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Published: September 8, 2023
Last updated on September 8, 2023

What is monotropism?

The term monotropism was coined in 2005 by autistic researcher Dinah Murray and became recognized by scientists as a way to explain differences in knowledge and cognitive processing between autistics and neurotypicals. She determined monotropism to be an alternative method of attention that autistics favour, relating to how attention varies in strength based on one’s interest and how motivated they are in pursuing it.[1]Monotropism – An Interest Based Account of Autism (Murray, 2020)[2]Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (Murray, Lesser, & Lawson, 2005)

This experience is likely familiar to many of us, but maybe we never had the words to explain it before. In nonscientific terms, we understand this phenomenon as the localized, intense attention we give to one, or a few, specific interests at a time. When this occurs, all other information in our environment does not reach our minds.

Most of the scientific knowledge surrounding monotropism (and the special interests of autistic people) has come from the observations and responses of autistic children and their families. As a result, some of the vocabulary found in monotropism research (like ‘unusual’ or ‘special’) may reflect certain neurotypical biases against neurodivergent children and how they engage with their interests. However, monotropism also occurs well into adulthood for autistic individuals and has some benefits to our daily functioning. I feel the ‘interests’ model of monotropism offers a different perspective on how we engage with our interests than previously seen in autism research. It is effective at highlighting some of the advantages that can occur with a few, focused interests.[3]Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey (Nowell et al., 2021)

Interest model of autism

It might be helpful to think of attention as a dark tunnel. Our focus, or how we control our attention on a specific source of information, can be characterized as the beam of light shining down the tunnel. As autistics, we tend to have an extremely narrow attention tunnel, meaning that when we shine a light (focus), it shines brightly and directly on the small end of the tunnel. This light, while far-reaching, is so bright, that everything not directly lit is unseen. Likewise, when we focus our attention on a specific interest, we tend to lose awareness of everything else going on in our immediate surroundings, including our environment and the people around us. This intense focus on a singular interest, while excluding all other information, can make it difficult for autistics to switch their attention between interests when the situation calls for it.

On the other hand, neurotypicals tend to have a wider attention tunnel, where their light of focus is more diffuse and widespread. This reveals much more visual information from various areas within the tunnel. Meaning, they find it easier to hold multiple interests in mind at the same time. This is called polytropism. With more information taking up their attention, neurotypicals are less concerned with knowing the specific details of one topic and are less invested in these interests compared to autistics. They may find it easier to switch between interests in a conversation seamlessly, drawing from multiple stores of long-term and working memory.

In contrast, switching attention between interests during conversations with neurotypicals can be difficult for autistics. Let’s say I (an autistic monotropic thinker) am speaking with a group of neurotypical colleagues about the decline in procedural television writing quality (something I feel enthusiastic about). I think to myself, “Okay, this is my time to shine,” and present them with the tons of information I have amassed on the history of television. But then they only wanted to talk about the TV show Suits, which they have all seen. They then move on to another shared topic of interest (which I have not yet realized because I am still thinking about my previous comments to the group). As such, I am unable to participate in their new conversation.

Not knowing how to appropriately respond can be stressful, so I would likely find a way to leave the conversation. In this way, because I was so invested in my interests, I could not redirect my attention to the others in the conversation. In my experience, neurotypicals do not take this difficulty in redirecting attention very well; they might become annoyed with us or shame us for not paying enough attention to them. They might feel that we are selfish for not acting interested in their thoughts, and attribute selfishness as being inherent to our autistic identity.

While monotropism can pose a challenge when our situation requires rapid attentional shifts, there are also situations where monotropism is an asset. Due to our ability to focus, we may find ourselves able to complete complex tasks very quickly (which can benefit people who work in fast-paced environments).

However, it also comes at the cost of being very exhausting to maintain. During this highly attentive state, it can be difficult to register anything other than the task at hand, including talking to other individuals or remembering to eat meals. We may be exhausted once the task is over and need time to recover. This is one of the challenges autistics face within the monotropism model; we may have difficulty balancing when to engage versus disengage with our interests.

I believe this struggle to switch our attention is not a personal failing; rather, it is because attention is a limited resource. Autistics tend to understand this very well; because of this limitation, we must be intentional about how we use energy for attention.

Factors influencing monotropic attention

In the ‘interests’ model, how autistics utilize attention is determined through 2 key factors: affect and motivation. Affect (ranging from positive to negative) specifies how much someone enjoys their interest. Meanwhile, motivation defines how easy or difficult it is to maintain attention to their interest. When we are enthusiastic about our interests, we are more engaged with them; thus, less effort is needed to maintain attention to them. Additionally, this means that when we are disinterested or upset, it becomes difficult to focus, and we lose other information from our surroundings.[4]Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (Murray, Lesser, & Lawson, 2005)

Let’s revisit my previous example about participating in a group conversation about television shows. For my colleagues, it may be easy to talk about their various interests simultaneously. However, as an autistic, monotropic thinker, I might find it difficult (or even painful) to pay attention to what my colleagues are saying. This could be because I am:

  1. Not very interested in the show they were talking about (affect); and
  2. I am concerned about how my behaviours would be perceived by the group (motivation).

As a result, I might become distressed and need to remove myself from the group. Here, my lack of affect about the topic at hand, combined with my motivation to mask my behaviours in a group setting, prevented me from paying enough attention to the conversation to respond. Instead, I had to engage in coping behaviours for some comfort. For me, this looked like paying less and less attention to conversation until I was able to physically leave the room. For others, this may look like engaging in stimming or other repetitive behaviours that provide comfort.

