is not preserved.  Being distinctive is what the diagnosis of autism itself requires, which strongly hints that understanding autism will be furthered by examining rather than discarding the qualities that make the distinction. 

The small exploratory study by Hogsboro (2011) comparing ABA with other approaches in a Danish primary setting showed up how important it is to look at individuals whose distinctive profiles will be ironed out in a statistical analysis.   It is clear that some children had experienced negative effects of intervention, in some cases to an extreme degree; some had also benefited.   The much larger PACT study methodology (Green et al 2010, Charman 2018) has similarly allowed the researchers to go on fruitfully mining the data from varied angles – and revealing some extreme differences between individuals. There are often unexpected findings in research seeking to follow up on averaged results – autistic research subjects tend to fall into polarised categories of response, which is in line with the long recognised distinctively autistic very ‘spiky’ skills – and preferences –  profiles.  We consider that this is the key to understanding and integrating other features of the highly varied autistic population.   

One of the consequences of applying a dynamic interest-focussed model of minds (and in fact of all living things) is that it has strong implications for improving practice.  For example, it implies that new learning and new understanding, and the noticing and filling in of previously un-noticed gaps, may in principle happen any time.   ‘Development’ is a lifelong process, not just a stage: learning more is a lifelong project.  From personal reports, including my own, I know that even among the most obviously able young people, noticing such qualities as being gendered, or the fact that other bodies are being directed by other minds, or the fact that those other minds may have other thoughts, or that one can’t directly feel other people’s pains, can all be experienced as sudden discoveries after several years of being exposed to the evidence.  People report that in retrospect it seems extraordinary to them that they missed out on these central facts for so long.

Capacity is highly fluctuating both in relation to inner states and environmental engagement: this is recognised in the UK’s Mental Capacity Act and its guidelines, and is a frequently reported and commented on aspect of life for autistic people.  It is also why ‘spoon theory’ – which has limited processing resources as its key theme ( Miserandino 2003, Memmott 2018) – is so popular, ie because it provides a neat way of describing the phenomenology of autistic daily experience.  I return in Points to Ponder at the end of this chapter, to how seeing autism in the context of interests can affect practice for the better.

Unfortunately, the fundamental idea of monotropism has to some extent been misunderstood and misrepresented since we first published it (Murray 1992, Lesser and Murray 1998 – not peer reviewed), 2005 (peer reviewed)) because it has not been understood in the context of minds as interest systems.  Positive hyperfocussing abilities – giving more to an individual’s leading interests and less to others  –  can make for enhanced processing not diminished, as portrayed in Tony Attwood’s description (2007) of it being like “looking down a rolled up piece of paper” and only seeing through that while not seeing the rest*  This is partially true but leaves out the complementary positives, and is thus much closer to the weak central coherence hypothesis than to monotropism conceived within an interest model of mind.  

The weak central coherence idea overlaps with a monotropism approach but pathologises some of the same phenomena while tending to ignore enhancements like those found by Mottron and colleagues (Mottron et al, 2006, Samson et al 2012) or which were singled out by autistic participants in Russell et al (2019b) such as the ability to hyperfocus, and the disposition to accuracy.  I would add to those a fierce desire to be right which can be a productive goad in the right context.  Seeing autistic nature fanatic Chris Packham getting answers wrong on the BBC’s Curious Creatures TV quiz is a striking illustration of this, provoking much amusement in his colleagues.  When one has both prioritised accuracy and done a lot of discovering and concluding things for oneself, there is more staked on being right, and commensurately greater distress at being wrong, than if one has merely borrowed one’s certainties from others.  

Psychiatrists Rutter and Pickles (2015) say “Howlin, Goode, Hutton, and Rutter (2009) showed that about a third of individuals with autism had exceptional cognitive or savant skills. This was a much higher rate than had been previously considered. What we do not know is why these appear to be more frequent in individuals with autism and what is the biological basis for the phenomenon” (my emphasis).  We believe this shouldn’t be a surprise, because the ability to have exceptionally focussed attention involves being able to devote more processing resource at any given moment to whatever is of interest.  In that light, the tendency to monotropic thinking is a transparent explanation for these exceptional abilities. 

