I believe that the best way to understand autistic minds is in terms of a thinking style which tends to concentrate resources in a few interests and concerns at any time, rather than distributing them widely. This style of processing, monotropism, explains many features of autistic experience that may initially seem puzzling, and shows how they are connected. I want to give you six starting points for making sense of autism.
I’m writing in the first person here, as a late-identified autistic adult who has worked and talked with many other autistic people in various contexts over many years. I believe that everything I describe here is a common experience for most people on the spectrum, but not necessarily universal. Many will be shared to various degrees by some non-autistic people — there are very interesting questions about the extent that different thinking styles overlap; brains really are very diverse, and psychological classification is a messy business. References, reviews of research and further resources for each section appear at the end.
1. Coping with multiple channels is hard
This can be sensory channels or other information streams.
This shows up in many ways; some of the most obvious ones are social. If my attention is focused on something else, I may not be able to take in what you’re saying. If I’m focusing on what you’re saying, I may not be able to do anything else (or I may need to do something else to absorb excess attention).
Most people assume there are multiple channels of communication going on in any conversation: words, tone of voice, gesture and eye contact. They also assume an ability to hold various other things in mind while talking: social context, social rules, relevant background facts. This works most of the time, for most people, but causes endless confusion in conversations between autistic and non-autistic people. Be prepared for misunderstandings where someone missed out on one or more of the channels you thought were conveying information.
Be aware that autistic communication styles tends to be different, too, for much the same reason. We are expected to maintain multiple channels of communication in socially acceptable configurations at all times, despite missing a lot of non-verbal cues throughout our lives. It often takes conscious effort to emote ‘appropriately’, display expected body language and suppress urges to regulate ourselves with motions people might find weird… all while trying to make sure not to say anything daft. Learning to do all this can be a valuable social skill, but it takes a lot out of a person, and it just doesn’t always work. If you want someone to be able to relax, they need to be able to feel comfortable being themselves — even if that looks odd to you. Learn to read our body language as best you can, but be aware that most people often get it wrong.
2. Filtering is tricky and error-prone
Sometimes I can’t tune things out, other times I filter them out completely.
Filtering is an active process, and it becomes much less effective when our resources are consumed elsewhere. That means our filters tend to be at their wonkiest when we’re worn out or having to keep up appearances. Any work done filtering out unwanted stimuli leaves less energy over for anything else.
Being unable to filter can be intensely uncomfortable, especially if it’s keeping you from something you want to focus on. Please take care of the sensory environment: too much noise and clutter and stimulation can be exhausting, painful and impossible to work with. Sometimes it helps a huge amount to be able to spend some time in an environment where we can control our sensory input, and not have to filter anything for a while.
Some of the most satisfying, relaxing and productive times are when we can enter a flow state, our attention completely absorbed in an activity. At those times, we may filter out almost everything else. If we can’t get rid of enough distractions to begin with, it becomes impossible to enter that state.
3. Changing tracks is destabilising
Task-switching is hard, and new plans take work.
It takes time and effort to get going, to change direction, or to stop. In other words, autistic thought tends to have a lot of inertia: it resists a change in state.
This can be great for working through complex logical puzzles, learning large collections of facts or just getting intensely absorbed in anything, but it can be very inconvenient all the same. Pulling all our tendrils of thought out of one thing and directing them towards another takes much longer than it does for a lot of people, and sometimes it’s hard to make them go where we want them — let alone where other people want them. Give us warnings, give us time, let us recover.
Don’t expect an instant transition from one thing to another, especially if it’s unexpected. It’s hard enough changing tracks even when we know what’s coming. A sudden change of plans means we have to completely reset and work out how to deal with everything about the new circumstances.
4. I often experience things intensely
Usually things that relate to my concerns and interests.
When my attention is fully focused on something, my brain seems to throw everything it can get at that thing. I credit this with my senses often seeming to be more intense and detailed than most people’s. I seem to get more than most people out of being absorbed in my interests, in general; I think this relates, again, to flow states.
