Meet Hyperfocus, ADHD’s Mr. Hyde
Think ADHD always means lack of attention span and uncontrollable impulses? Think again. Learn how hyperfocus impacts children and adults, and how to transform this challenge into a superpower.
It’s no secret that children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle to focus on tasks they find boring. But the flip side is also true: people with ADHD can focus so intently on things that do interest them that they become oblivious to the world around them.
Examples of Hyperfocus
- Children might play a video game or watch TV for hours instead of going to a movie or hanging out with a friend.
- Adults might shop or surf the Internet instead of talking with their spouse or taking out the dog.”People who think that ADHD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADHD is,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. “People with ADHD have a disregulated attention system.”
Causes of Hyperfocus
- Low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter active in the brain’s frontal lobes, makes it hard to “shift gears” from fun activities to boring-but-necessary tasks
- The need to engage in activities that deliver instant feedback, enjoyment, or psychological reward
- A coping mechanism for dealing with distraction — intentionally going into a state of intense focus, say, to study for an exam
A Strength and a Weakness
Intense focus has its advantages in this busy world. “Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADHD 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 focus can be a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.
Here’s how to break the spell of hyperfocus:
Helping a Child with Hyperfocus
- Educate him about his ADHD brain and the need for parents to intervene to get him to snap out of it
- Set up rules about when he can focus on his favorite activity, and when he can’t
- Limit the amount of time he can spend on that activity
- Look for natural breaks — the end of a television show — to conclude his favorite activity. Quick Tip: To get a child to stop hyperfocusing, tap him on the shoulder, wave a hand in front of his face, or stand between him and the TV or computer screen.
- For an Adult: Set a timer to remind yourself of other tasks that need to be completed
- Enlist a colleague or co-worker to phone or email you at a set time
- Ask a family member to turn off the lights in the computer or TV room to get your attention
Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it. Find ways to make your child’s schoolwork more stimulating: Instead of having him memorize a bunch of history dates for a test, ask the teacher if he can write and perform a play on the subject.
Finding a job that provides immediate and enjoyable consequences can be ideal for adults with ADHD. Perhaps this is why 35 percent of people with ADHD are self-employed by the time they’re in their thirties. They are able to focus on their passion and earn a living at the same time.