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Monotropism: How One Theory of Autism Can Help You Support Your Autistic Employees in Multiple Ways

It can be hard to know where to start in making your workplace more inclusive for Autistic people.

The “easy” option is to leave it up to the individual to request reasonable accommodations - but that alone isn’t enough to create an inclusive environment because there remains a lack of awareness among employees about what autism actually is, what it means for Autistic people, and how they can best adjust their own working practices and communication to support Autistic people.

Addressing that lack of awareness can feel daunting, because it seems like there are so many different aspects of autism, all of which affect individuals so uniquely.

It’s true that you’ll always have to tailor each individual’s working conditions to them. But there is a lot you can do to make the culture more inclusive by default, and those things don’t have to be complicated.

In fact, they all come back to the monotropism theory of autism.

What is Monotropism?

If you haven’t heard that term before, monotropism is a tendency to focus attention on a small number of things at one time, and miss things outside of that narrow field of attention.

This is considered to be a central, underlying feature of Autism and it’s a theory that was developed by actually Autistic people. It’s non-pathologising and neurodiversity affirming.

The idea is that an Autistic person is pulled in more deeply to their interests than non-autistic people.

How does this relate to supporting an Autistic person in the workplace?

Because monotropism is really the only theory of autism that explains the whole experience of being autistic - everything from special interests to sensory issues to communication differences - you can come back to it for every aspect of creating your inclusive environment.

Let’s take ‘Autistic inertia’ as an example - which is the difficulty many Autistic people experience in switching between tasks.

Monotropism theory explains that our attention is captured so much more intensely than other people’s and therefore pulling ourselves out of that and into another task takes a lot of energy, because so many of our processing resources are being used on the current task. Dealing with things outside of that tunnel of attention can feel impossible.

This theory is an alternative to the more pathologising idea that Autistic people experience “executive disfunctioning” - instead of there being something ‘disfunctional’ about our ability to complete tasks, monotropism theory suggests that a whole lot more processing is required for us as compared to non-Autistic people.

A good analogy is that while we may all have the same destination, non-autistic people are driving an empty car down a straight road, while our car is super heavy, overloaded with processing power, and rounding very tight corners. It’s gonna take us a minute or two to get where we need to go.

So what can you do with this information? Design your working practices around the car with the heavy load.

Allow for a lot of processing time, extended deadlines, no sudden changes in project scope or roles without discussion, and the ability to ask a lot of questions.

Allow for a lot of autonomy in how a task is completed, and be open to learning from your autistic team member when they learn a lot more than you expected about the task because all of their processing power was focused on it.

Design Autistic team member’s roles around projects that don’t require frequent task switching, or that require a very deep level of expertise.

How do I put this into action?

The above are just examples related to Autistic inertia. But for each aspect of autism you can ask yourself the same question:

How would having a brain drawn to focusing all it’s power on a single thing impact this experience?

Design your policies and ways of working around this, and you’ll certainly see improvements in the inclusiveness of your culture.

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