The Mini-Traumas Of The Monotropic Brain
This by necessity is less about scientific reality than about observing interesting patterns. I can’t speak to causation or, really, even any true correlation. It’s just that recently and quite randomly I had a string of thoughts I wanted to set down here.
Although I came to it late, let’s start with monotropism, which posits that the autistic mind is “one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel”. When I wrote about this before, I mentioned having happenstantially run across a study that seemed to support the premise.
Thanks to the fMRI scans, the researchers were able to confirm that in the brains of people with autism, connections persist for more extended periods than they do in the brains of neurotypical individuals. In other words, in autism, the brain finds it harder to switch between processes.
This week I got to thinking about how the persistent connections that could underlie autism-as-monotropism could relate to everything from sensory sensitivites to meltdowns, at least in terms of some common, parallel ways to describe and discuss them, and I started wondering about how trauma gets laid down in the brain.
If the autistic/monotropic brain is one that holds onto connections for longer periods of time than typical brains, is there an avenue of inquiry here into whether or not that helps explain sensory sensitivities? A typical brain might be momentarily put off, say, by bright lights, but if the autistic brain essentially can’t shake things off is it possible that it’s dealing not just with the sensory input of the bright light in a single discrete moment, but instead cumulatively over the course of that moment, and the next one, and the next one? Could a brain that can’t switch tracks simply be holding onto its reaction to stimulus in a way that inevitably increases the pressure?
This, then, got me me thinking about meltdowns, especially in light of how I’ve discussed my own.
When I verbally tore into that high school student, I was not responding to that individual person and that discrete instance of this happening.
Instead, I was responding to the entire four years of having to deal with people feeding the goats through the fence when they weren’t supposed to. The sheer force, the violence really, of my voice perhaps was proportional to the entire history of the potential threat to my animals, but it was not at all proportional to the specific instance before me. I called this “undifferentiated emotional time” because that’s what it feels like in retrospect: like four years of past incidents were happening again, all at once, along with the present moment.
At the time I wrote that, I wondered aloud the degree to which what I was talking about there was a kind of tiny trauma. Could each one of those incidents actually have imprinted so heavily that they remained ready to be re-triggered every single time a similar incident occurred, so that each time I reacted as if all of them were happening again all at once?
If so, could the persistent connections potentially underlying monotropism explain the mechanism by which that happens?
We know that in dramatic traumas such as those which can leave behind the impacts of PTSD there are lingering changes to the brain. Sufficiently intense traumas are going to create significantly intense aftereffects in the neurotypical and the atypical alike. What happens, then, to an atypical brain whose connections persist for, well, atypical lengths of time?
Might the impact of even of lesser stimuli get imprinted more firmly due to persistent connections, waiting then to be brought back later on when a similar stimulus surfaces?
I don’t mean this to argue, “Tiny traumas are to autistic people as dramatic traumas are to neurotypical people.” I just mean that since we know dramatic trauma affects how the brain functions into the future, could the persistent connections of monotropism, through the ways in which trauma can get laid down in the brain, help explain autistic experiences such as sensory sensitivities and what I’ve described as the “undifferentiated emotional time” type of meltdowns?
Are there studies out there which intentionally or otherwise illustrate, or dispute, these sorts of connections or mechanisms?