Dinah Murray Obituary

By Penny Warren: For Entire Post, Click Here…

Champion of autistic people who explored the attention that they devote to a leading interest.

Dinah Murray, who has died aged 75 of pancreatic cancer, was a key figure in autism studies, and an indefatigable advocate for autistic people for three decades. Her acute insight lay in the importance of attention and interests to an understanding of the condition.

On the autistic spectrum herself and fascinated with language and the mind, in 1991 Murray read Uta Frith’s book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. She had a eureka moment when it spoke of an autistic person’s attention “going to their leading interest”.

With Wendy (later Wenn) Lawson and Mike Lesser, who were also autistic, Murray developed the theory of “monotropism”, or “interest theory”. It posits that a non-autistic person is “polytropic”. Rather like light from a lantern, their attention is diffused over a wide area and several subjects of interest at once, while a monotropic or autistic person’s attention is more like the narrow beam from a torch, focused in an “attention tunnel” on their leading interest.

The theory helps explain several features of autism, for example avoiding language because of its power to interrupt attention. As Murray explains: “You’re a child looking at a beautiful button… If someone comes in and says ‘cat’ – you’re their victim – they’ve come into your brain and interrupted your train of thought. Right at the beginning [autistic] kids can go off language.”

The theory, published in 2005 , still has a central role in autistic studies today, and chimes with many autistic people’s experience. 

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