In a study led by Ginny Russell in Exeter (Russell et al 2019b), autistic participants reported re their own perceived traits: 

“The ability to hyperfocus, attention to detail, good memory, and creativity were the most frequently described traits. Participants also described specific qualities relating to social interaction, such as honesty, loyalty, and empathy for animals or for other autistic people. In thematic analysis we found that traits associated with autism could be experienced either as advantageous or disadvantageous dependent on moderating influences.”

The enhanced processing by autistic people found by Mottron et al is also consonant with this model, though portrayal’s such as Attwood’s (2007) would suggest the opposite.  The monotropism idea has been attacked for implications it does not have because the working model within which it has been interpreted is poorly adapted to represent the role of interests, as the nature of interest and interests has been so little explored.  For example, lots of research has revealed that switching attention is often but not always slower in autistic research subjects of various ages:   “In those with autism, brain connections remained synchronized for up 20 seconds, while they disappeared faster in individuals without this condition” (Cohut 2018)  Yet within-task switching may even be superfast and coordination no problem. 

Michelle Dawson (2018) has tweeted that monotropism is contradicted by findings tested using some specific Ravens matrices, which show no problem for autistic participants in integrating and switching between different strands of information. When the task is clear and completing it involves switching attention, then if task uptake has been achieved, an interest model would predict no problem because the switching is within interest not between interests.  In fact so long as task uptake has occurred and been engaged with, then – all other things being equal – the monotropism account of autism predicts likely superior performance.  

Despite more than half a century of pathologised framing of autistic and other atypicalities, current world views tend to recognise that variety in every species benefits that species, and that ‘error making’ is in effect the same as exploration, be it at an individual or a reproductive species level (Allen & McGlade 1987.  From this perspective, predictability crucially frees up energy for exploratory behaviour towards the less predictable (Stern 1985). Cutting out the unexpected and providing stability are sometimes put forward as the key ingredients for autistic contentment, education and provision.  But that view (which can be seen as supported by predictive coding’s emphasis on reducing energy expenditure and restoring homeostasis through predictability) needs balancing against the value of spending energy on purposes other than reassurance that things have not changed . An interest system is necessarily a value system as its job is to allocate attention and action potential to what one cares about getting right.  

Unfortunately, care providers tend to use a need for predictability as an excuse to avoid adventure; anxiety about health and safety responsibilities also plays into this shutting down of experience (rather often along with personally dampening prescribed drugs, supposed to help control ‘challenging behaviours’).  Instead, emotional security should underpin adventure to the max. 

Pathologising human traits – and trying to fix them

There is no fully functional rational type of being against which a pathologised autistic phenotype can be measured, and there has never been such a type.  The search for ‘normal’ is a fundamental error in understanding diversity – an explanation for every specific sort of deviation seems called for.  From that angle, the disability industrial complex, which has been massively boosted by the inclusion of every labelled vulnerability, spots fertile niches and pathologies sprout ad lib.  Any similarities that emerge between such varied people may be as much in need of explanation!  That said, as i’ve been arguing, I do think there is a common thread that unites autistic dispositions and perspectives: namely a tendency to give more to one’s current self-generated, authentic, interest – whatever that is – and commensurately less to all other processing needs.  That creates a steep contrast between areas of excellence and areas of ignorance.  That can have dramatic impact on a person’s life course, both positive and negative.   Chances to learn and explore should be ensured at every stage of life.  