On the other hand, unexpected input sometimes really shakes me. This might be something sudden, or just something that doesn’t seem to fit; either way, I can’t ignore it. It’s been suggested that the main difference with autistic brains is that they just have their ‘surprise’ setting turned right up; I wonder if our tendency towards intense surprise comes from having fewer interests or filters active at any given time, and finding the unexpected more jarring because of the intensity of our focus.
Incidentally, one of the side-effects of being surprised a lot is that you do sort of get used to it. I’ve often known autistic people to seem less surprised by things other people seem shocked by.
5. I keep looping back to my interests and concerns
It’s hard to let things drop.
It’s in the nature of interests and concerns that you loop back to them. If you’re interested in something, things are likely to pull your attention back to thinking about it. Monotropic minds tend to get pulled back to the same loops of concern again and again, especially when they have unresolved questions. People are terribly confusing, so we often have lots of unanswered questions. Sometimes a question might have been adequately answered really, but it still doesn’t quite feel like it, so we need to ask anyway. Other times, people are just impossible to predict, and there is no way to lay those worries to rest. These things can haunt us for years, and carrying them around can really sap your energy. Along with sensory sensitivities, this is a major factor contributing to the trouble that most autistic people have sleeping.
Still, I like how things are so interesting. Fascination is a fun thing, and I’m glad people have hardly ever tried to talk me out of my fascinations. I like working stuff out, and learning new things, but I also like to just get lost in things sometimes. Sometimes people are baffled by the sorts of things I like to do and learn, but really it’s their loss.
6. Other things that drop out of my awareness tend to stay dropped
I may need reminders.
I really need some kind of system to make sure things I’m supposed to think about come back to my attention. It’s so hard keeping tabs on lots of things at once, I’m bound to drop some of them if I don’t get reminded at the right time. This is complicated by the fact that if I’m in the middle of something, I really don’t want to let myself get pulled out of my attention tunnel for anything I can possibly put off.
This means there are all sorts of things other people might expect me to be thinking about, which I might not be unless I’m getting the right prompts. That includes things I genuinely care about, by the way; I hope nobody assumes I’m indifferent to things just because I fail to think about them. I just have so much else going on in my head!
I understand all of these features as manifestations of a monotropic thinking style: the more a brain concentrates its resources in a few interests and concerns, the more we should expect these to be true. Other theories can predict and explain many of the same features (see below) but I’m not sure that any other single theory leads us to all of the same predictions.
All of these taken together add up to a world that can be very difficult to deal with, and every one of them contributes to the spiky skills profiles of autistic people. It is no wonder so many autistic people experience so much anxiety, confusion and overwhelm. Our capacity for joy and focus can be some compensation for this, but it is often difficult to navigate a world dominated by people with relatively typical brains. If people can’t or won’t understand and accommodate our needs, problems accumulate. Discomfort can get ramped up higher and higher, until we have to escape or else we’ll melt down or shut down. This can last for a long time, and it is so often avoidable. I hope what I have described gives you some good starting points for working out how.
With the right strategies and understanding in place, most autistic people can thrive. Without them, life can be incredibly difficult, and much of what we have to give to the world gets lost. I wouldn’t change very much about my brain — I mostly like being who I am. I would, however, like to change many things about this world and how it deals with people who think differently.
If any of this helps you make sense of things, or changes how you relate to autistic people you know, I would love to hear about it. More important than that, please let me know if there’s anything here that doesn’t ring true for you! These ideas are being actively developed, by myself and others. There may be things we are getting wrong, and there are certainly things we haven’t fully worked out yet. One of the things I am especially interested in working out is what this all means for teachers, which is what led to my Autism Tips for Teachers in Tes.
Research, References, Resources
I wrote in some detail about how monotropism explains the observed features of autism in ‘Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism’ for The Psychologist. I first identified these six specific starting points for understanding autism in ‘Theories and Practice in Autism’.
