As many of you know, the autism community lost a cherished member recently, when Dr Dinah Murray passed away earlier this year.
We feel a particular loss as Dinah was a tutor on our courses for many years, equally loved by her students and her colleagues. She also wrote study materials for our courses, being one of the first academics to appreciate the potential of technology for autistic people, and her published work continues to be used and influential to us and to our students.
Her contribution to the field of autism was great. Below, her close friend and collaborator Dr Wenn Lawson pays tribute to all she did and all she meant to us and to our communities.
So much has changed in our understanding of how autism impacts our lives. We still have a long way to go however, until it becomes the norm that the principle of ‘nothing about me without me’ is upheld throughout autism research and autism practice.
Autistic researchers and practitioners will play a central role in delivering this vision. On August 7, 2021, at Dalgety Bay in Scotland, we both mourned and celebrated Dinah’s passing. The passing of a true pioneer. It is fitting that we pay a tribute to Dinah’s achievements and contributions, for these have enriched our lives and over-laid the autism landscape with understanding, acceptance, action and advocacy.
I remember a conversation with Dinah, my dearest friend and very close colleague of more than 24 years, concerning certain publications about autism, identity, empathy and being human. It made us angry to think some researchers had once considered autistics to be less than human! However, today such thinking would be shocking. We have come a long way in terms of our thinking about autistics and autistic ability to connect to empathy. It is now, mostly, the norm to consider autism as being part of human neurodiversity.
Dinah’s work played a key role in that transition, though it has not always been recognised by the academic mainstream.
When Dinah started out in research and practice, it was usual to think that autistics lack a theory of mind (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985). Now, we can instead consider the theory of being ‘monotropic’ – connecting to self and to other, via shared interest (Murray et al., 2005) – as a way to understand autism.
Dinah and I spent many long hours around her kitchen table during wintry evenings talking over the different tributaries of a single focussed attention system or a dynamic interest system of mind.
Thinking back, it amazes me how our paths first crossed. Dinah happened to be at a conference, in 1998 (organised by our mutual friend Rosemary Mason), where I was presenting on ‘Life and Learning in Autism: Single Focused Attention’.
We were both equally excited to hear of the other’s research. It turns out while I had been researching and teaching such concepts in Australia, Dinah had been developing the same thinking in England.
That first meeting was to be the beginning of our working partnership and a lifelong friendship.
‘Language and Interests’ was the title of Dr. Dinah Murray’s PhD thesis in 1985 which was completed at University College London. In this work, Dinah argues for ways to understand thought and language. Over time, this led to a model of the mind as a dynamical system and the impact this has upon interest and, hence, upon language. A few years later, considering the role interests have in linking the minds of self and other was the prompt Dinah needed to apply this model to autism.
Dinah had first-hand knowledge of autistic people because at that time she worked as a support person for autistic adults. She knew the current theories that tried to explain autism just didn’t cut it.
Dinah concluded that in the allistic (non-autistic) world, interests were many-facetted; individuals used their language to capture the attention of others and draw them into their own interests. That is, language was used to manipulate the interests of others. She then proposed that in autism, our brains were operating via attention tunnelling (Murray, 1992) and a lack of guile, which meant we were taken over by our own interest (innocently) with no spare attention to join that of others (Murray, 1992, 1995). The resultant interest systems were named ‘polytropism’ (many channels) in allistic’s and ‘monotropism’ (single channels) in autistics (Murray et al., 2005).
As time went by, Dinah’s passion for supporting autistic individuals translated into what might practically assist them.
In her determination to explore ways to support autistics, especially those who did not use speech to communicate, she moved into the area of autism and technology.
Together, initially with Mike Lesser in the mid-90s, she set up a programme of support called ‘Autism & Computing’ which became a charity. It was while working with Mike Lesser and a young autistic artist, Ferenc Virag, that Dinah was able to reveal the capabilities of a mind tuned into a specific interest.
Ferenc worked with an animation programme, his monotropic focus enabling him to learn the programme faster than it would take typical students of animation at college.
With funds from The National Lottery Arts Board and The Jerwood Foundation, a film was created showing Ferenc demonstrating behaviours said to be absent in autistics.
While working with computers he showed other awareness, self-awareness, self-esteem, playfulness, exploration, forethought, relevant speech, creativity, turn-taking, sociability, desire to show, communication, concentration and co-operation.
