What Is ADHD Hyperfocus?

A common—but confusing—symptom of ADHD is called "hyperfocus," or the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time.

Breaking the Spell of Hyperfocus, Part 2

"Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADD have had very successful careers, in large part because of their ability to focus on what they're doing for hours on end," says Nadeau.

But unrestrained intense focus is most often a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.

"Children with ADD often gravitate to what's entertaining and exciting, and are averse to doing things they don't want to do," says Joseph Biederman, M.D., head of the pediatric psychopharmacology program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Combine this with poor time management and problems socializing, both of which are typical of kids with ADD, and the child can end up playing Nintendo alone all weekend long."

Adults with ADD tell stories of missing meetings or deadlines because they got so absorbed in something that they lost track of time. In one extraordinary case history, cited by Nadeau, a woman with ADD was so focused on a project that she failed to notice that her house had caught fire. "It was only when firemen came through the house, searching for anyone left inside, that she looked up and realized what was going on," says Nadeau.

Best ways to intervene

If a child with ADD tends to get lost in a favorite activity, parents or teachers should first take steps to limit the amount of time the child is allowed to spend on the activity.

"Even if a child is on ADD medication, playing Nintendo will always be more attractive than studying for a math test," says Biederman. "So the child should be allowed to play it only in doses—not at the expense of an entire day."

"If you have a child who hyperfocuses on a favorite activity, you'll need to counter this tendency by being extra-vigilant about limiting the time spent on the activity and about being careful to stick to his schedule," says Carol Brady, Ph.D., a Houston psychologist. "It can also help to make an agreement with your child ahead of time about when the activity can be done, and when it can't."

Then, it's essential to develop a system to help your kids redirect their focus. When the time comes to conclude the activity, Brady recommends being a bit flexible and, if possible, waiting for a natural break—the conclusion of a TV show, for example.

But it's not enough to give the child a time limit and expect her to stop. "I tell parents they'll need to do something to break the 'trance' their child is in," says Silver, "such as tapping him on the shoulder, waving a hand in front of his face, or standing between him and the television or computer screen." Unless you do, he says, the child may not even realize that you are trying to get his attention.

"These children aren't being disobedient," says Nadeau. "Their brains just aren't registering what you're saying. That's why the interruption should never be done angrily, and why you should allow a few minutes for the shift in attention to occur. It's almost like pulling someone out of a dream."

Next: Breaking the Spell of Hyperfocus, Part 3


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