Building Super-Highways – Why Monotropism Works for Autistics

by Nanny Aut

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

From our very early years, our style of learning has been misunderstood by NT (neurotypical) researchers. Indeed, they even pathologise it in the diagnostic manual, DSM 5, as ‘difficulties in sharing imaginative play’ and ‘lining up toys or flipping objects’. Our exploratory style of play is seen as a negative thing that needs to be addressed. They completely fail to take into account our different processing and learning styles that lies behind our choice to play a different way.

Our ability to specialise from an early age is described as ‘highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests)’ – DSM 5. Our natural way of being is seen as deficient and needing to be fixed.

This failure to understand our neurology and recognise our way of being as equally natural and normal leads to damaging ‘therapies’ being promoted. These therapies look to correct our style of play, and our specialist-style focus on interests, ‘encouraging’ us to leave our natural style and instead mimic the more familiar NT style. Both therapists and parents believe they are doing something helpful and supportive, unaware that they are stealing a very valuable learning tool and leaving nothing but an empty box in its place.

We play differently, because we learn differently, because our brains are wired differently. And this difference has a value and reason behind it. Teaching us to play like NTs is like teaching a cat to behave like a dog ‘because everyone prefers dogs to cats’. There is this false belief that we get bullied because we are different – this isn’t true. We get bullied because children are taught to bully and attack difference. We get bullied because adults choose to support and promote a culture of conformity. Our difference is not the issue, people’s negative attitudes to difference is.

Infographic by Autistic not Weird

When you teach us to hide our differences, and to pretend to be something we are not, you teach us to be ashamed of who we are. You teach us that the real us is unlovable and unacceptable, even to those closest to us.

In learning terms, you deny us the opportunity to properly create and develop the essential connections that form the foundation of our knowledge structure. The autistic brain is designed to create these connections in a very particular way, and our natural style of play supports this.

Current neurological research into the general population shows that humans establish connections in our brains in two ways.

Imagine a set of villages with no roads between them. At the start, the first roads we are going to build are the ones to the villages closest to us.

Starting to build connections in the brain

As we start to explore, we find villages that are further away that we have more in common with, so we build roads to them too. Over time, the roads we use most become bigger and wider, and the roads we don’t use much become overgrown and hard to travel.

Longer term connections in the brain

If we are under stress, it’s like the villages being under attack. This means that exploration between villages doesn’t happen in the same way – we stick to the villages closest to us and interconnectivity between villages that are farther away remains poor. Being forced to learn and work in a way that does not suit the way our brain works can cause this disruption and can significantly lower our natural cognitive ability. In addition, autistics often have the increased stress of living in an environment that isn’t suited to our neurology, with added sensory and processing overloads to manage.

Connections being damaged by stress

How and why we prioritise which connections to focus on depends in large part on our neurology. The late, great, Dr. Dinah Murray introduced the theory of Monotropism, that posits that while NTs prefer to engage in multiple interests at a time, at a surface level (polytropism), autistics prefer to focus more intensely and in-depth on one interest at a time (monotropism). Our brains prefer to be specialists while NT brains prefer to be generalists. Both styles have value and are necessary to the world.

Polytropism means that, for NTs, more connections are created between more villages but because of the scattering of interests, none of these connections become superhighways – they remain at major road level.

Polytropic connections favoured by NT brains

Whereas, because autistics focus on one area at a time, monotropism, we create less major roads throughout the brain, but the connections around the topic of interest are very well used, creating motorways and super-highways. In addition, the cross-connnections between the villages that we focus on are more developed. This means that our cognitive ability around these areas goes way up compared to neurotypicals. Our ability to pattern spot around our interests beats NTs hands down.

Monotropic connections favoured by autistic brains

The downside is that connections outside of our interest can remain poor, which reduces our cognitive ability in those areas. This creates the spiky skills profile that is so common amongst autistics. When our skills are high, we can be excellent, extraordinary even – when our skills are low, they can be low enough to classify it as disabling.

One current theory is that this is why executive function is so poor for many autistics. We travel fast and easily within our areas of focus, but our ability to link and organise separate tasks to a coherent end goal, when it is outside of our interest, is hampered by only having poorly maintained paths to get there.

This is why it’s so beneficial for us if any new learning is connected to our interests. By doing this we can access the super-highways we have already created. Otherwise, while NTs are happily travelling down their well-maintained roads, we are hacking our way through the woods with a machete. Not only this, once this episode of learning is complete, we are unlikely to travel down that road again or keep it well-maintained and the benefits are lost. If it IS connected to our interest however, it then becomes part of our well-developed knowledge structure and can then be used to develop further connections that expand our village network.

When we are creating new connections, we NEED the ‘WHY’ behind the new knowledge. Explaining why something is important and showing us how that new knowledge connects to what we already know, gives us clear directions and routes. We need that guidance to correctly identify the routes that we need to create. Without it we are looking at overgrown forest in all directions and there is every chance we will never reach the village we need to connect to, let alone build a decent road to travel down. And over time, this wasted effort can be demoralising. We can stop even trying to engage, because it isn’t getting us anywhere. Far better to focus our efforts on our interests and only our interests, because that is where travel is easiest and gives us the most benefit.