Motivation and affect in monotropism can also affect our participation in work and/or school settings. For example, one study observing young autistic children in schools found that many kids are unable to concentrate during repetitive learning tasks.[5]Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey (Nowell et al., 2021) Likely due to low enjoyment, they became upset and felt like the task was “annoying” or “taking too long,” so they turned their attention to more enjoyable interests (like quoting lines from their favourite action heroes).

Some of the school staff attributed this lack of engagement with learning as being inherent to the child’s autism or them being “set in their ways.” However, it is more likely that these repetitive tasks had very little positive affect thus, were too tiring and not interesting enough for the kids to maintain attention over a long time. If the staff incorporates the students’ interests within the lesson, students will become more engaged and attentive to the content.[6]Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey (Nowell et al., 2021)

In work settings, monotropic adults may similarly experience being unable to concentrate on tasks in a loud or busy working environment. On one hand, when we are consumed with our interests, it is easy to tune out the sounds of our environment and work faster than most neurotypicals. However, if we feel tired or when working on a task that is not fulfilling to us (for example, filling out forms), a noise as small as a door opening can pull our focus and become frustrating. By setting limits on how much time and energy we spend on a task, we can prevent burnout leading to fewer distractions.

Monotropism & AuDHD

The challenges autistics experience in attention and task demands can be compared to those of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a commonly occurring neurocognitive condition to autism. Like autistics, people with ADHD may also find it difficult to attend to tasks that they are not interested in or do not find rewarding.

People with ADHD may also find it difficult to balance when to engage or disengage with an interest. As such, the monotropism model can be helpful to ADHDers or those with both autism and ADHD (AuDHDers) in explaining how their experiences with executive function challenges may overlap.[7]Intensity and Variable Attention: Counter Narrating ADHD, from ADHD Deficits to ADHD Difference (Rosqvist et al., 2023)

Monotropism & social interaction

Thinking montropically can make responding to certain social situations difficult. This is because information outside our current interests, like social cues important for neurotypical communication, can be difficult to process along with the conversation. During social interaction, we are taking in huge amounts of information at a rapid pace; we are making sense of both words and facial/body language while trying to respond in a manner understood by neurotypicals. Thus, we might miss information sensitive to understanding our environment.

One social cue we might miss due to monotropism is small changes in body language. For example, if someone is telling a story where they roll their eyes, and people laugh, we can assume that the rolling eyes behaviour was essential to the joke. But if we miss seeing that behaviour, the meaning behind why people are laughing becomes unclear.

Being unable to grasp the meaning behind the conversation and respond accordingly can be distressing for autistics. This is because failing to respond in a way accepted by neurotypicals (especially when we might be masking our behaviours to appear neurotypical) may leave us feeling alienated or ‘othered’ in some way. This stress may, in turn, trigger coping behaviours such as shutting down or closing off to the conversation, further isolating ourselves.[8]Reconsidering autistic ‘camouflaging’ as transactional impression management (Ai, Cunningham, & Lai, 2022)[9]Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health (Mitchell, Sheppard, & Cassidy, 2021)[10]Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings (Wood, 2021)

Even though these cognitive processes may be difficult sometimes, the burden of social communication isn’t all on us to bear. I believe that framing these differences in cognitive processing as a unique “impairment” to autistics unfairly places the demands of social interaction on neurodivergent folks rather than neurotypicals. This framing helps create the ableist narrative that neurotypical communication styles are, and should be, the standard of what is acceptable. However, I find this is an unfair standard that forces autistics and other neurodivergent folks to change what is normal and useful for them in the hopes of being accepted within wider, i.e., neurotypical, society.

This double standard in communication is reflected in autistic researcher Damian Milton’s double empathy problem. While originally used to debunk ableist beliefs about our capacities for empathy, the double empathy problem suggests that we would have an easier time communicating with neurotypicals if they spent a similar amount of time thinking about autistic communication processes as autistics do with neurotypical communication styles.[11]Double Empathy: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood (Crompton et al., 2021)[12]On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ (Milton, 2012) In my opinion, this means neurotypicals are not working hard enough at accepting and using neurodivergent communication styles, such as monotropism.

Moreover, not all social communication is challenging for autistics. We have many thoughtful and enjoyable social interactions in our lives. For example, when talking about our interests, monotropic individuals can hold long conversations, and likely have a wealth of knowledge on their special interests. One autistic woman, in an interview conducted by Murray and colleagues, spoke about her interests in birds and how that knowledge came easier to her than other facts:[13]Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (Murray, Lesser, & Lawson, 2005)

I can name the many birds with their variety of calls and bird song around me during a countryside walk. However, I find it difficult to answer a single question about what I might like for lunch

Our interests can provide opportunities to connect with others who share similar interests, like with other autistics. This happened in one scientific study where autistic youth were playing video games together. Researchers found that by sharing popular culture references (like quotes from the movies Crocodile Dundee and Tron about the game’s events), these kids had increased enjoyment and participation during the game. In this way, autistics also experience enjoyable social participation in various areas of life by finding new ways to engage with our interests.[14]Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding (Heasman & Gillespie, 2019)[15]Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey (Nowell et al., 2021)[16]Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings (Wood, 2021)


In summary, it’s important to stress that monotropism isn’t necessarily a deficit, but a difference in autistic cognitive processing. I believe this difference is only made to be challenging when neurotypicals force us to respond in ways that suit their communication styles, rather than our own.

As someone who identifies as autistic, reading about monotropism put words to what I thought were my idiosyncratic behaviours. I have found this framework to help me understand my cognitive processes and how they manifest in my behaviour. How is monotropism represented in your own daily experiences?


This article
was written by:
Eden Arefaine has an Honours B.Sc. in Psychology from the University of Toronto. While not yet formally diagnosed, she has long believed that she is on the autism spectrum.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


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