Autism, ADD, & Hyperfocus

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“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 ADD. It is a common misconception that people with ADD 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 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, 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.  Continue reading

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Letters to Mr. Goss

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This is the story of how scores of students rallied in support of their former High School teacher, who was also very ill, because we wanted him to know much we appreciated the positive influence he had on our lives. Turns out we did so just in time.

I had the privilege of being in Mr. Goss’s class during my Senior year of High School. He was one of those amazing teachers that got students excited about learning and about life, despite his occasionally crusty exterior. We appreciated his energy and passion and his unique view of the world. We loved the fact that he could teach with equal levels of earnestness the symbolism of not only Dante’s Inferno but also Dr. Seuss. In his class we examined the literary devices used in the book of Job, and had a spirited debate on how to define “Quality” after reading the book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” He encouraged us to think deeply and differently, and despite his tendency to crack some truly corny jokes he was a gifted storyteller.

Mr. Goss left a lasting positive impression on me, despite the fact that my constant disorganization frustrated him. Almost twenty years later, when I first started trying to write again, he was on my mind a lot. I wanted to reach out to him to say thank you and tell him that he had a huge influence on my writing style and self-confidence. Around that time a number of former classmates began to reconnect on social media and the name Mr. Goss came up often. He was described as, “My favorite teacher,” “The best thing to happen to English,” “My inspiration for becoming a writer/teacher,” and “The only person I felt I could talk to.” Many students stated that he made a huge difference in their lives, and that they still remembered the things he taught them. One student wrote, “He was just one of the coolest teachers I think I’ve ever known. Even when it wasn’t about English or Literature, he was teaching about so many things.” Another said, “We LOVED Mr. Goss!! Who else could discuss how important it is to have your glass of milk so cold it almost hurts? Or read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Are You My Mother?’ to you and put it on your senior English exam?”

All those kind words were said on social media, however. I wondered if Mr. Goss himself knew how important he was to all of us.

I had heard whispers that our former teacher may be ill. Continue reading

In a Nation (and world) Divided, Kindness Matters

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The country in which I live is reeling from an unprecedented and divisive Presidential election. Are we going to drown in the wake of hatred that threatens to overcome our land? I beg you to be kind to one another. Now, maybe more than ever, we desperately need it.

There are people in the United States and beyond who are hurting and afraid. This includes religious and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or even anyone who has felt different or mocked or had their rights oppressed. Many of them are feeling vulnerable, and those feelings should not be dismissed. Even if your vote was different from theirs I would encourage you to treat them with compassion and respect and make an attempt to understand their concerns.

When the pinnacle of a country’s power is attained by a person who openly acts unkind (I can make a list of examples, I just choose not to) it makes you wonder if the people in that country value kindness. For any of us who have ever been discriminated against or felt “other”-ed by those with power, it makes us sad and uncomfortable.

We are not just afraid because of who won the election, we are also afraid of how we will be treated by those we encounter in day-to-day life. Judging by accounts I have read it is apparent those fears are valid.

Story after story has emerged of individuals being subjected to hateful treatment by their fellow human beings, and it began even before the final votes were tallied.

Earlier in the week a young man in a wheelchair attended a Trump rally to protest, saying “I wanted to go because Donald J. Trump made fun of disabled people.” The Washington Post reports that as he and his Mother were escorted out, “Trump supporters near them started pushing her son’s wheelchair, and calling her a ‘child abuser’ and telling others to ‘grab her p—y’.”

As a mother and a member of the disability community this horrifies me. Did his choice to exercise his right to make a peaceful protest warrant such treatment?

Stories are pouring in. They run the gamut of intensity from snide, insulting comments, all the way to physical violence and destruction of property. Many of the stories are directly connected to people I know or their friends.

A friend of my sister shared that the day of the election one of her children’s black classmates was asked by another student, “Are you packed yet?”