These strong links and inter-connections that we create around focused hubs can become problematic when we are faced with new knowledge that contradicts the knowledge we have already linked into our knowledge structure. Because of these very strong inter-connections, it can be difficult to remove a false piece of knowledge and untwine it from the network. It takes time and a lot of processing to evaluate the new knowledge against the old for validity and fit. It takes time to then remove the old piece of knowledge and replace it with the new knowledge and connect that new knowledge into the network, restoring broken and damaged connections caused by the switch. This makes it nearly impossible for us to change our mind quickly or acknowledge a new viewpoint quickly. This gives us a reputation of being stubborn rigid and inflexible, when we aren’t. We just can’t switch as quickly as many NTs seem to be able to do.

The autistic monotropic style of learning enables us to focus intently on one thing at a time, focusing on the details and learning to a depth that many NTs have to wait to do their doctorates to achieve.

It is often assumed that this means that we focus on one interest for life, to the exclusion of everything else. While this may be true for some autistics, it is not true for all. Some of us are serial interest acquirers – we deep-dive on a topic until we are satisfied about our knowledge level, then we drop it and move on to something else. We may still light up if that topic is brought up, but it is no longer a focus. Some of us have several interests on the go at one time, but we engage in each one to the exclusion of everything else – we get into ‘flow’. Then task-switch to the next interest and so on. Often this ‘multiple interests’ presents as a key current interest and a satellite of past interests that we are still engaged in but have sufficiently saturated the knowledge base to move on.

Some of us expand our core interest into satellite topics such as cars to mechanisms to engineering in general. Some of us start with more open-ended topics to begin with, such as ‘How do things work? What is the cause and effect at play?’. This would be me – for my mind – history, psychology, engineering, etymology, anthropology, politics, neurology, even autism – are all engaged in through the lens of ‘How does this work?’ This means I have no interest in dates for history, or even the names of the people involved, but every interest in the cause and effect that is played out over the centuries. I have no interest in who argued over what in psychology circles, only in the theories of how our brains work and why people respond to things the way they do.

Sometimes we also engage in interests, not because they are fundamentally interesting to us, but they are necessary for problem solving around keeping us safe. For instance, many autistics have an interest in psychology because they are trying to figure out how people around them work. This knowledge helps us to protect ourselves and others from our mistakes in social situations. If we did not need this knowledge to avoid causing damage, it is possible it would not come up on our radar.

It is also really important to remember that our interests bring us joy. Unfortunately, others often seem to go out of the way to make us feel shame and embarrassment, for finding joy in things they don’t value.

‘Why do you carry those pebbles around? That’s weird.’

And when the child tries to show how wonderful those pebbles were, so stimmily smooth, so visually satisfying with their perfect curves and with the flecks and patterns and patination, the adults can’t see the joy or the beauty and throw those precious stones away.

Some interests that I loved as a child, I can see, in hindsight, why they made adults nervous or upset my peers – medieval torture instruments are not normally a fascination for ten-year old girls, and can be concerning when you are already considered anti-social. And while four-year old me genuinely believed my peers would think it really cool to see the mechanisms inside a doll’s head, I can see now why decapitating someone they saw as a friend or worse, their child, and showing them the inside of their skull might be upsetting.

As a child though, I understood none of this. I would try to introduce my parents and my friends to my joy as a precious gift of love only to be met with mockery, horror or boredom and incomprehension. It was made very clear that my gift of joy was not just unwanted, but unacceptable, something offensive and wrong.

‘Stop boring everyone. No one wants to hear about that.’

And the joy dies. It took until my thirties before I realised that I was allowed to feel joy, and could enjoy whatever genuinely made me happy, instead of doing what others told me should make me happy – but didn’t. And they wonder why autistics suffer from depression.

So how do you help support this style of connection building and enable us to develop to our cognitive best?

  1. Support our natural style of play and our more intense focus on interests.
  2. Teach to our interests, so we can use the strong connections we have already built.
  3. Always give the ‘why’ behind new information. We need it for sense-making and creating the right connections.
  4. Give us time to adjust if we are given new knowledge that contradicts our current understanding. We can change our minds, just not quickly.
  5. Recognise that our interests are precious to us. See our sharing of knowledge as the love tokens they are intended to be. Don’t destroy our joy.

I have every hope that, in time, as our neurology becomes better understood, differences in neurology – neurodiversity – will be seen as natural as differences in sexuality and gender orientation. The DSM 5 will become an oddity of the history books, as we shake our heads at how little we knew.

Until then, we and our allies have to stand up for our rights to be understood and accepted as we are. Our rights to an environment that doesn’t put our nervous system under severe stress. And our rights to play, learn and live as nature designed.

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5 thoughts on “Building Super-Highways – Why Monotropism Works for Autistics

  1. Another super awesome post! You really have a gift for explaining how our brains really work. I SO resonate with this article. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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