We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we feel we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.
To be holotropic is to have wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes — less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.
Hyperfocus may occur within singular (monotropic) or connective (syntropic) attention paths (tunnels and rhizomes). Both types of paths create flow states wherein one is deeply engaged. Hyperfocus is a kind of flooding of certain pathways which therein quiets dissonance from conflicting inputs. To be monotropic is to be focused with fidelity. (Fidelity to whatever sense or subject characterises the tunnel.) To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life.
If hyperfocus is flow, coherence is profound rest. (Just as flow can flow while in a physical state of relative stillness, coherence can cohere in simple aimless movement.) It is effortless integration. While it has been given little consideration in autism studies, embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.
Our bodies are not a collection of parts held together by connective tissue. We are each a constitutive tissue that organises itself into organs.¹ It is much more likely to find the same pattern (in a different form) in any particular aspect of our body and experience than for a pattern to be isolated, unless caused by a recent local injury. More space between adjacent skeletal bones often leads to joint instability. Gentle eccentric movement is essential nourishment.
An effect of having wide open sense gates is a lack of clear boundary between self and other. This can be wonderful, and it can be trouble. Training in proprioception and “peripheral stability” is of tremendous benefit, as it protects us from getting confused in the space between ourselves and others, and we are then less prone to clumsiness, which means our bodies are safer from accidental injury.²
When our healthy hyperfocus is disrupted, we may be overwhelmed, and this can take various forms. Since there will undoubtedly be disruptions, cultivating agility for those moments is critical. Hyperfocus may also partially explain why autists have a higher incidence of various physical ailments — if there is a prioritised focus of interest for the body’s energy, aspects of our “autonomic” nervous system aren’t always autonomic. If we are only cycling between hyperfocus and disruption of hyperfocus, our bodies as whole systems are neglected. Regular periods of coherence are therefore mandatory for our well-being. As we practice with coherence, over time we may choose more time in coherence, and less in hyperfocus. (De-centrating rather than concentrating.)
The holotropic mind, when acting syntropically, tends to expect one thing to follow from another like fractals, or a jacob’s ladder toy: each thing is experienced like a step, whether forwards or backwards from, or sideways to, the last thing. Close, and shifting. This expectation rests on a somatic understanding that consciousness is cellular. When we are fully at ease, we can feel the synapses of our thoughts. When we experience cognitive-sensory dissonance it can feel like the whole infinite pattern, that we are a part of, gets erased.
What is called polytropic experience is more compartmentalised. One could say it is additive — that interests and activities and sensing “add up” to a sense of wholeness — while holotropic sensory experience is multiplicative — and therefore can quickly get intense. This is relevant to the double empathy problem. Anecdotally, polytropic-leaning people seem to get a good taste of the holotropic experience of openness with extensive meditation practice or a below-hallucination dose of LSD, psilocybin, etc., and then seem to be able to better appreciate the essentially different holotropic vantage.
In the holotropic model, any hyposensitivity without an apparent physical cause is likely an understandable bodily coping mechanism. If there is a gentle aspiration to awaken any protectively-dulled sense, it will likely awaken sooner or later.
Neurology can be a trap that reifies a misleading narrative that our brains determine “who we are”, and this is reified by the compound word “neurodiversity”. It concerns the brain, and neglects the heart. It doesn’t recognize that the mind is not separable from the body. We prefer the term neurosomatic diversity. Our brains have evolved to support our lives, which can only be fulfilling in feeling.
Monotropism is a marvelous local temporary salve-technique-process that the holotropic person takes advantage of, while remembering it is not the root of our being. “If a psychological theory is not true ecologically, it is not true. That is, if it does not apply equally well to plants and chipmunks and bacteria, it isn’t foundationally true.”³ Everyone and everything connects.
We hope this brief may be of help in pointing towards the tranquility of the moon.
¹ see Guimberteau, J.C. and Armstrong, C. (2015) Architecture of the Human Living Fascia.
² “New posture and new movements last when [they are pleasurable] and on reflection we can allow it, meaning it is not in conflict with some aspect of the psyche. [We need to recognize what was] the secondary benefit of the former pattern; that is quite important and part of the ecology of change. Then [we need] to find the new coordination… And then [we need] to find ways to integrate the new movement into life at times and places that feel safe and easiest.” (Frank, K., 2012 interview in Structural Integration)
³ Buhner, S. H., 2020 interview in The Believer
* disambiguation with holotropic as used by Grof et al. as a “non-ordinary state” — here it is describing an ordinary, if atypical, state.