This article was co-authored by Tanya Adkin and David Gray-Hammond
Monotropism is a theory of autism. It is used interchangeably as a theory and also a trait that describes a style of attention. It suggests that Autistic people tend to have singular but highly detailed tunnels of attention, as opposed to spreading their attentional resources across multiple subjects (Murray, Lesser & Lawson, 2005). It has succeeded where other theories have failed by offering an explanation for every element of Autistic experience. In this sense monotropism is the only universal theory of autism.
One could consider it the “engine” of Autistic experience. Whereby every other part of Autistic experience can be traced back to monotropism in some way. It is at the core of our experience.
Emerging research is showing that both Autistic and ADHD people strongly identify with many aspects of monotropism as a way of describing their experience (Murray & Hallett, 2023). More on this can be found at this virtual presentation. It comes as no surprise then that monotropism is of significant importance to those who identify as both Autistic and ADHD, termed AuDHD.
Psychotic phenomena is another shared experience for many Autistic and/or ADHD people. 34.8% of formally identified Autistic people have experienced psychosis with up to 60% of Schizophrenic people also showed traits of autism (Ribolsi et al, 2022), In terms of the cross-over with ADHD, 47% of those diagnosed with childhood onset of schizophrenia experienced attention differences and hyperactivity in childhood, and in a sample size of 100 adults with psychosis, 32% reported attentional differences in childhood (Levy et al, 2015).
From this we can see that there is a significant overlap between the AuDHD experience and psychotic phenomena. When we look at this through the lens of monotropism, it begins to make more sense.
Monotropic split refers to a very specific type of attentional trauma experienced by monotropic people who are regularly exceeding their attentional resources (Adkin, 2022) in an effort to meet the demands of living in a world designed for non-monotropic (polytropic) people. It inevitably leads to burnout.
Autistic burnout refers to a state of exhaustion created by using up all of your internal resources.
“Autistic burnout is often used by autistic adults to describe a state of incapacitation, exhaustion, and distress in every area of life. Informally, autistic adults describe how burnout has cost them jobs, friends, activities, independence, mental and physical health, and pushed them to suicidal behavior.”
Raymaker et al (2020)
Because Autistic burnout is described as a state of exhaustion, one would assume, that for many Autistic people observationally it can look like depression, and as such tools are being developed to differentiate between the two. However, exhaustion does not always mean that you are bed-bound, observably tired, and, indeed, displaying observable traits of depression. Many people with depression do not fit typical criteria, which is then referred to as high-functioning depression (useful!).
This is likely because the medical model has some sort of obsession with observable, diagnosable, traits. Many Autistic people are unable to stop and burnout. This may be because they are also ADHD, they may have interoceptive differences resulting in alexithymia and a lack of recognition of tiredness. They may simply have to work or raise children.
This may look like meerkatting and hypomanic behaviour (Adkin & Gray-Hammond, 2023) in addition to loss of skills and reduced tolerance to stimulus (Raymaker et al, 2020).
Lovingly dubbed “meerkat mode” by Tanya due to the heightened state of vigilance and arousal it presents, it involves constantly looking for danger and threat. It is more than hyper-arousal, Tanya believes that it is actually an overwhelmed monotropic person desperately looking for a hook into a monotropic flow-state.
This is not just sensory hyper-arousal, it is the tendency of monotropic minds to seek out a natural and consuming flow-state to aid recovery from burnout and/or monotropic split. Because of the heightened sensory-arousal and adrenal response that comes with it, monotropic flow becomes difficult to access, leading into monotropic spiral.
Tanya’s original concept of Monotropic spiral results from the inertia of monotropic flow. It may involve obsessive-compulsive type occurrences of rumination about a particular subject of experience that pulls the person deeper and deeper into an all-consuming monotropic spiral. Associative thinking that starts connecting this to anything and everything, seemingly like an ever increasing black-hole (Adkin & Gray-Hammond, 2023; Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2023).
This can lead to the development of apparent loss of insight into ones own mental state and reality as described by the general population.
Monotropic spiral is not psychosis. It is rather the vehicle that carries the person into psychotic phenomena, and maintains its inertia. Much like a star collapsing on itself, the resultant black-hole sucks in everything in its vicinity and is all-consuming.
A person experiencing monotropic spiral may lose insight and their sense of Self, compounded by a decoupling from shared reality. People can experience hallucinatory events, especially when alexithymic, making it difficult to differentiate between external sound and one’s own internal monologue. We can experience paranoia and rejection sensitive dysphoria to the point of delusion, it’s unclear where the line between this and fully fledged psychosis lies. We can also experience catatonic events and extreme lability of our mood, ranging from suicidally depressed to overtly manic and elated.
This may be why criteria for conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar are so frequently met in the psychiatrists office. In a world that traumatises us by design, these phenomena may not be as atypical as we are led to believe.
Are we looking at three separate occurrence that commonly happen together, within an observational model? Or are we looking at chronically stressed and burned out monotropic people, that due to the infinite possible interactions with an individual person’s environment, may observationally appear distinctively different?
Perhaps then we should stop thinking in terms of:
Autistic person + Environment = Outcome
Monotropic person + Environment = Outcome
Chronic stress or stressful life events have long been studied as a key contributing factor for the onset of psychotic phenomena (Philips et al, 2007) but the occurrence and impact of stress for monotropic people is vastly different, but it is not yet widely understood. This is because of the lack of training and rampant neuronormativity in mental health services (Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2022); the antidote to which is neurodivergence competence (Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2023).
Instead, we keep throwing money in the wrong direction and leaning on carcerative care to make the problem go away. If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist, right? Seems to us like we should just fix the environment. Maybe that’s our “rigid” black and white thinking.
Adkin, T. (2022) What is Monotropic Split? emergentdivergence.com
Adkin, T. & Gray-Hammond, D. (2023) Creating Autistic Suffering: What is atypical burnout? emergentdivergence.com
Gray-Hammond, D. & Adkin, T. (2023) Creating Autistic Suffering: CAMHS kills kids. emergentidvergence.com
Gray-Hammond, D. & Adkin, T. (2022) Creating Autistic Suffering: Neuronormativity in mental health treatment. emergentdivergence.com
Gray-Hammond, D. & Adkin, T. (2023) Creating Autistic Suffering: Autistic safety and neurodivergence competency. emergentdivergence.com
Levy, E., Traicu, A., Iyer, S., Malla, A., & Joober, R. (2015). Psychotic disorders comorbid with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: an important knowledge gap. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 60(3 Suppl 2), S48.
Murray, F. & Hallett, S. (2023) ADHD and monotropism. monotropism.org
Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), 139-156.
Phillips, L. J., Francey, S. M., Edwards, J., & McMurray, N. (2007). Stress and psychosis: towards the development of new models of investigation. Clinical psychology review, 27(3), 307-317.
Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., … & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew”: Defining autistic burnout. Autism in adulthood, 2(2), 132-143.
Ribolsi, M., Fiori Nastro, F., Pelle, M., Medici, C., Sacchetto, S., Lisi, G., … & Di Lorenzo, G. (2022). Recognizing psychosis in autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 768586.