I don’t have many memories of my early years, only impressions. Smells. Textures. My xylophone and tricycle. The mothball smell of my grandmother.
What I have instead are stories. Here’s one: I desperately wanted a tricycle, but my parents said no. I was far too young. I responded by going on strike, you know, the way twenty-month-olds will (?!), declaring that I would Never Speak Again. The adults thought that was hilarious, seeing as I wasn't even out of diapers yet. But then a week goes by — during which time I don't utter a single word — and they start to panic. I get my tricycle.
It's always been this way. In an earlier post, I mentioned I’d hula-hooped myself into the hospital as a toddler. That’s par for the course for me. I regularly go overboard in epic ways.
On the day I’m referring to, all that happened was I got a hula hoop. I’m guessing a neurotypical child might have hula hooped for a bit, then got bored and started looking for some kids to play with, end of story. But I, being me, hula hooped all day long, by myself, without stopping. I ended up in the hospital, very sick. From hula hooping.
On Autistic Flow (or Hyperfocus)
Fifty years later, I'm still the same person. I happened to mention monotropism and attentional tunnels to my partner. This was around the same time I'd started crocheting in earnest. He responded that I’d been crocheting for 12-14 hours a day (less on work days), for weeks, maybe longer. I hadn’t noticed, but yes, there is yarn everywhere.
It's hard to explain, because when it happens, you're not really "you" any more. Leaning into an interest, moving into a flow state, is like falling into a trance. Time and self -- and other people -- fade away. Your mind becomes powerfully fixated, intoxicated almost.
It doesn't look as dreamy as it sounds though. When I am in flow, I mostly present (if you’re looking at my face) as ultra-bored, bordering on angry, or as slightly manic (if you're watching my body): I will pace in a circuit, sometimes stopping to push on surfaces in specific places, round and round I go. Sometimes I will stop in a pool of sunlight to warm my feet (which are usually bare; like many autists, I find socks very challenging). Other times I will just sit quietly, making small finger and toe movements. Meanwhile, my brain is on fire.
The problem is, it can be really hard to get my attention when I’m in a tunnel. Focus-switching and task-switching are inexplicably distressing for me. It’s (partly) why I avoid social events: an evening obligation “ruins” my day insofar as I know I can’t go into deep flow on that day, because the chances I’ll forget that I have something to do is too high. And even if I do remember, the disruption is just really uncomfortable.
How can you not hear me?
Here’s another story. I am engrossed a book. My mom has just come back from the grocery store. She comes upstairs — I am in my room — and asks me to put the bag of cans and dried goods away for her. Of course. I go downstairs, and start on my task.
Next thing I know, I'm back in my room, lying on the floor, engrossed in my book again. My mom is looming over me, shoving me roughly with her foot. She is super pissed.
What is the matter with you?! Her feet are planted in front of my face, and she is yelling. Didn’t you hear me? I tell her no, I didn’t hear her, because I didn’t. This just makes her angrier. HOW can you not hear me?! She is demanding an answer, but I don't have one. I don't know why I'm like this. I mean, I do now, but I didn't know then.
She drags me downstairs, into the kitchen. I see a half-full grocery bag, an open cabinet door. It looks suspiciously like I started putting the groceries away, then decided to abandon the whole enterprise. I didn’t even close the cabinet door on my way out. Why didn’t you just finish, she demands to know. It would have taken you all of two minutes!
Once again, I have no answer, no memory of anything.
I don’t recall making a decision to stop putting groceries away, and I don’t remember going back upstairs. I don’t remember picking up my book again either. What I remember is only this. I was putting away groceries one moment. In the next moment, I am back in my room. An angry foot is poking me in the ribs. An irate voice is yelling at me.
In case you're wondering, this wasn’t a one-off, a blip in an otherwise normal life. Eventually my mom simply stopped asking me to help. With anything. My younger siblings got roped into chores, but I didn’t, because I was hopeless. If I’d actually wanted to get out of helping with chores I couldn’t have done a better job of going about it. But the reality was that I DID want to help. I just somehow had no control sometimes. But no control of WHAT?
What is Monotropism
Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by three autistic researchers, which has been mostly ignored (this is changing), despite resonating deeply with many autists. Monotropism, as Fergus Murray explains, sees the mind as an “interest system” and distinguishes between those who are polytropic (most neurotypicals) and monotropic (autists, also ADHDers).
Here’s what Murray says in Me and Monotropism:
Whatever interest is most aroused in a monotropic mind tends to pull in a whole load of processing resources. That naturally makes it harder to change tracks, especially when you understand that the paths of our thoughts always leave an imprint in our minds, and autistic ones leave deeper grooves than they might in the average mind [...]
It is easier for autistic people to process one channel at a time. Distributing our attention between multiple streams takes effort, and sometimes just doesn’t work at all. Again, monotropism is characterised by intensity wherever our focus is, at the cost of processing resources that might otherwise be used to deal with other input or interests. This is often a problem in social situations. Autism is occasionally mistaken for deafness, especially in small children: if our attention is elsewhere, auditory input might register as an unwelcome interruption we would much rather ignore, or it might not register at all.
Conversely, if we can’t tune an input out, it is often experienced as horribly intrusive. I think this is from a combination of discomfort at our attention being constantly pulled away from where we want it to be, with the tendency to feel something strongly if it’s present in our awareness at all. Our brains throw a lot of resources at whatever our focus is on, which accounts for both the intensity of conscious awareness and the pain of distracting stimuli we can’t filter out. [...]
Interests are at the heart of the monotropism account, and have been present in characterisations of autism right from the start. Their near-absence from the more established theories of autism, and indeed the entire psychological literature on autism, is glaring. The diagnostic criteria talk about ‘restricted’ and ‘repetitive’ interests, but the main characteristic feature of autistic ‘special interests’ is really how much we focus on them (or they focus us), not how restricted or repetitive they are.
