“Hyperfocus” is the ability to zero in on an activity with ultra-intense concentration, often for hours at a time. Neurodivergent individuals often experience this, for example people with autism or ADHD. It is a common misconception that people with ADHD are simply unfocused. During a period of hyperfocus the world can fade away and individuals may experience greater concentration, clarity, and productivity on their task. Autistic individuals have described similar experiences, especially when the task is related to one of their areas of expertise. I can’t speak to what it is like for everyone, but I can at least describe how hyperfocus manifests for my son and me.
My son is *autistic (see note below for an explanation of identity-first language) and vacillates between low-focus and hyperfocus, and I share all this with his permission. He has a hard time concentrating if there are any distractions (like noises, smells, or something else he finds interesting going on around him), if he is tired or unwell, or sometimes simply if he isn’t interested in the task at hand. Then there are other times that he can zone in and gets so lost in what he is doing that he won’t even hear someone if they call his name. When he was a toddler the way I confirmed my suspicions about his unique neurology was by sneaking up behind him and banging a pot while he played. He didn’t even flinch, didn’t even process the sound. This tendency towards hyperfocus and tuning out auditory stimuli can both help him in school and present challenges. It helps him because he can work quickly, efficiently, and often with a greater depth of creativity. Problems occur when he is so focused that he doesn’t notice what is going on in the classroom around him and misses instructions. His teachers are aware of this, however, and try to accommodate accordingly.
When my son was about eight years old he told me that often after he came out of a period of intense concentration at school the world “didn’t feel real”. He said he would have to get up and move around so he could feel like himself again and feel right in his own body. It seems that he was disoriented and also needed to regain his sense of proprioception. When my son told me about those experiences I was astounded that he was able to articulate himself so well about such an abstract feeling. Thankfully there are accommodations in his IEP for pacing and stimming, and he is given the freedom to move around the back of the classroom when necessary.
(*If any of you cringed at the term “autistic” I would encourage you to research the “Identity-First” movement or the neurodiversity paradigm. The concept behind Identity-First language is described as such by the page “Identity-First Autistic”: “As autistic people, we see our neurology as an integral part of who we are – not a separate or negative add-on.” Saying “autistic” or using similar terminology acknowledges the effects that unique neurological wiring or disability has in shaping a person’s identity and the way they interact with the world. Autistic or neurodivergent people hope for acceptance and accommodation.)
Then there’s me. I am a 40-something woman who has known for decades that I am neurodivergent, but it took years to get a proper diagnosis (mis-diagnoses are common for women). When I was in my 30’s I was finally identified as ADD (a diagnostic term that is no longer used in favor of “ADHD” with three subtypes), even though in my 20’s a psychologist insisted I wasn’t. Then about a year ago a therapist affirmed my suspicions that I also displayed characteristics of being on the autism spectrum.
For me hyperfocus means that it is all about The Thing. The Thing is whatever I find most interesting or important at the time. All I can think about is The Thing. All I want to do is The Thing. I get irritated at anything that keeps me from doing The Thing, even if that something else is actually important. The Thing is what I feel compelled to spend all my time and energy on. I use up all my resources on The Thing, and sometimes other things suffer as a result. I also can find it very unsettling if someone touches me while I am focused on The Thing, and it almost feels like physical pain. It is similar to the reaction I have to physical touch when I am experiencing a shutdown or burnout, but for different reasons.
Another reason that I tend to hyperfocus on The Thing when I can is that I have struggled with attention for as long as I can remember. Common tasks can be hard for me because I get distracted easily and it takes an immense amount of concentration to filter out extraneous stimuli like sensory input. On top of that I am disorganized. All of this is a huge drain on my mental and physical energy, and I am quite often frustrated at my lack of productivity.
Once in a while, however, the clouds lift. My energy levels go up and I can concentrate. It is so liberating to be able to work efficiently that I dive into it and get worked up into an almost manic state trying to make the most of the opportunity and do ALL THE THINGS.
(Image is from Hyperbole and a Half)
If The Thing is cleaning I want to clean ALL THE THINGS, and I will work until I am utterly physically spent. (Other times, I want to clean NONE of the things. NONE.)
Hyperfocus also means that I don’t multitask very well, and it is really jarring for my brain to shift gears from one task to another. I sometimes have to work from home, and if I have a heavy workload I have a tendency to spend all my available energy on work and neglect household chores (remember how I said sometimes I clean NONE of the things?). When I am done with work I have no energy left for anything else, or it doesn’t even occur to me that I have to take care of things around the house.
One thing that helps me find balance is to create reminders to complete tasks other than The Thing. It also helps to have a husband who understands and is patient with my neurodivergent tendencies. I do have to remind myself sometimes to not treat him brusquely or as an intrusion when he tries to talk to me when I am focused on a task.
My son and I am similar yet different, but for both of us hyperfocus presents benefits and challenges… kind of like being neurodivergent in general.
Every day we try to adapt to the world around us and understand ourselves better. Every day I strive to help set my son up for success. Every day I try to be the best mom, the best person, I can be. It’s a process, and we’re still learning. But at least it’s Not Boring.
Note: The title and graphic for this post say “ADD,” but the official diagnostic term is now “ADHD.” The rest of the post has been updated to reflect current terminology.
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