Dina Murray, who died at the age of 75 of pancreatic cancer, was a key figure in autism studies, and a tireless advocate for people with autism for three decades. Her acute insight is the importance of interest and interests to understanding the situation.
On the autism spectrum herself and fascinated by language and mind, Murray in 1991 read her friend Ota Frith’s book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. She had an eureka moment when she spoke of an autistic person’s interest “turning to their main concern.”
With Wendy (later Wenn) Lawson and Mike Lesser, who also had autism, Murray developed the “monotropism” or “interest theory”. A person who is not autistic is assumed to be a “multiple nutritionist”. Instead of the light from the lantern, their attention is spread over a wide area and several interesting subjects at once, while the attention of a monogamous or autistic person is more like a narrow beam of a torch, and focuses in the “attention tunnel” on its foreground benefit.
The theory helps explain many features of autism, for example avoidance of language due to its ability to interrupt attention. As Murray explains: “You’re a kid looking at a pretty button… If someone comes up and says ‘cat’ – you’re their victim – it gets into your mind and interrupts your train of thoughts. [autistic] Kids can get away with language.”
The theory, published in 2005, continues to have a central role in autism studies today, and chimes with the experiences of many people with autism. Autism poet Kate Fox says, “The more people with autism experience and their culture, the more ‘of course it’s about attention.’ It sounds like a theory that comes from inner understanding.”
However, monotropism has received a mixed reception in academic psychology circles. The authors were not professional psychologists and the theory was not based on experiments in the way Simon Baron Cohen’s 1985 paper indicated the need for individuals to develop a “theory of mind,” which is an awareness of the mental states of others. Today, the medical view of the autistic brain as “changing” and in need of reform remains dominant, with autism research focusing on genetics, causation, and brain connectivity. However, as researcher Damien Melton states, “a more comprehensive theory of autism remains to be developed. Today’s dominant is dated.”
Murray has dedicated her life to improving conditions for people with autism. In the 1990s, as a community support worker in London, she was fascinated by the amount of sedatives prescribed to people with autism, and in 1998 she founded APANA (Autistic People Against Antipsychotic Abuse).
In her time as a support worker, she has seen how computers can help people with autism communicate, and with Lesser Autism and Computing, she founded the Campaign for Assistive Technology for Those with Communication Difficulties, which was made possible through the Mental Capacity Act (2005)
From 1996 to 2013, Murray was a teacher of a distance learning course at the University of Birmingham on autism. She was a prominent figure in the academic community, editor of the autism-led open access journal Autonomy. Contribute to books and papers. Presiding over the National Autism Advisory Board; He took a prominent role in the National Autism Task Force, the PARC (Participatory Autism Research Group), to promote autism participation in autism research. She was also a major contributor to Ask Autism, the induction course at the National Autism Society, and has collaborated on the AutNav app for the Scottish Autism Charity.
Emphasizing what people with autism can do has been one of Murray’s interests. She knew Ferenc Viraj, an artist who used means other than language to communicate, and with Lesser produced a video, Working With Ferenc, in 1995, showcasing his extraordinary talent for computer animation. She also contributed to the fantastic fantasy video Something About Us, part of the online gallery Rightfullives, and was impressed with supporting the “Autistic Pride” events.
Carol Bovey of the National Autism Society said Murray’s character helped her with these projects, noting that she “wasn’t in any way preoccupied or followed the crowd – she’d always been leading. She was a bridge between the real voices of autism and big organizations.”
Dinah was born in Hampstead, North London, and came from a distinguished socialist family. Her father was Labor politician Tony Greenwood – Harold Wilson’s housing minister – and her mother Gillian (née Crouchy Williams), a designer who wrote and illustrated the World War II pamphlet Make Do and Mend and was an early member of the CND. . He was Dinah Clement Attlee’s godfather.
Dinah has been able to read since she was two, and she and her older sister Susanna attended Byron House School in Highgate and then North London Collegiate School. Although she is very intelligent, she did not do well in her first levels. She tried to study fine art in Newcastle, but that did not interest her, and she returned to London to work as a copy editor at Penguin Books.
She then obtained a BA in Linguistics and Anthropology from University College London in 1969, and the following year she married philosopher and music critic David Murray. They had three sons, Bruno, Leo, and Fergus, and they also became adoptive parents to Eddie O’Neill.
Dinah combined raising a family with the study of a subject she was passionate about – language and the interests of the mind – and in 1986 she received her PhD from present-day Birkbeck University, London. In 2017, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Autistic Society.
David passed away in 2016. Disillusioned with political developments, Dina and her dog Frankie left London, where she has lived her whole life, in March last year, for Daleigh Bay in Fife, Scotland. There she can be near Fergus and pursue her love of nature, photography, studying lichens and mushrooms.
She is survived by her two sons, an adopted son, four grandchildren, and Susanna.