Dinah never tired of researching and exploring how interest and attention were being played out in everyday lives of autistics. Time after time, I would come down to breakfast to find her absorbed in some research or other as she leant over her laptop, with a mug of cold coffee sitting solo on the kitchen table.
In 2008 Dinah was also involved with myself and many others, in the making of the film Something About Us. Hundreds of DVD copies were given away to agencies, schools and families to help spread broader understanding of autism.
Later, I joined Mike, Dinah and others, as AUTreach-IT was formed with the goal of making autistic lives better through technology.
Travelling extensively with Dinah, we saw so much overlap in our reactions, and after an assessment, it was concluded Dinah was autistic, despite rejecting its medical framework. As such, Dinah contributed to many other projects, lectures and books (Murray, 2005, 2008; Murray & Aspinall, 2006; Murray & Lawson, 2007).
Dinah was also associated in a formal or informal capacity with a wide range of autistic-led organisations including the Participatory Autism Research Collective; Autangel; and the Autistic Advisory Group at University of Glasgow.
Continuing her passion for harnessing the power of technology, she contributed to the Autism Dialogue, a game development project to highlight the great diversity of autism and the development of AutNav, a new web portal, hosting accessible forums for autistic people and people with learning disabilities.
Throughout this time Dinah campaigned tirelessly for the creation of a Communication Support Worker role, to deliver access to communication supports including the Internet for people in supported accommodation or
Since 1996, Dinah worked as a visiting Lecturer and went on to become a tutor with the Autism Masters course at Birmingham University. Many of her students have gone on to better the world of autism, through their support of autistic individuals, because of the insights Dinah personally shared with them.
In 2001, Dinah came to Australia and we toured together for 6 weeks giving lectures and speaking at conferences around the country. The focus was on introducing various agencies, schools and support groups to an in-depth exploration of monotropism in autism and how the use of technology could enable access to communication and lower frustration in autism.
Dinah’s work has continued as she has fought so hard to join the dots as to what is at the heart of being autistic. The National Autism Project (NAP) funded by The Dame Stephanie Shirley Foundation and launched in 2015 again saw Dinah actively involved with getting autism better understood, both in publications and active support.
In recent years, Dinah was introduced to the predictive coding work of Karl Friston (2009). Friston recognised the similarities between his model of the brain, and the original equation from Mike Lesser (see Figure 1; Lesser & Murray, 1997) depicting mind as a dynamical interest system with different calibrations including monotropism.
This opens up a possible future synthesis of ideas about minds, not just autism. From Dinah’s original idea, the monotropism theory has grown over many years. It gives us a theoretical framework connecting interests, language and autism. It shows how technology can be deployed in a far-reaching array of academic and community efforts towards better understanding and support of autistics.
As well as remembering my friend Dinah, I hope this draws attention to the breadth and depth of Dinah’s transformational work and inspires more autism researchers to take up her legacy.
Baron-Cohen, S., Lesley, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a theory of mind? Cognition, 21(1): 37–146.
Friston, K. (2009). The free-energy principle: A rough guide to the brain? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(7), 293–301.
Lesser, M., & Murray, D. (1997). The model of the interest system.
Murray, D. (2005). Coming out Aspergers: Diagnosis, self-disclosure and self-confidence. Jessica Kingsley.
Murray, D. (2008). Whose normal is it anyway. In W. Lawson (Ed.), Concepts of normality: The autistic and typical spectrum (pp. 82–94). Jessica Kingsley.
Murray, D., & Aspinall, A. (2006). Getting IT. Jessica Kingsley.
Murray, D., & Lawson, W. (2006). Inclusion through technology for autistic children. In R. Cigman (Ed.), ‘Included or excluded?’ The challenge of the mainstream for some SEN children (pp. 151–157). Routledge.
Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), 139–156.
Murray, D. K. (1992). Attention tunnelling and autism. In P. Shattock & G. Linfoot (Eds.), Living with autism: The individual, the family and the professional (pp. 183–193). The Autism Research Unit, University of Sunderland.
Murray, D. K. (1995). An autistic friendship. In Psychological perspectives in autism (pp. 183–193). Autism Research Unit, University of Sunderland.
Murray, D. K. C. (1996). Shared attention & speech in autism. In The Durham Conference. Autism Research Unit, University of Sunderland.