Jennifer Boyle, an extended family member who teaches in a Denver public school, shared this disturbing encounter endured by one of her students:

“A, a 16 year-old black female, told me she was spit on this morning by a white male Trump supporter on her walk to school. After he spit on her he ripped the Hillary sticker off her backpack. No bystander, of which there were many, intervened”.

Jennifer also wrote of the myriad of emotions experienced by her students the morning after the election: Continue reading

The Incredible 10-year-old Advocate I Met at the Sprayground

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(Description of top image: A young boy with brown hair and a smile on his face leaning his head lovingly against his mom, who has awesome purple hair and is wearing a “Panic! At the Disco” shirt.)

This is what advocacy looks like. I recently had the privilege to meet this exceptional young man who is going to change the world. Actually, he is already changing the world.

It was a hot summer day so I took my two children to a local sprayground. We brought some toys to play with in the water, including a bright beach ball. My youngest son and I tried several times to get the bach ball to float on top of the water jets that came out of the ground, but we weren’t having much luck. Another little boy came over and started trying to help, striking up a conversation with me in the process. His name was Xander. My own son got bored and walked away, but my new friend and I kept trying, laughing at each failed attempt. Finally, after several tries, we accomplished our goal and let out a cheer.

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Image description: An orange and white beach ball that is being held above the ground by the jets of water beneath it.

Soon after we were able to get the ball in the air, however, Xander’s little brother knocked it down. He obviously enjoyed manipulating the water flow and watching the ball fall to the ground. Again. And again. And again. His fun was different from the one we had in mind, but he was still having fun.

His repetitive, single-minded behavior seemed familiar to me. What was even more familiar was the fact that he was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t seem to his hear his older brother when he protested, “Stop!”

“Sorry about that,” Xander apologized, “He’s ADHD.”

I braced myself for what was going to come next, because I mistakenly thought that he was about to disparage his brother and his behavior. As the mother of an autistic child, and as a neurodivergent individual myself, I get sad when I hear family members talking down to or about their loved one.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Xander continued talking, “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just ADHD. He doesn’t hear me when I talk to him. Well, he can sometimes hear me, but he processes differently. He’s, like, a Windows phone in an Android world.”

“I get it!” I replied.

“You do?” Xander asked, incredulously. “I’m glad you get it. Some people don’t understand. They think he’s a bad kid, but he’s just different. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. But one time some people called the police on us. They don’t get it.”

Other people may not “get it,” but it was obvious that young Xander did. It was also obvious that he was being raised in a household where acceptance was actively taught. I stood there listening to him wishing I had a photographic memory. I wanted to remember exactly every word this remarkable young man said to me. His way of speaking about his brother was so incredibly heartfelt and supportive that it made my heart and my eyes swell. I was amazed that he had the bravery to talk to an adult to explain and support his brother. He cared very much about making sure that I understood his brother and didn’t judge him unfairly.  Continue reading

The Journey of Grief

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Love is essential to the human condition, but to give and receive love also means to be to open to the inevitability of loss and grief. In my work I encounter families who are coping with the death of a loved one, and I have the privilege to help tell the stories and celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

This article is the first of a series, written with the hope that the contents may help in some way to guide and comfort those who find themselves on their own journey of grief. Earl Grollman wrote, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

The grieving process is a complex one, however. No two people experience it the same way, or on the same schedule. It is okay to cry, it is okay to rage, and it is okay to feel temporarily numb. It is healing to allow yourself to feel and express whatever complex emotions you encounter. Hiding from your feelings, however, can have a negative impact on your well-being.

Healing can be found at times by being alone, and at times by being with other people. It important to find companions that are “safe,” who will provide support and a listening ear as you process your changing emotions.

Grief can also occur in waves, with levels that fluctuate over time. There will be moments when it comes flooding back with fresh intensity. Tracy, a mother who lost a teenage daughter, suggests than when those waves hit you just “ride them out” until it passes.

Over time it will become easier to cope with your grief, but it will remain, just as your love for the departed will remain. Cassandra Clare wrote in Clockwork Prince, “They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite.” Continue reading