From this perspective, wide dynamic diversity is an inevitable feature both of the overall population of human thinkers and actors across time and space, and of individual thinkers and actors.  Yet in relation to autism, if a difference is identified, it will be automatically classed as a defect (Gernsbacher 2006; Dawson b)  

Interest is a quality that tends to elude measurement – except when it is deliberately (and perversely) reduced to ‘behaviours’. The third diagnostic criterion has always been about interests; within ABA and its variants, that has been reframed as about behaviours.  Behaviourism is a reduction of dimensions which creates an illusion of scientific worth by focussing only on what we can ‘know for sure’.  However, the effects of what we don’t exactly know can be as ramified and real – and use up more real energy to integrate – while also sometimes being fun to pursue (Stern 1987).

A main mistake of behaviourism is to deny value to what cannot at this point be measured.  New ways of measuring newly defined events have always been technology dependent  (Grant 1986, McCluhan 1964) and it looks likely that at least some of the behaviourist resistance to acknowledging the hidden life of minds must crumble as new light is constantly being shed on how much is happening in brains (if not on the meaning of those events), thanks to digitised opportunities.   Instead of obstructing and diverting autistic flow states, those should be integrated into the life flows of all around them: that is what inclusion should be about, not about fitting in through loss of self.

Understanding the new findings that are constantly being published in a coherent manner is one of the great challenges of psychology – or should we just be calling it bioenergetics?   I believe that the material basis for these systems is all about flow, force, direction and distribution of energy (Murray 2018, revised 2019; McDonnell and Milton 2014).  Natural variation in those, as well as in the highly varied topics that interest different people, implies a radical rethink of how autism results are understood and reported and contextualised with other atypicalities.

Gernsbacher, a well established US research psychologist  was one of the first to communicate directly and equitably with autistic adults such as Janet Norman-Bain, Michelle Dawson and Ralph Smith, and was one of the first to publish re the pathologising bias of research reports (Gernsbacher 2006).  She demonstrated that when identical features are found in the non-autistic subjects the polarities of supposed normality are reversed:  Oh dear! Autistic X has a thin brain lining ; Oh good! typical Y has a thick brain lining.  Oh dear! Autistic X has a thick brain lining; Oh good! typical Y has a thin brain lining…  is a light parody of this way of thinking.

Dawson herself has long noted that bias, and she regularly comments on positive research findings with a wry “Interventions sure to follow”.  Over and over again, observed differences are reported as defects when attributed to autistic people: but in our model, major differences can occur in many different ways and should be objectively noted, not assumed to be inherently functional or dysfunctional.    

Recall that in the diagnostic criteria everything is a pathology including strong and passionate interests.  This casts a dark shadow over the concept of autism: not everything is a problem and seeing it that way is itself disadvantageous, even though there are some real extreme difficulties that must not be discounted.  Even intense interests are frequently targeted in behavioural interventions despite the evident pleasure they bring.

One of the versions of social dysfunction autistic people are accused of is ‘seeking attention’.  That is wrong in more ways than one.  Firstly, for some autistic people, perhaps especially women, being focus of attention is an acutely uncomfortable situation.  I am such a person, and I can testify that when people assume my loss of emotional control is actually evidence of manipulative intent, the situation becomes instantly catastrophic.  A combination of projected inauthentic ‘mind reading’ from others, and extreme autistic reactions of derailment or meltdown can cause profound and lasting distress to all concerned with cataclysmic effects on both individuals and relationships.  As so often, we also find opposite patterns in autism, where the structured and predictable attention directed at performers on a stage can be handled by many autistic people with relative ease and pleasure.  

Secondly, it is not rational to view attention seeking as a pathology in itself when typical people are constantly and skilfully extracting attention from others, presumably because they seek that attention. – They do it with words and they do it with gestures: they do it competently because others respond warmly.  On those daily life occasions when we may have to actively seek attention ourselves, we are typically seen as awkward and possibly hostile, or not noticed at-all.  Then we are likely to be punished for succeeding if we eventually do get noticed.   These blatantly inconsistent attitudes do not encourage trust and serve only to confirm prejudice and reinforce stigma.

