Saturday 7 July 2018

Roundabout Hypothesis - a Guest Blog by Chris Memmott

A white man in his mid twenties, with a beard, smiling, wearing a black sweater.

Hi.  I'm Chris, and I work as an autism Associate for NDTi, and with NHS teams as an Expert by Experience for care and treatment reviews.  After two years of Degree level studies in Psychology & Counselling, I also spent almost two years working with autistic young people in schools. My work includes respite care, training, conference speaking, environmental accessibility, and writing.

As we know, there are a lot of theories about autism.  We also know that none of them really explain it, as yet. I have major sensory processing challenges.  My brain takes in too much information from the world around me.  When I'm training people, I explain it as 'Roundabout Hypothesis'.  Let me explain:

A roundabout without much traffic on it

The picture shows a roundabout.  There isn't a lot of traffic on it.  Incoming traffic has room to think, to plan, and to get round the roundabout without too much hassle.

Most human brains work the same way.  There's incoming information from sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, hunger, thirst, balance, etc etc.  The brain accepts it, processes what it needs, and sends it round the brain's 'roundabout' and heads it in the right direction.  It works well, and can keep working for hours.

But, what about if your brain takes in too much information at once?  The second photo shows a roundabout where there's too much traffic happening from all directions.  Gridlock.  Now, nothing can get through.  (Well, maybe cyclists.  They can always get through somehow.)  But the rest of us, stuck, overheating, beeping horns or collapsed in a heap of despair, going nowhere.  Some autistic brains take in so much information that they can't get any of it processed and sent on its way.

A roundabout with a lot of traffic, gridlocked

When it happens, our brains simply have to wait for the 'traffic' to clear.  Just adding more traffic to it won't work.  More 'traffic' might be chatting with us, or trying to put a hand on a shoulder without our consent.  Or shouting at us.  Or making us stay in a busy, noisy place where the queue of 'traffic' waiting for our brains to process it just gets longer, and longer.  It might be more 'traffic' from our brain trying to work out how to speak, or how to understand non-literal language.

We need the traffic to stop arriving.  Noise cancelling headphones help me.  Sunglasses help, too.  A quiet room without bright artificial lighting also helps.  Wearing comfortable clothes so that there's isn't a constant traffic jam from the, for example, 'Your socks are hurting you' lane. 

Find out what helps us reduce the 'traffic'.

Specialist interests and hobbies are normally a motorway within autistic brains, and some time with these is often a very good way to let that gridlock clear.  Rather than seeing these as a 'restricted, repetitive' thing, see them instead as a vital part of autistic processing, learning and thriving.

It makes sense to me. I hope it helps you.

See also Monotropism theory that discusses more about that focus and its purposes, with thanks to Dr Dinah Murray's work & further development by Fergus Murray.

Update 2021:
Other work by Chris Memmott and teams

It's Not Rocket Science report commissioned by CAMHS, looking at the built environment in hospitals and how it can be improved for autistic young people.

Housing and autistic people commissioned by the Local Government Association, looking at how to ensure that housing meets the needs of autistic individuals.