There is empirical work to be done to establish how well most autistic people feel these descriptions apply to them — beware anecdata, and all that. So far the best direct evidence for Monotropism as a theory of autism is probably Julia Leatherland’s unpublished PhD thesis, ‘Understanding how autistic pupils experience secondary school’, which found that Monotropism accounted for more of pupils’ reported experiences than any other single theory. I believe the basic features I describe here are all well-supported both by psychological research and the accounts of autistic writers, but Monotropism as a theory is still crying out for experimental work.
Notes for each of my starting points follow.
- Although it took until DSM-5 for perceptual differences to be included in diagnostic criteria, difficulty dealing with multiple sensory streams is attested since early autism research. Lovaas et al were not the first to record it in 1971, and see Marco et al (2011) for a systematic review. Mongillo et al (2008) found that difficulties with speech processing — perhaps unsurprisingly — were associated with social difficulties, and includes the fun fact that autistic people are much less susceptible to the McGurk Effect.
- It is well known that filtering is an active cognitive process, keeping the conscious mind from being overwhelmed with too much data. In the Predictive Coding model of the mind, much of what our brains do can be seen as filtering: non-conscious processes work on predicting the input coming in, and only what they fail to predict makes it through to conscious awareness. See Friston & Kiebel (2009) for a technical account, and Van de Cruys et al (2014) for more on the idea of autism as being a manifestation of excessive surprise. Karl Friston’s video on embodiment and Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty are both excellent introductions to this general approach to cognition, with a bit about how it currently seeks to account for autism.
It seems natural to expect filtering to take energy, in the sense of both requiring and exhausting cognitive resources. So far I have only found research exploring the former, and not in an autism-specific context: Drummond et al (2012) found that sleep deprivation reduces visual filtering ability; Hasson et al (2013) found that a combination of emotional exhaustion and stress reduced tolerance for loud sounds.
The National Autistic Society has a pretty good page on autism and the senses in general. On flow states in autism, see Milton (2017) and this video also by Damian Milton.
- This is normally talked about as an aspect of executive function, which has been extensively studied with reference to autism — see e.g Hill (2004), and occasionally posited as an underlying explanation for all autistic cognition — see Russell (ed.) (1997). As I wrote in Autism and Executive Functions, I find it unconvincing as an overall theory of autism, and a bit of a blunt instrument for describing particular difficulties, but it remains an important idea.
- Intense experiences are at the very heart of the Intense World theory of autism (Markram et al 2010) which has important points in common with the Monotropism account. Its proponents are oddly reliant on a rodent model of autism, however, and see Remington & Frith (2014) for some very cogent criticisms, including the fact that unlike monotropism, it only seems to account for hypersensitivity in autism, where hyposensitivity is also commonly reported. Mottron et al (2006) write of enhanced perceptual functioning in autism, backing up the impression of sensory input often being both richer and more detailed in autistic people.
- Despite ‘restricted’ interests being a feature of accounts of autism going right back to the beginning, the nature and role of autistic interests has been chronically under-researched, and is very poorly accounted for by most theories of autism. However, see Grove et al (2018) for a study demonstrating the shock finding that pursuing their passions is a positive thing for autistic people’s wellbeing. The focused interests of autistic people are often called ‘special interests’, which is fine as long as you think along the lines of Special Interest Groups in tech, but not so much if you think of them as some weird, incomprehensible autistic thing, probably best suppressed. Mostly I prefer the term ‘passion’.
On the anxiety front, Wigham et al (2014) found intriguing links between anxiety and repetitive behaviours. Both can be seen through the lens of perseveration, as can the way we keep returning to our interests. The idea that autistic anxiety is often associated with social difficulties is well studied — see e.g. White and Robertson-Nay (2004).
- This is another thing that’s usually discussed under the heading of ‘executive dysfunction’, not all that informatively. Mazfinch on Twitter has a handy list of possible reminder systems.
My partner Sonny Hallett has contributed greatly to my thinking about all this, and coined the useful phrase ‘loop of concern’. That’s also them in the photo at the top wearing an excellent dinosaur jumper. The underlying concepts were largely formulated by my mother Dinah Murray, with Mike Lesser and Wenn Lawson. Damian Milton, Nick Chown and Richard Woods have all also contributed notably to my understanding.