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Hyperfocus and Aspergers

One of the unusual abilities that aspies have is "Hyper-Focus. Like all aspie traits, hyperfocus is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand when combined with the special interest and aspie long-term memory, it is responsible for the genius label as it applies to apsies. On the other, it's responsible for many learning and obedience issues with Asperger's children.

Hyperfocus is commonly found in Asperger's children who also have the ADD/ADHD comorbid.

Hyperfocus and ADHD/ADD
In recent years, the definitions of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) have merged, in the medical sense under the banner of ADHD.

Personally, I'm not keen on this merging of diagnosis because while the two share similar definitions, there are some fundamental differences between them.

While both ADHD and ADD children have, by definition, attention issues, the hyperactive child is more likely to have attention problems due to hyperactivity itself while the ADD child is more likely to have a hyperfocus problem.

Consider the differences between between

  1. A child who does not respond when his name is called because he is distracted or is shouting and jumping from chair to chair.

  2. A child who is intently starring at a spinning wheel, or playing with some lego bricks and does not respond when his name is repeatedly called.

Hyperfocus is possibly the cause of the problem only in the second case.

Hyperfocus and Discipline
One of the basic tenants of positive parenting and positive schooling is that the obedient child should be rewarded. In school for example, a child who is obviously paying attention will receive a reward while one who is not may be rebuked or simply ignored. This technique is generally quite effective with neurotypical children.

Unfortunately, this technique does not work with hyper-focussed children who go into daydream state (or "zone out") automatically. Zoning out is not disobedience. This child is not trying to be naughty - they just happen to go into that state automatically.

The best remedy for these children is for the teacher to work more closely with them and for more one-on-one time to be allocated. In schools, this isn't always practical and hyperfocused children can often miss out on necessary attention and can fall behind. Often, such children are labelled "slow" and are put into remedial classes simply because they lack the ability to remain "on-task".

Making use of Hyperfocus
Hyperfocus has a lot of advantages. It allows one to think more abstractly and with greater complexity. It is a particularly useful skill to have when you need to be able to model complex systems or think in an extremely logical manner (for computer programming). In the adult world, hyperfocus allows aspies to deal with excessive levels of detail while still retaining a top-down approach.

Aspies tend to hyperfocus mainly on their special interests and they are able to take in and process large amounts of related information as a result.

The best way to make use of hyperfocus in primary school children is to attempt to line their work up with their special interests whenever possible.

For example, if your child's special interest is trains, then giving them sentences to write about trains or mathematics problems regarding carriages, train sizes or weights or giving them scientific projects on the use of electricity or steam in trains will allow the child to use their special interest to further their normal learning.

Psychiatric Recognition of Hyperfocus
The DSM-IV manual used to diagnose autism, aspergers and other mental disorders does not recognise hyperfocus at all. Only the symptoms of hyperfocus are discussed.


maggi said…
Thanks, a really helpful post.
wrongshoes said…
Just found your blog and this was a great post. I was just mentioning to a friend today about how my son won't respond when I try to warn him of dangers, no matter what I say or how loud. Once he sees a "shiny object" he charges ahead like a bull. I've suspected he is ADD/ADHD (probably both, since sometimes he is hyper focused and other times he's jumping from chair to chair). Have you done any research on the possibility of extroverted Aspies? My son exhibits many Aspie characteristics, but is extroverted.
Gavin Bollard said…
It's something of a misconception to think that all people with Aspergers are, by definition; Introverted.

The figures for Aspie Introversion (probably in the late 80% range) are certainly higher than those for neurotypical introversion (about 25%) but I know several people with Aspergers who are quite extroverted.

I'll post a test that you can use to find out.
Anonymous said…
Interesting... I actually took the Aspie quiz, due to the fact that I have always joked about having ADD, and with the recent questionaire diagnosis of my then 7 year old son, I too have felt as though I have it, not officially diagnosed. While doing some brain gym diet research, I came across Aspergers, and had never heard of it 'til just now. He definately fell in the ADD range, but they put him on an ADHD med, that worked, but, wow the side effects. At any rate, I am now spending about 2-3 hours a day in his classroom redirecting his focus, otherwise he wont pass 2nd grade. So, I need to figure out something, he has asthma, allergies, ADD. Huuuuhhhh. Poor kid, I just don't want to fail him, his future hinges on my choices for him now, this is so much scarier than my girls. He has a twin sister, and an older sister, no issues with either of them. BTW, I scored a 146 of 200 on the aspie quiz, 72 of 200 was my nt. hmmm
Help and thoughts please.
Gavin Bollard said…
When I was young, I was frequently hospitalised for asthma, I had undiagnosed aspergers (I didn't find out until my mid-thirties) and I had terrible allergies - I went through a scratch test and the doctor told my parents that he'd never seen such a reaction.

