What is 'flow'?

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

What are flow states and can they be applied to autism and other conditions?

Flow is a concept developed by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow occurs when people are engaged in controllable but challenging tasks. Usually these activities require a considerable amount of skill, for example running, sailing, and stimulating conversation.

Csikszentmihalyi (2002) refers to the impact of flow states on a person’s mental wellbeing, stating that whilst in a flow state 'people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter' (p. 4). Flow uses the concept of optimal experience as an approach to help people feel happy and to develop a sense of positive wellbeing.

He also focused on the power of experience, stating that 'optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment. Each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity' (p. 5).

According to Csikszentmihalyi (2002), the four key characteristics of ‘flow’ are:

1) People become absorbed in an activity. 2) Individuals have a heightened sense of control which reduces their anxiety. 3) Flow tasks can become "autotelic" (that is they become self-motivating). 4) Flow activities can be viewed as coping strategies in that they help a person 'tune out'.

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them - it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.


Csikszentmihalyi M. (2002) Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Random House Books.

McDonnell, A. and Milton, D. (2014) Going with the flow: reconsidering ‘repetitive behaviour’ through the concept of ‘flow states’. In G. Jones and E. Hurley (Eds): Good Autism Practice: Autism, Happiness and Wellbeing, pp. 38-47

Vermeulen P. (2013) Autism as Context Blindness. EDS Publications: Kansas.