Tending to behaviour that seeks to gain attention,  to inauthenticity via ‘masking’, and to being ‘unable to read minds’ or ‘mind blind’ are routinely conceptualised as distinctively autistic trends.   These accusations are often internalised and can lead to distressing states of mind, ruminations and even suicidal thoughts.   It is no surprise that many autistic people see themselves as distinctively bad or worthless when this is the narrative they find themselves in.  Yet each of those descriptions is just as true of people who are not autistic.  As discussed above, communication routinely entails attention seeking, masking too is constantly deployed by most people most of the time.  For an account of the complexities of presenting oneself in everyday life, Goffman’s 1956 book on the theme from a sociological perspective remains unbeatable – Shakespeare on the theatrical nature of human performance is also a great source.   What appears to be most distinctive about autistic masking is that we notice doing it, and we really don’t like the sense of inauthenticity it gives us; also, we may hide by curtailing expression entirely rather than try to adjust our presentation subtly when we know we don’t know how; or we may try to do the latter by mirroring.  As I once wrote (ca 1966?) “I build myself a house of glass.  You look, and thinking you see me, you see yourself…”

I suggest that the discomfort of inauthenticity is pervasively more disturbing and distressing for autistic people. It is bound up with Why extrinsic rewards are likely to be less effective for autistic individuals than the intrinsic value of engagement:  For example,  “On a prospective memory task, autistics perform as well as typical controls when asked to help others, but not when offered a reward …In contrast to our predictions” (Atagassena  et al, 2019)– but not to the predictions implicit in the model of mind proposed in this chapter.  

Sports psychology is one of the most successful areas of professional expertise – it has rather clearly visible results.  Deci & Ryan, 2000 holds that  “Intrinsic motivation represents the most self-determined or autonomous behavior regulation by inherent interest, enjoyment and satisfaction.”   It recognises that 

“There are three types of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation toward knowledge is observed if an activity is performed for the pleasure or satisfaction of learning or understanding something.
  2. Intrinsic motivation toward accomplishment is defined as engaging in an activity for the pleasure of accomplishing or creating something.
  3. Intrinsic motivation toward stimulation occurs when an activity is performed to obtain stimulating experiences.”

In my experience autistic people typically share all those intrinsic motivations.   These are what we are most likely to do to enhance our flow states such as  Csikszentmihályi (1990) and McDonnell and Milton (2012) describe.  Among implications of that, it seems self-stimulation is just a special case of a universally valued feedback loop, and yet another case of inappropriately stigmatised and targeted behaviour, along with a futile struggle to block and frustrate it.  We seek what we feel a need for – there is nothing unusual in that: our methods are atypical but our needs are human needs.  

As Dutch researchers, Späth and Jongsma (2019) put it, Autistic people “usually do not deny their own needs, values and interests.  This makes them less prone than non-autistic people to adapt their preferences to external influences, which might be seen as sticking to an authentic way of living.”  They say we are “independent in [our] own way by following [our] genuine interests”.  To me these are central points to recognise if successful connections are to be made between autistic and non-autistic people.    

Given the positioning of all people within external power structures, forced inauthenticity creates even greater vulnerability by damaging self belief in one’s own capacities.  I suggest that it is both more disturbing for autistic people – as all felt disturbances will tend to be greater and all noticed contradictions more dramatic (see above and Murray 2017) –  and more likely that autistics will be subjected to it, given the pervasive hold of behaviourist thinking within the autism industrial complex and given the lowly positioning of those of all ages subjected to it. 

The guidelines to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) advocate the nice sounding ‘Positive Behaviour Support’ (PBS) approach to the difficult (‘challenging’!) cared for adults whose provision is monitored by them.  This has meant that even the best care providers, who might once have questioned the compatibility of this behaviour fixing approach with the official aspirations of person-centred attitudes and plans, have generally succumbed to the pressure to show they are using PBS, as the imprimatur of the CQC is essential for their survival.  (Because it is vaguely defined, that may not always mean much re what providers actually do, but is vital ‘window dressing’ for monitoring purposes.)

