History of Monotropism

Fergus Murray and Wenn Lawson (2022)

Dinah Murray completed her PhD in psycholinguistics at University College London in 1985, with the title ‘Language and Interests’. She had spent many years exploring the relations between language, interests and thinking by the time her friend and fellow linguist Robyn Carston lent her a copy of Uta Frith’s ‘Autism: Explaining The Enigma’ some time around 1990. Frith really didn’t explain the enigma, but Dinah had an inkling that she might be able to. She was diverted from the book she had been commissioned to write based on her thesis, and never did return to it.

She set out to get to know autistic people, largely to see if her theory panned out, and ended up being a support worker for many years, and befriending a large number of autistic people, autism professionals and people with autistic family members. She also became a regular at the Durham autism conference, where she first presented on monotropism in public in 1992 with ‘Attention Tunnelling and Autism‘.

At some point, one of her autistic friends, the non-speaking artist Ferenc Virag, let her know that he didn’t buy her assumption that she wasn’t autistic herself, and although Dinah originally dismissed the idea, she always had the thought at the back of her mind.

Meanwhile, Wenn Lawson (then Wendy Lawson) – who had known he was autistic for some time, and was diagnosed in 1994 – was working on a set of very similar ideas in Australia. He wrote of his first meeting with Dinah:

‘Dinah happened to be at a conference, in 1998, where I was presenting on ‘Life and Learning in Autism: Single Focused Attention’. We were both equally excited to hear of the other’s research. It turns out while I had been researching and teaching such concepts in Australia, Dinah had been developing the same thinking in England. That first meeting was to be the beginning of our working partnership and a lifelong friendship’.

Language, interests and autism: A tribute to Dr. Dinah Murray (1946–2021), an autism pioneer
A portrait in a landscape: the two of them look cheerful against a backdrop of a hazy sea and rolling hills.
Dinah and Wenn in 2005

In 1995-1997 Wenn (then Wendy) presented on autism and communication based upon the concepts of single focussed attention ‘monotropism’ in New Zealand and in set lectures across Victoria (Australia). In those years he also worked at ‘Southern Autistic Services’ helping to teach and develop understanding among staff working with autistic clients. In 1997 Wenn wrote for ‘Victorian Social Work’ of the need to understand autism as ‘literal thinking’ (a direct result of being monotropic) and the need for autistic individuals to have structure and routine.   In 1998 (before Dinah and Wenn’s first meeting) Wenn wrote his first book ‘Life behind glass’ (an autobiography in the name of Wendy Lawson) and within its content he wrote often of his need of routine, structure and his focus upon one thing at a time. In 1999, Wenn completed his Honours thesis (in Social Work) based upon the same cognitive understanding of autism as single focussed attention. In 2001 Wenn wrote Understanding and Working with the Spectrum of Autism to which Dinah contributed the beautiful illustration of: 

‘…shoaling, the very neurotypical are clumped in the middle…. facing the same direction…the very autistic….off on their own; the not so neurotypical swim roughly the same direction, but on the edge of the shoal… the not so autistic losing sight of the shoal but generally able to catch up and swim alongside…’ 

Within the book he (then Wendy Lawson) explicitly explains the two very different cognitive learning styles of autistic and non-autistic people as using single focussed attention (monotropism) in autism and for non-autistic people the ability to shift or divide attention more easily (polytropism).  These concepts continued as themes in all of Wenn’s publications across the years and in each of his (to date) 23 books and more than 30 papers.

One of the fruits of Wenn and Dinah’s partnership was their 2005 paper in the journal ‘Autism’, written with fellow autistic thinker Mike LesserAttention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (HTML version). Mike was a mathematical scientist who brought an understanding of dynamical systems to bear on the problem of how different minds work; he and Dinah had been working together on these ideas since the 1990s, and were interviewed for Observer that year.

Dinah and Wenn became firm friends and colleagues, spending many hours together. Despite being in countries across the globe from each other, they coordinated their ideas and in the year 2000, Dinah joined Wenn in a National Australia lecture tour where they jointly introduced Australia to the concepts of single focussed attention, being governed by deeply focussed interests, or ‘monotropism’.

Dinah and Wenn also travelled together around the UK delivering presentations in Ireland, Wales, England and, eventually, Scotland. The more time they spent together the more it became apparent to Wenn that Dinah was autistic. This eventuated in Dinah gaining an autism assessment (then termed Asperger’s Syndrome) in April 2009. 

Separately in their respective countries, (as well as continued collaboration) they continued their research and writing. Wenn who was working on his PhD from 2002 later completed his thesis entitled:  Single Attention and Associated Cognition in Autism (SAACA), expanding further on the idea of monotropism, which he turned into the book The Passionate Mind (2011). Wenn also published on the neuroscience of attention in OA Autism in 2013, and co-wrote two relevant papers with Brynn Dombroski in the Journal of Intellectual Disability –  Diagnosis and Treatment (2015 and 2017). He also echoed the attentional connection in autism and ADHD as a co-author in a joint article in 2021.

Both Wenn and Dinah presented widely on autism around the world, using the lens of Monotropism to help people make sense of their autistic experience. Around 2011 their friend, an autistic scholar Damian Milton, also started publishing on monotropism, making important contributions on its relationship with flow states, and its role in the ‘double empathy’ problem that helps explain so many of the social difficulties faced by autistic people.

In 2018, PARC ran an ‘Autistic Fringe’ mini-conference on Monotropism alongside Scottish Autism’s main annual conference (recordings to follow). Around the same time Fergus wrote ‘Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism‘ for The Psychologist magazine, making the case that the ideas that Wenn and Dinah had worked out provide a far more comprehensive and less problematic explanation of autism than any of the more established cognitive theories. Many autistic people said the concept of monotropism transformed the way they understood themselves; the article was shared widely, and turned out to be the magazine’s most-read article of 2019. A minority say they don’t feel like Monotropism describes them at all; further research is required to determine whether some autistic people are polytropic, or they just don’t connect with the descriptions they have encountered, or if something else is going on.

It took a long time for the psychology establishment to take much notice, but in recent years, Monotropism has been receiving a good deal of attention not just within the autistic community but also among autism researchers – especially, but not exclusively, autistic autism researchers. New peer-reviewed work comes out most weeks that talks about it, and Monotropism is covered in more and more university autism courses.

As Patrick Dwyer writes, Monotropism is, ‘within the autistic adult community, probably the dominant theoretical approach towards understanding what autism is.’ It is a running theme in Learning from Autistic Teachers, a book dedicated to ‘Dr Dinah Murray, who taught us much.’ Empirical research on the theory of Monotropism is finally getting going, and this site will be updated as soon as there is more to share.

In this picture, Dinah and Wenn are shown contemplating the towering, stony barrier before them.
Another photo of Dinah and Wenn in 2005, at Giant’s Causeway.

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