Hyperfocus is a common symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It can occur with both the hyperactive and attention-deficit types of the disorder.
Understanding hyperfocus is important to understanding how an ADHD patient’s brain works. Many individuals find hyperfocus contradictory to the nature of ADHD.
Patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often struggle to concentrate on tasks for long periods.
But with hyperfocus, affected individuals become fixated on a single task or interest and can do it for extended time periods. They may be unable to pay attention to anything other than their area of interest.
Hyperfocus can sometimes be frustrating for those around individuals with ADHD because they don’t understand why the individual can’t apply the same level of focus to every task.
Basic Definition of Hyperfocus
Hyperfocus is a behavior that occurs most commonly in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders. It’s best studied in terms of how it relates to ADHD. When individuals hyperfocus, they experience an intense and deep concentration on a particular subject, task, or activity.
While the hallmark symptom of ADHD is an inability to concentrate for long periods on specific tasks, the existence of hyperfocus changes researchers’ understanding of how the disorder works.
Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are not completely incapable of focusing in all circumstances. Instead, the disorder can be considered an issue with the regulation of an individual’s attention.
Patients might struggle to turn their attention toward tasks like schoolwork, chores, the workplace, or even leisure activities they want to do. Instead, their attention wanders and fixates on things without their conscious input.
Benefits of Hyperfocus
Hyperfocus is a sign of the difference in cognition between an ADHD brain or autism spectrum brain versus a neurotypical brain. Though hyperfocus can have negative effects, there are also many potential benefits.
Many individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can hyperfocus on intricate projects or complex subjects, leading them to become experts in varying fields.
In fact, many scientists, artists, and researchers have ADHD. By going into a field of study or profession that engages hyperfocus, individuals can use the behavior to their advantage. In children with ADHD, educators and sports coaches have found ways to turn hyperfocus to their advantage.
Coaches might put children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on goalie or catcher positions because of their unique ability to hyperfocus on a ball or puck.
Risks and Downsides
The biggest risks and downsides to hyperfocus are that if an individual focused on one subject or task or project, they’re distracted from other things. A child who hyperfocuses on one thing may neglect other aspects of their life like school or chores.
They might struggle to turn their attention away from their object of interest long enough to complete unrelated homework. Being unable to engage in their area of interest may also cause distress, especially in children with autism spectrum disorders.
In adults with ADHD, it’s common to forget to do things like personal hygiene, cleaning, responding to messages, and sometimes even eating. Adults might also stay up for long periods rather than sleeping, which can lead to health issues.
Hyperfocus in Children
Hyperfocus can often occur in children with ADHD and autism. In some cases, hyperfocusing can lead to a delay in an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis, especially if the child tends to focus on things like schoolwork.
Many parents don’t believe their children can have ADHD if they observe them working single-mindedly on a task or reading up on a subject for hours on end. On the other hand, higherfocus can sometimes aid in autism spectrum diagnoses.
The most commonly used term for subjects of interest in autistic children is ‘special interests.’ When autistic children become obsessively focused and fixated on a single task or subject, this can be an external sign of their neurodivergence.
Parents are especially likely to notice ‘special interests’ if they’re outside the usual norm of a neurotypical child’s interests.
Hyperfocus in Adults
Though much of the research on hyperfocus has centered on children with ADHD, adults are prone to higherfocus as well.
Many adults with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may struggle to keep up with day-to-day tasks, but they might have no trouble whatsoever with being productive on tasks that interest them.
This can be frustrating, especially when they don’t know they have an attention-related disorder. A neurotypical individual can typically switch between tasks and allocate attention to both mundane tasks and tasks that interest them.
But individuals with ADHD or autism struggle to consciously direct their attention, even if the task is one they know they need to do.