Maybe It’s All About Attention Tunnels
I’D MEANT ONLY to talk about one way in which I think we end up with late-diagnosed actually autistic adults, but while browsing the autism tag (which they seem finally to have purged of all the t-shirt and pirated ebook spam) ended up learning something new.
The only theory I’m aware of that seems to make a decent stab at explaining the many seemingly disparate features of autistic psychology — from inertia to communication problems to hyperfocus and spiky profiles — is monotropism. However, this theory (formulated by autistics who aren’t professional psychologists) has received relatively little attention from psychologists, and awaits direct empirical verification.
Naturally, I took a moment’s detour to Wikipedia for what it had to say about monotropism.
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, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel. The theory of monotropism was developed by Dr Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser starting in the 1990s, and published about in the journal Autism in 2005.
All of which led me to that 2005 paper, the reading of which felt a great deal like it felt when I began to read other people talking about their autistic experiences in the year or two after my diagnosis. By which I mean there was lots of vigorous nodding.
To a person in an attention tunnel every unanticipated change is abrupt and is truly, if briefly, catastrophic: a complete disconnection from a previous safe state, a plunge into a meaningless blizzard of sensations, a frightening experience which may occur many times in a single day. Following such an episode it may take a long time for any other interest to emerge. The first basin of attraction to draw the interest is likely to be a familiar action which may replace any inclination to repeat the failed attempt.
Remarkably, just hours later while setting up a Quora account I discovered an article about a recent fMRI study that seems to show monotropism in autistic adults in action.
Thanks to the fMRI scans, the researchers were able to confirm that in the brains of people with autism, connections persist for more extended periods than they do in the brains of neurotypical individuals. In other words, in autism, the brain finds it harder to switch between processes.
There’s more, of course, in the findings themselves.
No significant correlations were found between measures of cognitive function and sustained connectivity in individuals with autism. However, a significant positive correlation was found between sustained connectivity and social impairment scores. Similarly, Rashid et al found a link between dynamic functional connectivity and autistic traits assessed using the SRS. These findings also dovetail with electrophysiological results showing delayed auditory evoked responses in autism suggesting temporal prolongation of steady-state responses to stimuli. Temporal smoothing of neural responses with prolonged brain states may also be consistent with another hypothesized physiological mechanism in autism, that of decreased ability for shifting of attention.
I’m thoroughly a layman, so it’s unclear to me how on the one hand the researchers state that no real links were found “between measures of cognitive function and sustained connectivity” and yet also suggest that their results might be consistent with “another hypothesized physiological mechanism in autism, that of decreased ability for shifting of attention” in autistics, since I would think that one aspect of cognitive functioning in fact is the ability to shift from the attentional tunnels discussed under monotropism, but mostly I am just sort of astonished that one the same day I learned about monotropism I also ran across an fMRI study that seems to support it, at least in part.
Really, it’s just that I’m now rapidly becoming a fan of monotropism as a potential way to explain and explore what the fuck the autistic brain is doing, and how, and why, and so you get two posts from me in two days after three months of radio silence.