Updated: Nov 18
There's a lot of talk about Flow in the productivity world, but have you ever considered how Flow works for the autistic mind? We often look for ways to connect with our natural strengths and passions in order to move toward our professional and personal goals.
The concept of autistic monotropism is one that hasn't been talked about much. In this post, I'm going to discuss how flow and monotropism work together, and dive into the autistic experience of intrinsic motivation. These mental states can potentially direct us toward the best experiences and increased self-awareness.
What is Flow State?
The concept of flow state was first studied by Csikszentmihalyi, who describes it as an ideal experience characterised by complete concentration on a task, a sense of timelessness, and effortless control.
The idea of flow state has been thoroughly studied in the past in a variety of populations, revealing its beneficial impacts on wellbeing and performance.
Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.”
Flow state is available to everybody, whether they are engaged in physical activity, a creative endeavour, or mundane day-to-day work.
Flow is less frequently seen during periods of relaxation and more common during difficult and engaging activities.
What is Autistic Monotropism?
While flow state is a concept that has been extensively studied in various populations, there is a parallel, but less researched, concept that shares similarities with flow state: autistic monotropism.
Monotropism refers to the intense concentration that autistic people invest in their interests as a result of their naturally hyperconnected brains.
Murray and Lawson introduced this concept as an alternative framework to comprehend the cognitive style of autistic individuals. Unlike the conventional view of attention as a broad, adaptable capacity, monotropism asserts that those with autism tend to immerse themselves in a limited range of interests or activities at a given time.
This intense focus is often called a "special interest" within the autistic community. These interests can range from niche subjects like pokémon or transit systems to broader areas such as literature or animals. Regardless of the topic, autistic individuals dedicate substantial time to accumulate knowledge and grasp our special interests. Their hyperfocus enables profound exploration.
These special interests don't just provide joy and contentment but also open doors to social connections and meaningful engagements with like-minded individuals.
Monotropism, therefore, underlines that this intense focus isn't an attention deficit but a distinctive way of processing information and deploying cognitive resources. According to Lawson, this cognitive style isn't confined to autistic individuals and can be present in varying degrees in neurotypical individuals.
Appreciating and acknowledging this cognitive style can pave the way for more inclusive and accommodating environments for autistic individuals, allowing them to fully harness their strengths and interests.
Why Flow is Autistic: Intrinsic Motivation & Monotropism
Intrinsic motivation is a key factor in both flow state and autistic monotropism. Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive and enjoyment that comes from engaging in an activity for its own sake, rather than for external rewards or outcomes.
When individuals are intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to experience flow state because they are fully immersed in the activity and find it inherently satisfying. Similarly, autistic individuals' intense focus on their special interests can be driven by intrinsic motivation, as we find deep satisfaction and enjoyment in exploring and learning about these topics.
When autistic individuals encounter something they're passionate about, we universally demonstrate an unparalleled drive to intensely concentrate on it.
How Autistic Monotropism Contributes to Productivity
Building on this intense focus, the link between autistic monotropism and productivity becomes evident. Monotropism, with its intense focus on specific interests, provides the foundation for deep engagement and concentration.
The concept of monotropism suggests that autistic people have a unique ability to prioritise and direct our attention towards specific interests, leading to enhanced productivity in those particular areas.
Autistic individuals often find our special interests to be a source of motivation and energy, allowing us to maintain high levels of focus and productivity when engaged in these pursuits.
This immersion in our special interests aligns with energy management. Engaging in special interests can serve as a form of self-care for autistic people, providing an outlet for mental relaxation and rejuvenation.
Curiosity also plays a role, as it drives the desire to explore and learn more about the chosen topic.
What does this mean?
Both flow state and autistic monotropism are driven by intrinsic motivation, and autistic monotropism contributes to productivity through its intense focus on specific interests.
The deep knowledge and expertise gained through our special interests can lead to opportunities for employment or creative pursuits. Autistic people may find fulfillment and purpose by turning our passions into a career or using it as a means of self-expression.
Additionally, a special interest can foster a sense of identity and belonging within the autistic community, as we connect with others who share similar interests and experiences. In essence, the immersion in special interests not only benefits the individual's well-being but also has the potential to positively impact their overall quality of life.
The fusion of monotropism, intrinsic motivation, and curiosity creates a powerful flow-like state, useful for optimising both productivity and happiness among autistic individuals.
Flow State: an ideal experience characterised by complete concentration on a task, a sense of timelessness, and effortless control
Monotropism: the intense concentration that autistic people invest in their interests as a result of their naturally hyperconnected brains
Intrinsic Motivation: the motivation to engage in a behaviour because of inherent satisfaction of the activity rather than the desire for a reward of specific outcome
Lauria, A. and Lowry, M. (2022) Episode 03: Poetry is Autistic, The Autistic Culture Podcast. Available at: https://share.snipd.com/episode-takeaways/1fc846c3-d287-4ef3-928b-63305b629e36 (Accessed: November 1, 2023).
Pearson, A. and Rose, K. (2021) “A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice,” Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), pp. 52–60. doi:10.1089/aut.2020.0043.
Cherry, K. (2023) Intrinsic Motivation: How Internal Rewards Drive Behavior, Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-intrinsic-motivation-2795385 (Accessed: November 1, 2023).