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 3

To help smooth this process, Nadeau recommends taking the time to educate your child about the way his or her brain works. "Your child needs to understand why it's hard for her to stop doing something she's really into," she says. "The child also needs to know that, because of this, teachers and parents may have to intervene from time to time to stop an activity."

Establishing external cues

For adults with ADD, managing bouts of hyperfocus requires setting up external cues to redirect their attention. "This sort of intense focus isn't something you can just buck up and talk yourself out of," says Barkley.

Nadeau, who has ADD herself, often experiences hyperfocus when she tackles a writing project. So she sets a timer to remind herself of appointments she needs to keep or phone calls she needs to make. Computer messages, designed to pop up on the screen at preset times, can also be useful. So is enlisting the help of a spouse or co-worker. "I worked with one man who got so absorbed in his work that he trained a colleague to come and pull him out of his office for meetings," says Nadeau.

Another of Nadeau's patients was in the habit of working on his computer after dinner. "He would completely zone out," says Nadeau, "to the point where his wife would go to bed and he wouldn't even notice. He'd just keep working until two or three in the morning." Exasperated, the man's wife began literally pulling the plug on his computer when bedtime arrived. "It was the only way to get his attention," says Nadeau.

Making boring tasks more compelling

Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it. "If school or work can be made stimulating, it will grab focus in the same way," says Nadeau.

"Kids with ADD are demanding a higher standard of teaching," says William Sears, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. "A child with ADD gets bored quickly when he's asked to memorize a bunch of history dates. But if he helps write a play on the subject and then performs in it, he's going to shine."

The same is true for adults. "A job that provides public accountability, along with more immediate and enjoyable consequences, can be ideal for those with ADD," says Barkley. "Perhaps this is why 35 percent of people with ADD are self-employed by the time they're in their thirties—a figure far higher than the norm."

The upside of hyperfocus

Once you learn to turn hyperfocus to your favor, it can be a built-in advantage. Stories abound about ADDers who can concentrate intently for long stretches of time on complex projects.

"When I used to direct TV commercials, I could never get myself to sit down and do an expense report," says Frank Coppola, of New York City. An ADD coach who himself has ADD. "But on the set, I'd have nine things going on simultaneously, and I could focus on all of them without any problem."

"I coach baseball," notes Sears, "and I always put kids with ADD in as pitchers and catchers. As pitchers, their ability to hyperfocus helps them focus on the target, and as catchers, it heightens their awareness of the batter. Kids with ADD make great hockey goalies for the same reason. When the puck's at the other end of the rink, they're looking around, distracted—but as soon as the puck comes down the rink toward them, they click in to hyperfocus and become very alert."


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TAGS: Talking About ADD, Hyperfocus and ADHD

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