Monotropism is both a proposed theory and trait for understanding autism, useful for both autistic people and non-autistic people. The concept of monotropism is still new. Read on to learn more.
- What is monotropism?
- Non-autistics pathologizing autistic behaviors
- Monotropism as a better theory to understanding autism
What is monotropism?
Monotropism is a cognitive strategy defined as a person’s tendency to focus their attention on a small number of interests at a time, tending to miss things outside this tunnel. The main argument for the concept of monotropism is that it’s the epitome of autism.
Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser developed monotropism as a theory beginning in the 1990s and publishing it in 2005. As with most research, the public didn’t pick it up or use it until several years after it was first published. (Did you know 17 years is the average time lag between published research and practice?)
As an autistic adult, my first time hearing about monotropism was in the context of it being an autistic trait, because it explains so much about the autistic experience people without it can’t fathom.
The monotropic tendency of having a few, highly aroused interests perfectly articulates all of the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria.
Non-autistics pathologizing autistic behaviors
In order to fully help you comprehend this concept, we’re going to have to dive into the non-autistic pathologization of autistic behavior. To pathologize something is to treat something as “psychologically abnormal” or unhealthy.
Natural autistic behaviors are so frequently pathologized that I have performed the emotional labor of explaining naturally occurring autistic behaviors like:
People tend to search for explanations of things they don’t understand. This is normal. I mean, I do similar with my cat’s behaviors.
With autistic and similarly neurodivergent people, however, naturally occurring behaviors are perceived as abnormal, psychotic and dangerous. Even the shared behaviors, like not wanting to go out to eat or wanting to spend time alone, are viewed as problematic.
Allistic people tend to think that the disinterest in behaving like a non-autistic person is representative of antisocial behaviors and that we must be cured.
Examples of how autistic behaviors are pathologized
Autistic children and adults can’t stim in public without being perceived as violent.
Meanwhile, non-autistic people engage in similar behaviors and are perceived as normal:
- A teacher hates being tapped on the shoulder because she finds it “so rude”. She snaps at a non-speaking autistic student for tapping her shoulder to get her attention during a medical emergency.
- Reacting aggressively or with anger as a result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.
- People who hate the sound of nails on a chalkboard, the feeling of sandpaper, or itchy tags on clothing.
- Niching down to get highly specific with marketing in business or exploring a hobby in minute detail. (This is the one I really don’t understand, because why are niches okay to allistics, but my special interests aren’t?)
Examples of typically pathologizing autistic behavior:
- Associating autistic adult sexual interests with sexual deviancy (also a form of infantilization)
- Calling fidget spinners “toys” because non-autistic people played with them, when they are fidget tools to neurodivergent individuals
- Needing your furniture to be arranged just so and having a schedule, but not respecting autistic people’s need for sameness, predictability or routines
I should not have to create headings in my articles about how to stop stimming, only to write that autistic people need to stim.
But I do have to because…
Natural autistic behaviors are labelled and perceived by non-autistic society as inherently abnormal, wrong, something needing to be fixed, and even psychologically or intellectually problematic.
Problems with autism diagnostic criteria & non-autistic theories to understand autism
The diagnostic criteria for autism are extremely flawed and problematic. Most articles listing autism symptoms pathologize autistic behaviors. This is the problem with non-autistic writers, though: they’re “researching” by reading articles written by non-autistic people who did the same.
In other words, non-autistic people are regurgitating what every other non-autistic person has written. Non-autistic researchers are doing pretty much the same: they are perceiving and comprehending autism from a non-autistic point of view.
This is why autistic people push the phrase “nothing about us without us”. Excluding autistic people from narratives, perspectives and resources means those things aren’t about autism at all, and they won’t help autistic children or adults. They’re like bottle episodes, existing in a world that could have existed without them.
Non-autistic people make clear the fact that they DON’T understand autism
If non-autistic people understood autism, they would not cite my, or other autistics’, articles about basic, boring autistic behaviors in their research.
If non-autistic people understood autism, I wouldn’t have to create parodies where I pathologize non-autistic behavior.
Theories that badly explain autism
Some poor theories non-autistic people have conceived to comprehend and explain autism include:
- Theory of Mind: Developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, a big name in autism research, whose research has directly harmed autistic people for decades. The double empathy problem proves autistic people can empathize well with other autistic people and raises the issue of non-autistic people struggling to empathize with autistic people.
- Central Coherence Theory: Uta Frith, in 1989, theorized “central coherence”, suggesting a specific perception style, loosely described as the ability (or lack of) to see the big picture, was the epitome of autism. This theory referenced the harmful trope of autistic savants.
- Extreme Male Brain Theory: Also developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, this one doesn’t work because there is no “male brain” and “female brain”. Also, autism isn’t restricted to males only.
- Refrigerator Mothers Theory: This one has been discredited publicly as the result of being dangerously wrong. The developer of this theory claimed cold, uncaring mothers who traumatized their children as the cause of autism. Autism doesn’t develop after birth and isn’t considered a trauma disorder, though autistic people are more likely to also have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).
Monotropism as a better theory to understanding autism
Monotropism is one of the best theories for comprehending autism, because other theories used to understand autism are extremely harmful. Again, non-autistic people don’t understand autism; they have proved this time and time again.
Who better to help people understand autism than autistic people themselves? Non-autistic people don’t understand why autistic people:
- walk on their tip-toes
- flap their hands
- or stand like a flamingo while idling.
So why are non-autistic people trusted to lead the research, narratives and understanding of autism?
Monotropism explains the central struggle
Monotropism fully explains the underlying, central struggle of autism that encompasses most every other experience as an autistic person:
- I struggle to focus on multiple things at once, though I do enjoy my background music or television show on occasion.
- When focused on something (like writing this article), I am vaguely aware of the goings-on around me.
- Monotropism and monotropic tendencies explain what life struggling with interoception is like. Non-autistic and/or neurotypical people know when they have to use the toilet before they’re about to pee their pants. Many autistic people do not.
It’s not always about specific interests. Sometimes, it’s about what worries us or stresses us out. That’s why a lot of autistic people struggle when recovering from trauma. Non-autistic people view it as living in the past when we’re just trying to comprehend what happened to us.
The theory of monotropism makes sense when you remember that autistic people experience life in high definition (HD). Non-autistic people may be able to focus on multiple things and work with several instructions at once. Autistic people tend to struggle more with multiple sets of instructions, because that requires even more processes.
I know my focus is always best when I’m focusing on as few things as possible. I dare say it happens naturally, on its own, almost as if I’m a monotropic person.
Monotropism may not work to describe every autistic person’s experience, but it does explain autism better than existing autism theories.
What are your thoughts on the theory of Monotropism? Share in the comments below.