In addition, I lost most of my hearing as a baby due to a terrible ear infection and had the social stigma of hearing aids.

In those days, there was very little intervention at school and my parents weren't wealthy enough to afford a tutor.

My early years at school weren't good (although I did start reading in kindergarten). Ultimately, despite having my older sister waved in my face for my entire childhood, I ended up doing 10% better than her in my final exams. I've also done well in my chosen career - mostly because I followed my special interests.

The important thing is that with the right support (parents, friends and relatives) your son has the ability to transcend his condition.

It's rough in the early years but it sounds like you're doing all the right things.

My main point - put reading skills above all else on the agenda.
Blue said…
As a woman with combined-subtype ADHD, I'd be reluctant to class "zoning out" as a form of hyperfocus. Hyperfocus, to me, by definition involves some form of interaction with one's environment, while zoning stays contained within the individual consciousness - a fantasy world, if you will.

I'd also like to stress that despite my pronounced hyperactivity, I never "jumped from chair to chair" in a school environment - one of the reasons I wasn't properly diagnosed until the age of 27. I'm a tad disappointed to see such restrictive stereotypes proliferated here.
Gavin Bollard said…
It's very difficult to compare hyperfocus and zoning out when the two are usually quite different. I do agree however with the idea that from the point of view of an outsider trying to get attention, they two conditions often present visually similar.

Your point about the sterotypes in the article is valid too. Not all ADHD people jump around on furniture. Many are hyperactive only in their inability to remain focussed on a single topic. The merging of ADD and ADHD into a single category (ADHD) has also compounded matters.
Damo said…
I term it burrowing or nesting. Here's my engineering take on it. I look at the macro level to begin. See the big picture or map. Now I know where I am supposed to go and what the goal is. I then look at the parts and note how they fit together. Now I pull the parts apart. I will go to the nth degree in some cases. At this point I am totally living in "headspace". I have a problem that needs to be solved, I call on all my internal abilities to solve it. Oft people have to physically walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention again. The downside is I can nest on pretty much any topic at anytime and I need to be mindful of how much "rainman" to unlock on the task. Yup at work (they don't know about this side of me) I have a running joke about going rainman on something. They know I will pull it to shreds and often pick up inconsistencies they miss. Once again, it is a tool. For me, it's one of my most powerful.
Anonymous said…
Zoning out: Is actually zoning in, to something internal, usually a "train of thought." It's a situational introverted hyperfocus. Can happen to anyone, but occurs more frequently in Aspergers or ADHD subjects.

Hyperfocus: A double edged sword, certainly. Related specifically to Aspergers (as deduced by the DSM definition of Aspergers vs. ADHD), but frequently co-morbid with ADHD. An unconscious attention-span-defense-mechanism: while hyperfocused on a certain stimuli, the subject becomes able to reject other stimuli; albeit this is almost exclusively unconscious and uncontrollable, leaving the Aspergers subject with both advantages and disadvantages. Hyperfocus is usually directed at something specifically of interest; obviously, what is "interesting" can vary greatly between individuals.

ADD: Everyone knows the acronym, but in practice it's really a deficit of ability to control the direction of attention, not a deficit of attention overall. In practice, a certain stimuli attracts the subject's attention, away from the previous focus. Can occur many times per minute, depending on circumstances, especially while "zoning out": one thought distracts another repeatedly, and from an observer's point of view the subject is deep in thought; really, the subject is quite shallow in thought, but diving in repeatedly.