Another frequent accusation is of ‘mind blindness’ – apparently a ‘dysfunction’ that is especially prominent in autistic pathology.   This is fundamentally wrong from two very different angles.  It is wrong because nobody actually can ‘read’ or ‘see into’ another person’s mind.  Tuning in to another’s interests and substantially sharing prior assumptions can situate people in a comfortable dialogue in which good hunches happen about each other’s hopes and fears.  This is not much like reading, it is a lot more like dancing or sailing or improvising music together, and concerns reciprocal noticing,  intuition, engagement and attunement (Stern 1985, Bohlis et al, 2017,  Milton 2012, Green 2011, Constant et al 2018).  

This ability to tune into another’s interests is intact for autistic people, so long as the interests and background are authentically shared.  Indeed many autistic people feel that when attunement is successful it can be truly excellent (it tends to involve acceptance and appreciation, see Hallett 2019).  For example, a significant number of people report that time at Autscape, the UK’s Autistic led annual conference cum retreat, has a quality of mutual support and understanding that they rarely experience in other settings (  At Autscape, one is in the company of unpressurised other autistic people* in a pleasing setting with shared interests to the fore and the capacity to control interaction to an unusual degree, thanks to the interaction signal system of coloured cards that is in place. Like all social encounters anywhere, even at Autscape interactions can go horribly wrong.  Yet most of the Autscapees have an experience of belonging and of generously supportive kindness for which they feel permanent nostalgia the rest of the year (personal communications, many, over many years).

Heasman (2018) demonstrates that this mutual empathy is observable in other settings and with less obviously able autistic people, as does my own friendship with non-speaking autistic artist Ferenc Virag [].  We shared many insights and pleasures through shared activities and viewpoints – and he identified me as autistically on his side of the normal/abnormal boundary before I had identified myself.  We met at his autism specialist school when he was 13.  I used to spend some time once a week in the classroom with him.  After a few of these sessions, Ferenc was meant to be doing some writing before we explored other interests together, and he pushed the pencil and paper towards me – very clearly inviting me to take over the task.  I replied that “I think I might be in trouble myself if I did it for you” and he responded immediately by taking them back. 

That Milton’s well known ‘double empathy problem’ (Milton 2012) can reflect general differences between autistic/autistic and typical/autistic communications has been nicely demonstrated by Crompton and Fletcher Watson (2019) .  As well as being of similar ‘neurotypes’ helping effective communication, there is a pervasive need for shared interests at least partly shaped by common experience (contexts and ‘priors’).  Without that commonality all minds are ‘blind’ to one another: it is not a reading of propositions but a sharing of interests and projects –  and thus of attitudes and experience –  that is missing.  Understanding another person really is not much like having a theory.

Real problems

Part of relating honestly and authentically to autistic people is recognising the real difficulties and struggles we can encounter.  Assuming that if we just “tried harder” these could be overcome without social assistance is unfair for two reasons: because we are likely already trying as hard as we can; because other people typically can easily access social assistance as they have been busily prioritising social relations since they were born.

The real problems include a greater likelihood of extremely intensely felt experience, which must increase risk of acute pain and distress, and also of widespread numbness and confusion: these may have significant parallels with recognised trauma states.   “Having autism can sometimes mean enduring a litany of traumatic events, starting from a young age. And for many, those events may add up to severe and persistent post-traumatic stress disorder” (Gravitz, 2018).  In a personal communication Sonny Hallett wonders if autistic ways of thinking may “make us more vulnerable to developing the signs of trauma?…Does the impact of trauma exaggerate what are understood as autistic traits?”  My guess is that the increased risk of phenomenally intense negatives and positives I propose must boost the risk of trauma responses, and our poorly understood expressive behaviours’ impact on others must increase the likelihood of negative feedback further entrenching a trauma response.

That numbness and confusion which entail lack of clear direction may also underpin problems of inertia that can escalate into full blown life threatening catatonia.  Dr Amitta Shah’s (2019) psycho-ecological approach to restoring function to people stuck in this negative state involves significant structuring of the environment to scaffold action.  She has found this to be often an effective approach to what have been seen as medically intractable problems.  A more intermittent but also inimical pattern to desirable action may be associated with events of high importance which can seem to form a resource drain around themselves. 

