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What Is Monotropism?

A mother’s understanding of autistic characteristics through a monotropic lens.

Key points

  • Monotropism is a term coined by Dinah Murray (1992) to describe an orientation of attention that focuses on a narrow range of interests.
  • Monotropism is implicated in many aspects of autistic children’s lives, such as tolerating mistakes and disruptions.
  • As well as celebrating the passion and focus of monotropic thinkers, it is helpful to appreciate the pivotal role of interests in their learning.

Monotropism is a term coined by Dinah Murray (1992) to describe an orientation of attention that focuses on a narrow range of interests.

Monotropism can be outwardly expressed as a dedication to an area of study, an impressive collection of items (like my son's current passion for padlocks), or a heightened focus on an interest or sensory experience (like his passion for practicing basketball tricks).

This narrowed, emotionally charged focus has been noted by early researchers of autism, such as Leo Kanner (1943), as characteristic of many autistic individuals. It continues to be listed as a key diagnostic criterion for ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as "highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus."

Murray (2005) hypothesized that this highly-aroused focus on a restricted range of interests is more isolated from a web of cognitive associations than is the case for individuals who have a polytropic focus of attention, which is more connected with diverse cognitive associations.

Murray (2005) used the analogy of an attention tunnel to illustrate monotropism, a tunnel that makes it difficult to perceive stimuli beyond its narrow focus.

Monotropic Life

Monotropism is implicated in many aspects of autistic children's lives, such as tolerating mistakes and disruptions, coping with a lack of interest in tasks that are not tied to special interests, managing the strengths and challenges that come with being less influenced by cultural norms and expectations, and switching between tasks, to name a few. Below, I'd like to share a few personal examples of how the monotropic style of attention impacts many aspects of autistic children's life.

Coping With Setbacks

Developing a tolerance for mistakes and setbacks is a continuous theme that I explore with my children. I remember wondering many years ago, "Why does my child take it to heart when a basketball trick doesn't eventuate or when I win a game of handball?"

Monotropism is a fitting explanation for the experience of distress in response to setbacks or perceived failure due to the combination of a narrowed focus that excludes a big-picture understanding combined with a heightened emotional charge. Murray (2005) suggested that for monotropic thinkers, alternatives are more difficult to access, and setbacks may be perceived as more disastrous than for polytropic thinkers.

Helping my son to expand his focus beyond the narrowed attentional tunnel and offering alternative perspectives about the meaning of mistakes has been very helpful in increasing his tolerance of setbacks. At the same time, we also want him to be aware of how much we value his passion and enthusiasm toward his interests and goals!

Coping With Change and Shifting Tasks

Murray (2005) conceptualized coping with change through the lens of monotropism, offering the perspective that unanticipated change is a disconnection from a previous safe state and is accompanied by uncomfortable and distressing sensations.

For many autistic persons, stimming may be an attempt to restore an experience of reassurance following a distressing sensation. Everyone is unique when it comes to coping with change. For my 9-year-old, coping with change may outwardly manifest as seeking reassurance and a tendency to ask for validation or through asking the same question over and again. Murray (2005) recommended that autistic individuals may benefit from additional time considerations when shifting between tasks and may benefit from attending to one task at a time instead of multitasking.

Monotropism and Learning

Murray (2005) discussed another important implication of monotropism on learning theory. She suggested that neurodiverse individuals process information in relation to their interests and goals, as opposed to a top-down process which refers to making meaning of one's experience in relation to past learning and context.

I appreciate the impact of monotropic learning on my 4-and-a-half-year-old, for whom the passion for performing is a focal point of reference for coping with everyday activities, such as cleaning ears and brushing teeth (as any serious performer requires those to be clean) while infusing him with motivation.

Social Communication

Murray (2005) hypothesizes that monotropism impacts many ASD diagnostic characteristics, such as social communication. She suggests that it may take longer for individuals with a monotropic attention style to develop their theory of mind skills, whether contemplating hypothetical scenarios or appreciating subtle social rules and expectations. Murray (2005) suggests that autistic children may be more likely to experience their social relationships in relation to their special interests and goals than from the point of view of another person's inferred inner experience.

In addition, a monotropic style of attention is associated with a tendency to be less influenced by cultural expectations and more independent in one's perception, learning from what is "seen, heard, felt, smelt, rather than from what can be implied" (Murray, 2015). As stated by Kana et al. (2016), direct, clear, purposeful communication may be of great support in facilitating interpersonal understanding, especially for autistic communicators.

I find that making the implicit explicit when it comes to social expectations or interpreting people's mental states is a key parenting theme in my family, amidst also celebrating the creativity and authenticity of my little ones' unique perspectives!

Unique Skillsets

From a therapist's viewpoint, discovering a child's unique set of strengths and challenges and their impact on a child's ability to approach their personal goals is of central importance.

Murray (2005) highlights that individuals with a monotropic focus of attention may demonstrate an unevenness of skills, as the development of their skills is more associated with their special areas of interest than is the case for individuals with a polytropic focus of attention.

Monotropic focus can impact many areas of a child's development and life, including language acquisition. Murray (2015) suggests that for some monotropic thinkers, language can be less meaningful and even invasive in relation to taking attention away from their focus, concentration (being more dependent on their level of motivation), or switching between tasks. Murray (2015) suggested that monotropic thinkers can experience feeling stuck in their experience, finding it difficult to move on.

As well as celebrating the expertise, passion, and focus of monotropic thinkers, educators can support them by appreciating the pivotal role of interests in their learning and relating to the world, allowing accommodations such as additional time to shift between tasks, ensuring that efforts at communication include a clear understanding of steps, and supporting them in expanding on their understanding where appropriate (Murray, 2005).


Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5 (Fifth edition.). (2013). American Psychiatric Association.

Kana, R. K., Patriquin, M. A., Black, B. S., Channell, M. M., & Wicker, B. (2016). Altered Medial Frontal and Superior Temporal Response to Implicit Processing of Emotions in Autism. Autism Research, 9(1), 55–66.

Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism : the International Journal of Research and Practice, 9(2), 139–156.

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