Hyperfocus is one of the lesser-known traits of children and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other forms of neurodivergence.

This intense focus on a single subject or activity can be challenging for the person and those around them, but is it always a negative attribute? We explore autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Hyperfocus does not go away with age but can present differently as someone ages or their interests change. ADHD is often seen as a disorder that causes individuals to have short or limited attention spans.

Still, hyperfocus can cause people to spend hours on specific tasks at the expense of spending time on other important activities such as schoolwork, spending time with friends and family, or self-care.

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Why does hyperfocus happen?

An ADHD brain is known to have meager amounts of dopamine. Those who are deficient in dopamine will not have the ability to move between tasks easily. This can be especially true when it comes to shifting to less interesting but necessary tasks which people may need to engage in. When engaging in an enjoyable or interesting activity for those with ADHD, this task will give them instant spikes in dopamine or “good feelings”. Due to the impulsivity associated with ADHD, individuals are drawn to instantly rewarding activities.

Hyperfocus activities are likely to instantly reward ADHD brains with positive feelings and feedback and make it harder for them to switch to tasks that may feel less rewarding. As such, they find it even harder to move on to other tasks.

Intense focus can also be a coping mechanism for those struggling with stress, anxiety, and distractibility. Distractibility can cause ADHD individuals to wait to complete tasks until they are under intense time pressure. However, adults and older children/teens can sometimes “force” a hyperfocus state to combat distractibility and complete tasks.

Hyperfocus and executive dysfunction

It is worth mentioning that ADHD is a complex disorder and that not all the traits and symptoms will seem to “make sense”. Those with ADHD can display hyperfocus for some activities (typically those they enjoy) while still unable to focus on more tedious tasks. Hyperfocus can go hand in hand with many facets of ADHD or autistic hyperfocus. For example, those with neurodevelopmental disorders may also display perseveration, which can present similarly. However, while hyperfocus can be beneficial and pleasurable, perseveration is less so. This is when a person becomes “stuck” on a certain activity, emotion, or speech pattern.

You may notice someone with perseveration cannot move on from a task or cannot seem to move past feeling a negative emotion. They might also seem unable to break out of memory or consistently repeat the same information even when it is irrelevant to the current conversation. This is not the same as a task or activity-orientated hyperfocus, and it is important to recognize that someone may experience one or both of these states.

Can hyperfocus be harnessed?

It can sometimes seem like those with hyperfocus can only use their ability on tasks that are not seen as “useful”. This is because pleasurable activities produce quick rewards and are more satisfying to the brain. However, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to control and harness hyperfocus and use it to benefit those with ADHD and autism.

It is vital to note that those with hyperfocus are usually unable to “stop” an activity when told to. By not doing this, they aren’t being defiant or stubborn. This is how their brains work. By imposing hard limits and checking in on those in hyperfocus states, it is possible to ease them into other activities to ensure they do not neglect other areas of their life.

For adults and older children who may not be held accountable by others, setting timers can be a great way to harness hyper-focus in a manageable way. The “Pomodoro Method” suggests setting a timer to encourage those with ADHD to spend a set amount of time on a particular task, allowing for short bursts of hyperfocus, and using the timer to indicate when to take a break. This can also break someone out of a hyperfocus state and encourage them to carry out self-care tasks such as personal hygiene, eating, and simply spending time away from a computer screen and around others.

The positive aspects of hyperfocus

It is perhaps not a surprise that some neurodivergent individuals see hyperfocus not as a weakness but in the classroom. However, it is not impossible to channel hyperfocus into schoolwork or other important tasks. Remember that children with ADHD will become bored more quickly than neurotypical children, so they will be more likely to hyper-focus on their preferred activity or subject. Instead, engage their attention by turning memorization activities into more engaging lessons. For example, rather than writing a list of historical happenings, have them create a story around them.

When students have specific subjects or areas of interest, ask them to present them to the class so they can still engage with their peers and curriculum. Creativity goes a long way when creating a classroom environment that suits every student.

Hyperfocus can be challenging for educators and family members, but it is not always a negative trait. It can be enjoyable and beneficial for the individual experiencing it and can be harnessed and channeled in some cases. With the correct knowledge and tools, hyperfocus can be a strength.