Monotropism: An Interest-Based Account of Autism

Dinah Murray
National Autistic Taskforce, London, UK

For Fred R. Volkmar (ed.), Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders



Attention tunnelling; Ecological model; Resource distribution


The idea of monotropism makes most sense in terms of a basic model which sees minds as made up of active interests shaped by their histories of paying attention in a world (and in an imagined world).

This interest model of mind is ecological, embodied, and exploratory. Instead of applying emotionally charged values to categorize humans, it offers a more objective way of thinking about autistic and other human variations: it does not pathologize them. This is not just semantics, current diagnostic practice stamps “Rejected!” on the core nature of a large part of the human race, with profound repercussions, as history relates if we attend to it.

The model was developed initially as an approach to relevance or salience, so it is about what matters to a person; it is about what you pay attention to and why. Interests in action retain – are formally changed by – information acquired as they proceed. Homeostasis and reliability of action are pervasive values which are in tension with each other as bodies move through a world viewed through the lens of prior encounters. Thus interests are adaptively informed by their engagement with attractions, emotions, and possibilities.

“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 can be aroused, expressed in the world or the imagination, and informed. Their basic resource is emotional – an energetic force; its quantity as well as its direction and “flavor” tend to incessant change in any individual or set of individuals, against relatively stable patterns of bound energy within a vast network of n-dimensions and gradients, itself a value system.

The will to proceed and take some degree of risk depends on assuming reliable grounds for your actions: all that stuff you do not need to worry about, because it is already settled – sometimes referred to as your “priors” – informs all active interests. Active interests constantly probe at a person’s (or any living being’s) world-engaged edge. They involve having expectations: rough and ready and often disappointed. They can be aroused, informed, expressed/enacted, connected or disconnected, expanded or shrunk, and boosted or undermined. Emotional valences and gradients within an n-dimensional matrix change: possibilities get assessed; certainty is sought; boundaries are created; other goods are sought. Flows and waves and turbulence occur.

The monotropism idea about autism proposes that a leading interest will tend to get a larger share of the scarce resource, which is diverted at boundaries creating channelled flows. The corollary of this larger share can be rich, interest based, interconnections in some areas, with real gaps in other areas which may take others by surprise. Flows may also be held back by a significantly higher proportion of resource being assigned to “guard” the boundary relative to a non-monotropic pattern. When a boundary is at its least permeable, patterns which are hard to dislodge will emerge. Cases both of extreme avoidance and extreme attraction are likely and can be problematic as well as rewarding, even for the individual experiencing them.

These patterns of resource distribution can mean virtually undistracted flow versus virtually uncrossable boundaries. The flow states can be immensely satisfying and sometimes highly productive; the barriers can be like cliffs, “frightful, sheer” (Hopkins 1880). It is particularly important to avoid catastrophic events in this “landscape” as far as possible, as they are atypically hard to recover from.

Catastrophes involving sudden loss of capacity (see Thom 1976) may be precipitated by input of any sort: sensory, social, and imaginary; resources may be so scattered and unavailable, and the emotional temper so unsettled that much recovery time is necessary. A high intensity outburst is hard to get over and an inability to send out soothing vibes may get worse all round, if there is no let-up in the pressure. Monotropic people are less likely to have the resources available to repair the ruptured community of interest, therefore it is only fair to ensure they have a chance to get over it. Neurotypicals have to lead on this as they do have the resources, and must avoid projecting assumptions especially negative ones, or may risk causing lasting harm. This can be the downside of so-called “Theory of Mind”: high levels of very unreliable and often pejorative projections of meaning by “typical” people onto others (borderline “gaslighting”) are especially problematic if the others have no means to talk back. In every way possible, the more verbally capable people should gently, with minimum pressure, try to find out more from the inarticulate person and not assume they know best.

The embedding of the all or nothing monotropic disposition, into a very busy environment steeped in uncertainty and egotistical calculation, causes the problems that attract a diagnosis. Like everybody else, autistic people prefer to operate in a reliable and generally predictable world (see, e.g., Friston 2016). Autistic people’s ability to recover from the impact of unanticipated events which seem harmless to others can be so strongly diminished that a return to capable processing is long delayed. Some of this can be worsened by social pressures from neurotypical people for autistic people to conform. Pushing someone is always the worst, least mutual way to relate to them; doing that while emitting the hostile emotional vibes of the self-righteous can cause the worst possible experience for the socially wary.

See Also

  1. Double Empathy
  2. Ecological Model of Autism

References and Reading

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  • Woods, R. (2020). Commentary: Demand avoidance phenomena, a manifold issue? Intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety as explanatory frameworks for extreme demand avoidance in children and adolescents – a commentary on Stuart et al. (2019) Child and Adolescent Mental Health Volume, 2020. https://​doi.​org/​10.​1111/​camh.​12368.

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