Everyone’s passions are repetitive; that’s just in the nature of strong interests. When people talk about ‘restricted interests’ what they mostly seem to mean is that they can’t fathom our failure to be interested in things that seem important to them. It is true that we’re often powerfully interested in a few things for a relatively long time, but they do change over the years, and sometimes over much shorter time periods. For my part, I have many interests, some of them fascinations since childhood, most of them all-consuming when I get into them. Chatting with autistic adults about the things that interest them often makes the idea that their interests are ‘restricted’ seem preposterous.
What is true is that our interests pull us in very strongly and persistently, compared with most people. It can be hard to think about anything else when we’re particularly invested in a topic, and hard to imagine how little other people might care about it. That can be a huge asset in many fields – intense focus is indispensible in science, maths, technology, music, art and philosophy, among others. Obviously autistic people are not the only ones capable of hyperfocus and persistent interests, but it is a common feature of the autistic psyche, and one that is too often squandered when workplaces and schools are not set up to allow it.
Here’s an analogy. Imagine that it’s Christmas, your favourite day of the year. You are excited, sitting with your family in front of the tree, opening your tantalizingly wrapped presents. All of a sudden, someone grabs you out of nowhere — without bothering to ask what you want to do — and whisks you away, to go for a walk. Because it's so nice out!
Now imagine how distraught you would be, how betrayed you might feel, how much trust you’d lose in the world and people, that they would do that to you. That gets close to how I feel when I'm yanked out of an attentional tunnel, for no apparent reason. It's hard to explain though. I don’t know if neurotypical people will ever fully grasp the terribleness of it, or understand how little the world cares about how people like me feel. Or see the gap (chasm) between their lofty words and the casual obliviousness of their actions when it comes to concepts like empathy. I don't blame individual people though; the problem is structural. I just wish more neurotypicals would understand this too (many do of course).
Growing up in a polytropic world
Like many autists, I grew up being told I was lazy and selfish. I told my partner this when we first met, so that he would know what to expect. He later tells me how confusing that was, how wrong. He tells me I am kind, that he’s never met anybody so concerned about not offending people (and yet, I continue to offend, quite badly sometimes). He also tells me that I work at a level and pace that is unusually high, that I routinely finish in days what it takes most people weeks or longer. He reminds me that when we met, I was doing a PhD and working 2 jobs, one of which was as the executive director of a nonprofit.
And yet, despite all this, I was still regularly seen as lazy. It is what it is.
I've come to understand that what people call laziness and selfishness is me struggling and failing to do what's expected, and ultimately deciding not to bother. Yes, that’s selfish I suppose, to put my needs before other people’s. But is it really? I’m not so sure any more.
I'm going to end with one more story.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, a beautiful summer day. My husband and I are walking home from somewhere. All of a sudden he suggests we drop in at his sister's place, it's on the way home. I freeze, a panic rising in me, inexplicably edged with rage. And confusion too. I thought we were going home. Somehow, this spontaneous switch in plans is Not Okay. I don’t understand why; his sister and I are friends. He senses me freezing and says it’s fine, we can just go home. Sweet relief. But I also wonder. Why am I like this?
I didn’t know why then, but I know now.
I’m not anti-social, nor am I lazy or stubborn. I’m autistic, and monotropic. This is just how some of us are wired. Maybe more of us than you might realize.
Monotropism explains the extravagantly autistic way in which I do things, how overboard I go compared to those who can’t imagine reading a book twice, never mind 20-30 times (in addition to watching the film adaptations a dozen times or more, as well as reading all the rest of books in the series, also countless times of course.)
My monotropism permeates into almost all areas of my life. I samefood, and I “same-clothe” too, tending to wear the same favourite, most comfortable clothes instead of switching it up. I flew through piano lessons, doing 7 grades in under 2 years then petering out for a few more years. I have hundreds of seed packets, all kind of soils and lights and accoutrements. And yarn now, everywhere. Also shelves full of books. Wood, charcoal, paints. Another blog. I once taught myself how to program databases, not because I wanted to, but because it just happened that way. Something piques my interest, and the next thing I know, I'm in an attentional tunnel, picking up all kinds of random knowledge and skills.
Monotropism isn't all postive though — mostly yes, but not always. Monotropism also explains why I get stuck, asking the same question over and over again. This happens when I don't understand something, and it's never fun. Not for me, and not for the people on the receiving end of my questions. Somehow I can't just move on and accept "that's just the way it is" the way other people can. "Like a dog with a bone" someone once told me.
Monotropism also explains why people hardly existed for me as a child, how when they disappeared I barely noticed. How could I, when my attention was so fully elsewhere all the time? And why, even today, I sometimes go for months, even years, without seeing or talking to my closest friends or family, even though I think of them often.
As a teenager, I remember working on 2 theories. One was about inertia and momentum, and how they affect our behaviours. The other was about “lying fallow” — this idea that people, like farmlands, needed periods of non productivity, where they were left to regenerate naturally. I can see now how I was trying to solve the problems of being monotropic in a polytropic world, how I was looking to physics to help me understand why I had so much difficulty starting and stopping things, why focus-switching was so distressing for me. And to farming to understand why I couldn’t remain moderately productive at all times — this elusive work-life balance that people seem to think happens when you take enough breaks — but had periods of high creativity and productivity, and periods where I could do nothing but play video games, read books, and hang out online, hiding from the world in a state of almost pathological demand-avoidance.
If I'd known about monotropism — and if I'd had access to actually autistic people like me — I might not have been so confused as to why my instincts were so off. I might allowed myself to do things in ways that feel more natural to me, including working through flow, not through to-do lists and deadlines. But it's ok, there's still time. And I am here for it.