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A Better Way to Understand Autism

Between 1 and 2 percent of us are autistic, yet we still label autism as being ‘mysterious’. There is one approach to autism called monotropism which has hitherto largely been overlooked and which can provide a way to link all the pieces together and explain this phenomenon.

Fergus Murray, the co-founder of the Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh joins the program. Fergus is a science teacher and writer based in Edinburgh and was diagnosed as being autistic at the age of 32. Here are a few of the highlights of this program.

Fergus starts the program by describing mainstream ways in which autism is described, and how these approaches fail to adequately describe autistic thinking. One aspect is that of ‘mind deficit'. Non-autistic people have considered that autistic people cannot understand what other people are thinking, whereas ‘normal' human beings can. Fergus says: "…It is often true that autistic children have difficulties in understanding what other people are thinking, but actually we all have this difficulty… Historically this has been a major problem as people have tended to assume that they can understand other people's minds, and if they don't, then they assume that there is something wrong with the other person. So black people were dehumanized, women are still systematically misunderstood by men who feel that they don't need to make the effort to understand what women are thinking, but they get away with it because men have more power in society. Similarly, autistic people have less power in society than non-autistic people."

The second established approach which Fergus describes, is that of analyzing autism in terms of ‘executive dysfunction'. "Executive functions are parts of the brain which controls other parts of the brain, a suite of cognitive abilities which allows us to make plans and execute them, and also allow us to change tracks and control impulses and things like that. It is true that autistic people tend to struggle with things that fall under this umbrella, but it's a very broad term and it is not true that all autistic people suffer from [a full range] of ‘executive dysfunctions…"

Another area is ‘weak central coherence treatment.' "This is the description of autistic people that is closest to monotropism. This is the idea that autistic people are detail focused, and bad at seeing the big picture, which is largely not true… All of these theories are formulated by people who are not autistic and are generally painted from a very external perspective. So they do not give us very much insight into what autistic people are thinking."

Fergus explains what monotropism is. "In short, it is the tendency for our interests [of autistic people] to pull in our attention and processing resources, more than they do for other people. In a ‘polytrophic' mind, usually there are multiple interests aroused for any given time, and multiple streams of information being dealt with. Both of these are much harder for autistic people to manage. We tend to have one thing occupying most of our attention at any given time. Sometimes it is a few things but compared to the average mind, it's much more focused, which leaves less processing resources left over for other things, such as reading people's body language if you are trying to listen to what they are saying, making eye contact with them, thinking about all the social implications about what is being said, these are all very difficult things."

Monotropism is clearly a more holistic way of looking at autism, but it has not been accepted by the medical establishment, although this theory is not new. Fergus comments that psychologists are waiting for somebody to do empirical research to confirm the predictions of monotropism, however monotropism is being formulated by autistic people who are not professional psychologists, and the mainstream psychology establishment finds the new approach a bit of a challenge to accept, for reasons of power, and because it will mean that autistic people will influence the development of research. 

Discourses around this issue also discussed in this program concern the status of psychology as a scientific discipline, and about the influence of pharmaceutical companies which are highly active in shaping the form of research into autism. 

Fergus Murray has written various articles on this subject including one published in 'The Psychologist'.

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