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Beyond deficit models:
Monotropism & Neurodivergence

By Tom Fiebig, Tuesday 2nd April 2024 

8 minute read

About the author: I am a neurotypical, white cis-gender male social work student working on completing his Masters of Social Work (Qualifying) degree on Wurrunderji Woi Wurrung Land. I’ve completed my first field placement at My Right 2 Voice, a specialist disability services provider, and I am currently completing my second (and final) placement at TIF. I am grateful to be working alongside and learning from/with disabled and neurodivergent people both professionally and personally. I look forward to a world without ableism, discrimination, and oppression.

Autism in our society – the medical model

Being autistic and/or being diagnosed with autism continues to be heavily stigmatised in our society. Stigma emanates from the very diagnostic label, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As the label suggests, Autism occurs on a spectrum. While the idea of a spectrum suggests a linear scale, autistic advocates have suggested that it is better thought of as a colour wheel  (Rebecca Burgess) or, evocatively, as an expansive and ever-changing nebula (Rebecca Gannon).

 

In many Western societies including Australia, the dominant way of understanding autistic and neurodivergent people’s experiences is per a medicalised, cognitive-based (brain-based) deficit model. According to this medical model, to be autistic is to have a series of ‘deficits’. Autism is defined by deficits in a person’s ability to understand and engage in social communication and/or interaction and in their presentation of “restrictive, repetitive patterns of behaviours”. To be diagnosed as being autistic, these ‘deficits’ are said to have a negative functional impact on aspects of the person’s life. The medical model presents autism (and other forms of neurodivergence) as a problem to be fixed, or a pathology to be ‘cured’.

What is neurodivergence? A note on language

The term ‘neurodiversity’ is used to describe the natural diversity of human brains. No single brain is the same and there is a wide range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.
 

‘Neurodivergent’ means having a brain that diverges from what is considered typical within a particular society. ‘Neurotypical’ means having a brain that does not differ significantly from the norm. ‘Neurodiverse’ is used to describe when there is a group of people with different brains. Autism is a type of neurodivergence – known as a neurotype. People who are non-autistic are called ‘Allistic’. Note: An allistic person can still be neurodiverse in other ways, for example, being an ADHD’er. The medical model defines autism based on neurotypical expectations and assumptions.

Enter the theory of monotropism.

 

 

 

 

 


 



Monotropism & polytropism

Autistic academic and advocate Dinah Murray, along with some of her colleagues, developed the theory of monotropism in 2005. Monotropism attempts to reframe the full spectrum of behaviours typically associated with autism as a product of “atypical strategies for the distribution of attention” (2005, p. 139).
 

Attention is a scarce resource. A constant battle rages in human brains about what to give our finite attention to. Across the neurodiverse human population, attention appears to be linked to interests. Human brains give attention to things they/we are interested in. It is helpful to imagine attention like a torch beam. 

Polytropism describes people with a wide beam of attention focused on a broad range of interests, like floodlights. Polytopic people brains utilise strategies of attention geared towards their broad range of interests. Polytropism is neurotypical (i.e. the norm) in Western societies.
 

Montropism describes people with a narrower beam of attention, focussed sharply on a smaller range of interests, like a laser pointer. A monotropic person’s attention tends to be intensely and sharply focussed on the task at hand. The brain’s dedication of resources focussed on a narrow array of tasks stimulates and promotes the growth of neural pathways associated with those tasks. As a result, “people on the autism spectrum tend to be passionately interested or not at all” (2005, p. 142). The experience has been likened to walking in a tunnel. “While in an attention tunnel, perceiving anything outside of the tunnel is hard or impossible” (2005, p. 149). Furthermore, unexpected change or disruption of attention can thus be felt as abrupt, disorienting, distressing, and catastrophic to many autistic people.

Monotropism also influences a person’s understanding of sequences of events, including conversations. In a world that is dominated by neurotypical, polytropic expectations, it should be no surprise that autistic/monotropic people encounter challenges in areas, such as communication and social interaction, which are socially constructed around the particular strengths of polytropic minds. As Fergus Murray writes in the British Psychological Society (2018), “Being unable to process multiple channels of input most of the time makes the combination of spoken words, body language and eye contact tremendously challenging.” For autistic people, engaging in conversation can be painfully demanding, with its ever-shifting rules and unspoken conventions.  


Monotropic/Autistic people often get overloaded by the amount or type of sensory input they are required to process to daily navigate neurotypical society. ‘Stimming’ is a way to provide controlled, safe or predictable sensory input. It is a form of sensory regulation. Often it involves repetitive body movements, but it isn’t limited to one sensory modality.

 

Stimming can look like

  • Flapping

  • Rocking

  • Spinning

  • Humming

  • Repeating words or phrases (echolalia)

  • Rubbing the skin or scratching

  • Rearranging objects

  • Whistling

  • Sniffing or licking objects

Practice implications

Monotropism provides an alternative way of understanding autism that is in line with strength-based and anti-oppressive models and theories. It promotes compassion, partnership, and social change. Instead of pathologizing autism, the theory of monotropism suggests that practitioners, friends, family and supporters of autistic people should understand autism as part of natural human diversity. Autistic people’s negative experiences occur in the context of living in societies structured around polytropic expectations.
 

Based on autistic people’s monotropic brains, practitioners and autistic people have proposed the following short-list of strategies of working with autistic people to promote wellbeing:
 

  • Encourage autistic people to pursue their interests

  • Promote social connections via pursuit of interests

  • Give autistic people more time to change tasks

  • Build capacity to understand connections

  • Reduce task demands by complexity, time pressure, and irrelevant stimuli

  • Make tasks meaningful
     

Further strategies for working in neuro-affirming ways will be covered in a subsequent blogpost.
 

References

Ashinoff, B. K., & Abu-Akel, A. (2021). Hyperfocus: The Forgotten Frontier of Attention. Psychological Research, 85(1), 1-19.

Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W., (2005). Attention, Monotropism and the Diagnostic Criteria for Autism. Autism, 9 (2), 139-156.

Murray, F. (2018). “Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism”, https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/me-and-monotropism-unified-theory-autism

Yellow Ladybugs, (2023). Supporting Autistic Girls & Gender Diverse Youth, Yellow Ladybugs.

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