a hand holding a lense in front of a body of water to represent monotropism, focus, and the monotropic processing style

Interoception and Monotropism: Paying Attention to Autistic & ADHD Experiences

Hey everyone, Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist, and I wanted to take the time to talk about a topic that’s relatively new to me: monotropism. It’s something I’ve been learning a lot about, and I specifically want to talk about the relationship between interoception and monotropism. So, in case this topic is new to you, let’s start with: what is monotropism?

What is Monotropism?

Monotropism refers to a thinking or processing style in which the monotropic brain is able to go deep into one area, or one subject, and really explore and soak in a lot of details. This is the opposite of what’s called a polytropic brain, where this style of processing helps a person pay attention to a wide variety of details, but only at a surface level. There are strengths to each thinking style. We need all types of brains in this world!

We know that a lot of autistic people and ADHDers have a monotropic style of processing, and while there are so many strengths, the most prominent is that it allows people to go very deep into areas of interest. It allows for ideas to be explored and studied at great depths, and it allows for a state of flow to be reached many times.

Interoception & Monotropism: Some Costs

While monotropism can certainly be a strength, there are also some of costs of having this style of processing, especially living in a world that’s not set up to understand and support it. Let’s talk a little bit more about that.

Cost #1: Our World is Not Currently Set Up to Support the Monotropic Thinking Style

The first cost is really about the world around the monotropic thinker. Monotropism is not a topic that’s being as widely discussed as it should be. There are a lot of self-advocates educating people about this topic, which is how I learned about it. I’m doing a lot of work in this topic, especially as it relates to interoception, with my friend and colleague Kieran Rose, and it is clear that the world right now is not really set up to honor the monotropic style of thinking. Many monotropic thinkers have their experiences invalidated on a daily basis. They are forced into polytropic systems, like our education system, for example. Our education system is set up to focus on the surface level of many different subjects, as opposed to thinking deeply about one subject for a prolonged period of time. There are transitions every 30 minutes or every hour, prompting learners to move their attention between different topics.

Many times a monotropic thinker is conditioned to essentially ignore their body and brain in order to fit into a polytropic world…to ignore the thinking style that helps their body feel safe in the world. There’s a lot of masking and dissociation from the body that can happen when you’re innate thinking style is not understood, celebrated, and validated by other people.

Cost #2: Interoception Disconnect

That leads us to the connection with interoception. We know that because monotropism is not widely supported and validated in this world, there can be a lot of body dissociation, which of course ties into interoception.

When someone is able to go into their monotropic flow, they’re able to go deep within that attention tunnel with whatever topic is hooking their attention. That state of flow can be a really wonderful experience, but it can also come with some interoception disconnect. A person’s bodily needs might not reach a level of noticing if the person is focused on their task or interest. They might come out of their monotropic flow and realize perhaps that they haven’t slept in a long time, or they haven’t nurtured their other bodily needs like eating, or drinking, or toileting or something else.

Cost #3: Reduced Opportunities for Body Learning

Monotropic processing may limit the opportunities that a person has to learn about how their body uniquely feels in the world. If inner bodily sensations are not strong enough to hook their attention, a person might miss out on experiences to learn about how their body feels and what their body needs for regulation. If there are other details that hook their attention–details outside of their body—body signals might not capture attention frequently enough for enough learning to occur.

Interoception & Monotropism: Making a Connection

So, we’re talking about two things.

  1. How we can understand and honor the monotropic style of processing.
  2. How we can help someone to learn about their own bodily sensations and to be able to honor those interoceptive or bodily needs while still validating their monotropic style of processing.

We do have a 2-part course series that will include this topic. I am excited to be teaching it with Kieran Rose. It will be all about monotropism and interoception. It will also be followed up with a second course about masking and interoception, because that goes hand in hand with monotropism. I hope you’ll join me on this journey in learning about these important topics so that we can provide more affirming support to all humans.

Until next time.

Want to learn more about monotropism and interoception? Sign up for our live course

April 2024 Course GraphicsInformation about Part 2, about interoception and masking, can also be found here.