Hyperactivity: Related closely with hyperfocus, and certainly accurate to be grouped with ADD into ADHD. In adults, hyperactivity manifests itself in various forms, but particularly some sort of repetitive physical-mechanical motion; think of it as a controllable secondary stimuli (a mini-hyperfocus!) that the subject has developed through life experience, unconsciously, that blocks other stimuli (that would normally distract the ADD individual), allowing the subject to focus (not hyperfocus) on a non-interesting task; if an observer is keen, one will find the individual who is hyperfocused is physically still, compared to the same individual conducting a similar task, but without any personal interest in it; in this case the subject will unconsciously bring out the controlled mini-hyperfocus, as necessary, to aid in maintaining the focus required to conduct the task. Examples: Whistling or humming persistently but unconsciously while focused on a household task; rotating back and forth repeatedly in an office chair while working on a PC; etc.
Anonymous said…
In children, who have not developed an unconscious control mechanism over their wandering attention, the external result of hyperactivity can be quite varied between individuals, and between situations in the same individual. This is why even highly qualified professionals have great difficulty in diagnosing, let alone treating, ADHD in children, as well as differentiating it from Aspergers at times; throw in the variables related to gender differences, and I have no contempt for the doctors who frequently err while trying to help the parents of an ADHD child to insert some sort of predictability into an innately unpredictable ADHD child. I won't even attempt to list examples of hyperactivity in ADHD children, but you can likely think of a couple anyway.

For the parent of a child with ADHD I can only offer these pieces of advice: Controlling the attention span of the ADHD mind is like solving a difficult algebra equation: medication just adds another variable to the mix. I suggest that ADHD only be treated with medication in adulthood: naturally developed coping mechanisms (naturally-occuring, long-term cognitive behavioral self-therapy, and cheap to boot!) are a far superior solution, but they can't develop (accurately) in the medicated child. Success in life is mostly defined by one's actions during adulthood: let them succeed then, even if you sacrifice the now.

For the parent of an Asperger's child, I would suggest creating an environment allowing the child the freedom of mental action wherever possible. Allow the child to pursue his/her interests through and through, because the nervous sensitivity - from my experience and my observation of others - seems to derive from the stress of being unable to continue the pursuit of what is currently interesting (frequently resulting in an introverted personality).

It's impossible to completely remove mental barriers, because they are so incredibly subtle: does your Asperger child become irrationally irritable or annoyed when interrupted during a "zone out?" Their interesting thought process is their pursuit, and the forced redirection of their attention is percieved as an unavoidable obstacle that occurs all-to-frequently, much to their frustration; but, much like dealing with terrible traffic during the same routine daily commute, eventually the adult Aspergers subject moderates their temper, and enters the acceptance phase.
Anonymous said…
I sustained a traumatic brain injury from a car accident just under 5 years ago and, I have only recently become fully aware of some of the resulting affects of it.

I am only just now seeking followup medical help through a series of neuro-psychologists and testing.

Although the conclusion has not yet been yet substantiated, there is a strong mention that I have likely developed "hyperfocus" following the head inury.

I have also developed symptoms / behaviors very similar to ADD however, despite what I have been told, or what I previously 'assumed' about ADD, I am back in college as a chemistry major and, I am exceedingly far above and beyond my peers (probably thanks to the hyperfocus aspect ha ha).
Nicole said…
Thanks for posting this....I'm 13, and I have asperger's sydrome. Hyperfocus is something that I really struggle with. I could be doing something for hours and hours on end, and I have completely lost track of time. But sometimes, its too my advantage. Like, if I'm really focused on getting an A on a test in school, then I have the ability to really zoom in and study, which helps me get a good grade. So hyperfocus has its pros and cons.
Anonymous said…
My 5 year old zones out for 4-8 seconds several times a day. When I ask what happened or what were you thinking he says "nothing" like he doesnt recall stopping what he's doing and stares into space.
Anonymous said…
I've become more aware of this type of brain behavior recently. Once I get fixated on something - this happens a lot, I feel almost a physical restrain, like I can't even move if I wanted to. I feel by brain concentrating all its energy on one spot. I almost have to slap myself to get out of it, it's also very draining when I allow it to go on for many hours at a time. When I was a kid I played alone in my room for 10 hours straight in the weekends, my parents couldn't understand how I could entertain myself for so long at a time.
Anonymus said…
Is it possible to have hyper-focus without having Asperger's or ADHD/What other possible conditions include hyper focus as a symptom? And does it have any milder forms?
Anonymus said…
Does hyper focus take any milder forms? And IS it likely to have hyper focus without having ADHD or Asperger's/What other conditions include hyper focus as a symptom?
Gavin Bollard said…
While I'm sure that there are many other conditions which include Hyperfocus as a symptom, the best documented ones tend to be on or around the autism spectrum; Aspergers, Autism, PDD-NOS, ADHD etc.

Of course, everyone with Asperger's is different, so it's also possible that someone who seems to not have Asperger's simply has a different set of symptoms.

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