Stimulus Overselectivity, Monotropism or maybe a perpetually induced state of flow?

Stimulus overselectivity is a term used to describe a phenomenon whereby focus is directed to one aspect of an object or event whilst other aspects are discriminated, or ignored. This could be colloquially called tunnel vision – which many Autistic people seem to experience. This phenomenon was first described by Lovaas, Schreibman, Koegel and Rehm,  (1971)

Anecdotal.evidence suggests that many parents of Autisic children have has experience with this phenomenon- which has caused many to think that the child may have hearing impairment – prior to Autism being diagnosed.

The concept of stimulus overselectivity in autistic children was first tested by instructing each child to press a lever as soon as three different stimuli were presented at the same time (i.e., a light, a sound, and a touch). When he/she pressed the lever, the child was rewarded with a piece of candy. Later, in the testing condition, the three aspects of the complex stimulus were presented individually. The results showed that the children pressed the lever when only one of the three stimuli were presented. For example, a child would press the lever when a light was presented, but he/she did not press the lever when the sound was presented alone nor when the touch was presented alone. Lovaas and his colleagues argued that during the initial learning phase, the autistic child attended to only one of the three aspects of the complex stimulus rather than all three aspects.

The idea of responding to only one of many aspects or dimensions of an object may make it difficult for the autistic child to learn about his/her world. For example, if a child is being taught to differentiate between a bottle and a glass, the child may attend or focus on the texture or color (a highly prominent aspect) rather than the shape. In this case, the child will experience much difficulty attempting to differentiate.

Whilst we do not know why Autistic individuals have this selective focus, it is possible that they are born with overdeveloped senses which require an advanced filtration and focus on one aspect to ensure that there is not an overload. In support of this ability to discriminate is the apparently augmented ability to concentrate.

Implications. Since it appears that many autistic individuals exhibit stimulus overselectivity, it is important to help them direct their attention to relevant aspects of an object or the environment. For example, when teaching an autistic child to select an orange from a bag of apples and pears – the child should be instructed to attend to color and texture. In contrast, when teaching the child to a vehicle in a car park, the child should direct his/her attention to the color and shape.