“Monotropism is a cognitive strategy posited to be the central underlying feature of autism. A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time.” (Wikipedia)
When myself and my children become focused on something it becomes all encompassing and dominates our thought patterns and focus. The something can be anything – it doesn’t have to be solving quadratic equations or the inner workings of a steam train. It could be painting the bathroom grey or visiting Wales. Whatever the something is, total thought domination is likely to occur until the issue has either resolved or our cognitive focus has been satisfied through adequate attention given. Until resolution has been achieved our minds are likely to be operating in a slightly irritated and unsettled manner at having to temporarily park up whatever we really want to be attending our thoughts to.
Imagine the difficulty at having to suspend focusing on your most compelling thoughts and having to think over the top of them in order to “learn”. Having to immediately switch and tune back into the outside world can consequently be jarring and incredibly challenging. So why are we still insisting that children with an innate, cognitive way of functioning force their minds to operate in an unnatural and painful way in order to comply?
Autistic children who are hyperfocusing upon their “something” can easily be mislabelled as inattentive, day-dreaming or just rude or absent – while the neurotypical world circles around them, key information passes by as it is delivered in a way that is inaccessible at that specific point in time.
Typical education is organised into chunked time segments… Just as we are perhaps gearing up into zoning in to the focus then the activity is stopped and we are expected to transition swiftly into the next.
More specialist autism educators chunk lesson time into much smaller segments, to ensure that effort of attention towards compulsory subject matter is only exerted in small bursts. Many educators offer rewards of “special interest time” after completion of the previous task. Both of these methods disallow a monotropic mind to operate at its best.
Entering a hyperfocused state can allow for amazing achievements… I have been able to run marathons entirely in a hyperfocused state which has enabled me to disassociate my body from my mind and so ignore the painful knees, toes, calf muscles etc. I’ve also been able to achieve my most accomplished drawings whilst in a flow of hyperfocus. This has only been possible as an adult in command of my own time. In the midst of mainstream education it was mostly impossible to have enough time allocated to allow me focus in such a way.
I have begun to appreciate how a flexible, home based delivery of education can be beneficial to an autistic thinker because it can adapt and assist monotropism. My two children currently access their learning at home. As Mum-Teacher I map out an approximate plan of what outcomes the National Curriculum state as necessary. Occasionally this matches with my children’s enthusiasm but more frequently they are uninterested and do not retain any of the content. If I follow their interests and fit the outcomes around this then their retention accelerates.
Operating in a flexible manner allows my children to fulfil their potential. We began our learning this week by planning to continue with composing poetry…until my son had a sudden spark of genius in relation to a story idea. Knowing that it would be near impossible for him to concentrate upon anything else we immediately began mapping out his thoughts and quickly agreed to embark fully in the new project on Monday – no waiting until the next term for us!
My son will work entirely on this project until it is completed and completed well. He will be determined and motivated even on the bad days. He will retain all the skills and information he has gained throughout the project because his mind will be receptive. And this will be comparably more beneficial to him than working towards his SATS (assessments).
It is such a shame that our schooling system is unable to offer such flexible and individual approaches to education, particularly when allowing flow states to present themselves is so beneficial to our autistic thinkers.