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Monotropism- Embracing Autistic Focus

Updated: Apr 6

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on neurodiversity. Monotropism a theory initially presented in the 1990s by Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser, is a concept that is gaining more awareness, providing insight into how some autistic individuals process information and interact with the world around them. 

Monotropism refers to a cognitive style characterized by intense focus on a limited number of interests or stimuli, to the exclusion of other inputs. This stands in contrast to polytropic processing, which involves the ability to multitask and process a wide array of information simultaneously. While polytropic processing is the norm in our society, individuals with monotropic tendencies may find it challenging to navigate in this way-whether in school, work, or social settings.

Living and adapting to a polytropic society which is typically the cognitive style of a neurotypical person, can be extremely difficult for a neurodivergent person, in the same way many neurotypical people could struggle to hyper focus on a specific task or project for many hours without variation . Most schools are predominantly set to fit a polytropic way of operation; students are expected to juggle multiple subjects and tasks; switching classrooms several times a day (which could provide sensory challenges as the lighting and comfort may also vary), adapting to different teachers; even different classmates is not unusual. Even though a time-table may be given again it is not unusual for the subject criteria to suddenly change, an unexpected task or test to be given and even a change of teacher in the form of a substitute, as well as affecting the monotropic way of processing, change can be distressing for many autistic individuals.

 Individuals with a monotropic focus may struggle to engage with a broad curriculum and may function better with a narrower spectrum of subjects that are of interest to them, this is not always possible in school or particular work environments where there is a heavy and demanding task load. Multitasking and shifting priorities are often required in the workplace, monotropic individuals may find it hard to thrive in such environments.

Social situations can also pose challenges, as the tendency to focus intensely on specific topics or activities may make it difficult to engage in small talk or navigate complex social dynamics. Many autistic individuals share they feel better in smaller groups and are able to have lengthy conversations particularly if the focus is of a subject that they are interested in or is a ‘special interest’.

When discussing monotropism, it is important to recognise

that this cognitive style is not wrong or a deficit, it is simply different to a polytropic cognitive style, it is challenging to have this as a dominant trait only because society is mostly set up for a polytropic functioning, if society can adjust to include and distribute different learning methods and different working environments that ensure all neurotypes can thrive in a way that suits them, autistic people would indeed struggle less.

Monotropism has many benefits, when a person is supported to focus this way as opposed to being forced to change their working style- the ability to hyperfocus on a particular interest or skill can lead to deep expertise and creativity in that area. Many autistic individuals possess remarkable talents and abilities that are a direct result of their monotropic focus. In fact, some of the most groundbreaking innovations and technological advancements have been attributed to individuals on the autism spectrum, highlighting the unique strengths that this cognitive style can bring.

Autistic individuals have played a crucial role in human evolution, contributing in ways that have shaped our societies and cultures. Their ability to think differently, to see patterns and connections that others may overlook, has been instrumental in driving progress and innovation. As we strive to build more inclusive and diverse societies, it is essential to recognize the valuable perspectives and contributions that neurodivergent individuals bring to the table.

Despite these strengths, autistic individuals often face significant challenges in a world that is designed for neurotypical functioning. The constant pressure to conform to social norms, to suppress their natural tendencies and accommodate a polytropic model of thinking, can lead to what is known as autistic burnout. This state of mental and physical exhaustion is a common experience among autistic individuals, resulting from the effort of masking their true selves and trying to fit into a neurotypical mold.


Autistic masking is a complex subject that deserves further attention, in brief it can be summarised as suppressing autistic traits in order to blend in with social expectations. This can involve mimicking social behaviours, suppressing stimming (repetitive movements or sounds), or masking sensory sensitivities to appear more neurotypical. While masking may help individuals navigate social situations more easily, it comes at a cost - increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of disconnection from one's authentic self. Continuous masking can be debilitating and can lead to autistic burnout and poor mental health.


To support the monotropic minds and help autistic individuals thrive, it is crucial to create environments that accommodate their unique cognitive styles and provide the necessary resources and understanding. Some strategies to support monotropic individuals include:


1. Recognizing and valuing their strengths: Rather than viewing monotropic focus as a deficit, it is essential to appreciate the depth of expertise and creativity that individuals with this cognitive style can bring.


2. Providing opportunities for deep focus: Creating spaces and tasks that allow for uninterrupted focus on a specific interest or topic can help monotropic individuals harness their strengths and achieve their full potential.


3. Encouraging self-care and sensory regulation: Supporting individuals in managing sensory sensitivities and self-regulating can help prevent burnout and enhance well-being.


4. Promoting authentic self-expression: Fostering a culture of acceptance and understanding where individuals can express their true selves without fear of judgment or rejection is essential for supporting the mental health and well-being of autistic individuals.


In school settings, educators can implement individualized accommodations and support structures to meet the unique needs of autistic students. This may include providing alternative learning methods, sensory-friendly environments, and opportunities for self-directed learning. Additionally, promoting awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among students and staff can help create a more inclusive and supportive school culture.


In the workplace, employers can adopt neurodiversity-friendly practices that accommodate the strengths and challenges of autistic employees. This may involve providing clear communication, flexible work arrangements, and opportunities for skill development and advancement. By embracing diverse cognitive styles and fostering a culture of inclusion, organizations can harness the talents and potential of neurodivergent individuals.  


It is important to embrace and celebrate the diversity of neurodivergent individuals, which includes not only autism but also ADHD and dyslexia, among others. By recognizing the unique perspectives and strengths that neurodiversity brings, we can create more inclusive and supportive environments that allow all individuals to thrive and contribute fully to society. It is crucial for the health and wellbeing of neurodivergent people that we continue to speak about these matters, and it is important for the future benefit of society that neurodivergent groups are embraced in order that their skills and talents can come to fruition for the benefit of all.

These learning styles are different ways of brain function, the world needs diversity but if difference is not embraced it can not fully be, it is not enough to simply focus on acceptance, that should not be in question, the focus needs to be on the accommodation of that difference, moving away from ableist perspective with the knowledge that as individuals we do not have to be the same in order to be respected or valued and that no person should suffer because they function in a different way to a majority.

About me: I am a late realised autistic woman, I have been a practicing counsellor since 2016, I am passionate about raising awareness about neurodiversity and mental health. I offer individual therapy sessions both in person and online.



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