As well as highlighting patchy individual excellence as a puzzle in regard to its relationship with autism, Rutter and Pickles (20015) also single out as a perplexing feature, “the frequency of temporary developmental regression involving language loss, which Pickles et al. (2009) showed applied to over a quarter of individuals with autism”.   Loss of language use tends to happen at one of two stages: during the initial baby to toddler process of acquisition; and in the teens when the will to emit speech sometimes seems to evaporate.  Both of these phases are widely seen as mysterious, and – unlike most features of autism (Murray, F, 2019) – how they fit in with monotropism is no more obvious than how they fit with any other story about autism.  However, if we consider that language is standardly used as a tool for manipulating interest systems (Mey 1985, Murray D 1986) we may gain some insight into the problems with it at these different stages, which are likely related to the upsetting – discombobulating – nature of surprise.  

Chomsky (1965) rightly made much of the infinite productivity of language systems: they are a wonder! But the down side is that except in a number of ritualised or scripted contexts such as meeting and greeting, or chanting responses, outside those predictable moments speech unleashes high degrees of unpredictability into the world.  When speech is lost in young children, perhaps that’s sometimes a sign of being troubled by its unpredictability, and that may be especially troubling because it has the power to wrench one’s attention any which way, obliging a sudden unexpected refocussing.   Complementary features of the surprise potential of speech emerge later in life if the limits of a speaker’s control over the impact of what they say become obvious to them or others.  Speech is meant to be used to express one’s own interests, yes, but also to manipulate other people’s, not steamroll or shock them.  Speaking, ‘without due care’ can have a catastrophically unpredicted effect on hearers.  When this enters a speaker’s awareness they may well be drawn to avoid its associated risks as they have become convinced they cannot work out how to exercise ‘due care’.  So, one way or another, speech is a high risk activity and that may provide an ecological explanation for its loss at these different stages.   

Points to ponder: how to fix your own behaviours

  • Remember how different others are from you, within a shared humanity
  • Consider that everyone likes truth, enjoyable experiences and stimulation 
  • Be frank, be clear and as honest as you can, including being open about uncertainties 
    • neither over-praise nor over-blame: doing either will undermine trust – be authentic yourself
  • Consider your relative powers
  • Consider how easily you can tap into social support systems compared to the other person 
  • If a person can tell you how they feel and what they can cope with, then assume they know better than you about that, and about what they can manage
    • please do your best to find those out by polite probing as required
    • be supportive, with humility
  • Try not to worry about the behaviours of others, either for themselves or for their impact on you: there’s probably not much you can really do except patiently expect better when more has been understood
  • Do not rush, processing time and sometimes recovery time are often needed by all parties
  • Do not assume all behaviours are communicative or in some way directed at you 
    • Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t: cultivate alertness to this
  • Try to notice it when you project your own interests and experiences into interpreting others’ – this is harmful to your chances of making an authentic connection 
  • Do not assume ill will unless you have very strong evidence 
  • Do not assume unsupported competence, do assume potential competence
  • Allow for lifelong learning
  • All people need to get others to align with their interests.  This can easily not work however skilfully attempted, due to the essential unpredictability and incomplete knowableness of humans, and their potential resistance to being realigned. 
  • Comfort and discomfort are part of the highly varied overall picture which should be factored in to understanding.
    • Promoting comfort enhances confidence and exploration potential
    • Creatures thrive in a comfort + excitement dynamic
    • Opportunities to explore and learn need to be part of everyone’s lives
      • Imagine how you would feel without them
  • Remember, nobody’s perfect and that includes you.

* The choice of a torch beam to characterise a monotropic focus in our 2005 paper (Murray, Lesser & Lawson) contributed to this and I regret it.  Murray 2018 proposes water as a better analogy because it has evident  flow, penetration and pressure.


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