Hyperfocus and ADD
He can focus on computer games for hours at a time! Why can’t he finish his homework?
He can read a book for hours, so why can’t he complete his paperwork?
These are common questions asked by loved ones of those with ADHD.
Kathleen Nadeau explains this phenomenon in her book, Adventures in Fast Forward. “In actuality, ADD is not a ‘deficit’ of attention, but a disorder in which individuals have much less control over their responses to stimuli,” writes Nadeau. They are unable to regulate their attention. Though they may have extreme difficulty focusing, organizing, and completing certain mundane tasks, they are often able to focus intently on other activities that interest them. This tendency to become absorbed in tasks that are stimulating and rewarding is called hyperfocus.
It is not unusual for these individuals to become so immersed in a task that they are oblivious to everything else going on around them. You may have experienced this when your child is playing a video game and you try to get his attention. You call to him. No answer. You call louder. No answer. Finally, raising your voice to a shout, you may get a quick, annoyed look!
Nadeau shares a story about a woman with ADHD who became so hyper-focused on a paper she was writing that she was completely unaware her house had caught fire. “She had missed the sirens and all the commotion and was finally discovered by firemen, working contentedly in her room while the kitchen at the back of the house was engulfed in flames!,” writes Nadeau.
Luckily, this woman was able to get out of the house safely. (Her paper was probably extraordinarily well written, as well.) The ability to hyperfocus and block out extraneous sights and sounds can produce very positive outcomes. Some of the greatest discoveries and accomplishments result from an individual’s ability to stay “in the zone,” focused and immersed in an activity for hours and hours.
Unfortunately, if it is not managed properly, hyperfocus can also produce negative results if an individual becomes so engrossed in an activity that he does not take care of other commitments and relationships in his life. Some of these individuals escape into their own worlds, neglecting those around them and ignoring important tasks that need to get done. If this occurs, school and work performance suffers, and relationships become strained.
Putting Hyperfocus to Good Use
- It is helpful for parents to set firm time limits around “escapist” activities in which their children tend to hyperfocus. Common “escapist” activities for children may include television, video games, or computer use. Sit down with your child, discuss the issue, and together come up with predetermined time limits.
- Adults may also escape into television, video or computer games. In addition, they may become absorbed in online chat groups and forums. Try to limit your time participating in activities that exclude you from the outside world. Figure out a predetermined amount of time to engage in the activity, and stick to it.
- Figure out ways to establish cues to remind you of when it is time to take a break from an activity. Adults may want to set an watch alarm to help them break away from the task for a while. Parents can help their children do the same. Parents can also give verbal and physical reminders. Sometimes verbal direction to turn off the video game is not enough. A parent may need to give a tap on the shoulder or even stand directly between their child and the video screen in order to get their child’s attention and help them shift to another activity.
- Help your child find areas of interest and motivation. Find out ways to stimulate his interest, and give him lots of opportunities to engage in these types of activities. Meet with his school teachers to brainstorm ways to make lessons at school engaging for him. Rather than completing a worksheet on a topic, your child may become more interested in a more hands on approach to learning.
- As an adult, try to match your career to your interests and strengths. Chose a career path that is in line with what you tend to hyperfocus on. As Nadeau explains, “chose what you love to do as your life’s work.” This way your hyperfocus is put to good use in advancing your career. Plus, you are much happier doing what you enjoy.
Nadeau, Kathleen G., Adventures in Fast Forward: Life, Love, and Work for the ADD Adult. Brunner-Routledge, New York, 1996.