Let’s Talk About: Hyper-Focus vs Lack of Focus

Okay. First of all, this was not originally the next post I was going to write. I have an unfinished post about driving as stimming (which I’ve been meaning to finish and post for about three to four months now – mea culpa), and there are some other issues that I want to explore as well. But I went out for coffee with my local friend tonight, and we got to talking about some of the things we experience. One of them was the element of focus, and it ended up being (pun not intended) the focus of our conversation. And I thought it might be interesting to open up the dialogue to others as well.

I have two different “focus” modes: What I call hyper-focus, or concentrating so hard on one thing that everything else (including calls to come and eat dinner) gets blocked out; and lack of focus, where I’m lost and can’t decide what needs doing or what has priority. And a lot of things I’ve read about other autistics say the same thing. Especially if it involves one of our special interests (definitely hyper-focus), or if it’s something we’re not at all interested in (lack of focus).

The lack of focus element definitely seems to be linked to problems with executive function, and it’s quite possible that the hyper-focus is as well.

So, the two seem mutually exclusive, and I know I’ve wondered (and if I’ve wondered, and this is natural to me, I’m sure that allistics who deal with autistics have wondered as well): how is it possible for one person to have these two apparently mutually exclusive traits? And how can we possibly cope with them?

Especially when hyper-focus can lead into things like insomnia and the like.

Well, first of all, I suspect that hyper-focus is in part linked to special interests. It can also be a very beneficial trait, under the right circumstances. (Which are not reading a book when you should be going to sleep, or writing when you should be coming up for dinner, etc. Yes, examples from my own life. Or driving a car down a busy city street.) If there’s a project that has to be done, and it has to be done high quality, hyper-focus is an excellent thing. Working out creative solutions to unusual difficulties is another one.

There’s a theory out there that part of the reason autism shows up in about 1% or more of the population (which is a significant figure) is that autism was a survival trait for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There was an article about it posted on Science Daily, but unfortunately I can’t find it at the moment. (Please note that Science Daily publishes short articles about everything they get their hands on, including articles that contradict each other. The number of conflicting articles on there about autism is huge!) Essentially it proposed that the ability to hyper-focus, and having hyper-sensitive senses, could have been very beneficial for hunter-gatherers. The first for the ability to find food and shelter, and the second for the ability to be aware of approaching dangers. (*grins* Ever heard of the television show “The Sentinel”? It was a favourite of mine. A cop with heightened senses and an anthropolgist whose doctoral thesis is all about Sentinels, who were protectors of “primitive” peoples with heightened senses, work together to control the cop’s senses and solve cases. Wonderful brotherhood show, until the end of the third season…. [/end rant])

And speaking of heightened senses… that leads into the “lack of focus” element. When we’re not hyper-focused on something specific, we have all this sensory information (or lack of sensory information, in the case of hypo-sensitive senses) coming in, and quite often, even if it doesn’t lead to sensory overload, it’s still a lot of information that we have to process.

Back in February, I posted an article about my ideal work conditions, in which I linked to the definition of “spoons”, when talking about someone with an invisible disability. Essentially, what it boils down to is that for someone who has a disability (and this can be a mental disability like autism, depression, or bipolar, or even ADHD, or a physical disability like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, or fibromyalgia) has less energy available than those people who don’t have disabilities, and it takes more energy for them to do something than it does for people without disabilities. For example, say an allistic person starts the day off with 50 “spoons” (units of energy). It takes one spoon to get out of bed and go get breakfast. It takes one spoon to call a friend to come over for a visit, etc. Well, an autistic might start the day off with 45 spoons, or 30 spoons, etc. – and definitely for me, making a phone call to someone I know costs at least 2 spoons. Making a call to someone I don’t know personally… that can take up to 4 or 5 spoons. (In part because I tend to need to see someone’s face in order to get even a general idea of how they’re feeling; I’m hopeless with tone of voice alone.)

So, to deal with the amount of input that we tend to get every single day, can take 2-3 spoons at the best of times, whereas someone without hyper- or hypo-senses can get away with it taking 1/2-1 spoon. Which leaves us less energy to focus on things. And, in turn, the same sort of thing (only in reverse) applies when we hyper-focus; all our energy is going into what we’re focusing on, so there’s nothing left to help us remain aware of the outside world.

There’s the issue. So, the question then becomes, how to deal with it enough to cope with the Real World when it interferes with our interests?

Well, I can tell you how I’ve learned to cope. It’s not perfect, but it works – at least, the hyper-focus coping mechanism does. The lack of focus one? Eh, that’s a bit more problematic, more for what the solution is than for whether it works or not.

Hyper-focus: I listen to music. If I’m in the car, I have the radio on; I figured out, talking to my friend this evening, that it’s not just for distracting that part of my mind that goes, “What if what if what if?” – it’s also to ensure that I don’t end up hyper-focusing on one particular part of driving – like, say, paying attention to traffic lights – and lose track of all the others – like where the other cars are in relation to me. If I’m playing music while I’m reading or writing, I’m unlikely to get completely lost in my own world; it keeps me from the hyper-focus problem and keeps me at least partly aware of the outside world.

Lack of focus: I turn my attention to reading something interesting, or writing (though I have trouble writing when I’m lacking focus). This usually (though not always) works. The problem comes when I’m supposed to be concentrating or working on something else. Being able to concentrate on something doesn’t do much good if it’s not something you’re supposed to be concentrating on at that time!

Anyone have any thoughts? What are your own issues with hyper-focus and lack of focus? How do you cope with them? What works, what doesn’t work, what could be better? Let’s talk about it!

😉 tagAught

10 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: Hyper-Focus vs Lack of Focus

  1. “Especially if it involves one of our special interests (definitely hyper-focus), or if it’s something we’re not at all interested in (lack of focus).”

    While my passions (I don’t like the phrase “special interest” because it feels patronizing to me) do tend to lead to hyper-focus, lack of focus, for me, is not entirely about not being interested in something. Sometimes I want to do something a tremendous deal but cannot. Lack of focus, for me, is more based on autistic inertia than lack of interest.

    (Autistic inertia: http://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/autistic-inertia-an-overview/)

    • Hm. I definitely don’t mean to sound patronizing; just, trying to find a term that everyone agrees on is difficult. “Special interests” just seemed to me to be the least “emotionally loaded” term. *shrugs* I would welcome other suggestions. Passions works. I’ve just always thought about them as obsessions, which is an emotionally loaded term.

      Interesting post on autistic inertia. I don’t think I’d ever heard the term before, but it’s been just since January that I’ve started connecting to other autistics, so that’s not a surprise. And yes, I can definitely see how that could play a huge role in the “lack of focus” – I’ll check out the links in your post later (when I’m not about to go to bed *wry grin*). Yes, the “lack of focus” is definitely more than just a lack of interest. Hm. Might re-word that paragraph a bit to fix it up – but tomorrow.

      Thanks for replying!
      😉 tagAught

      • Going back over things, I wanted to re-visit this exchange and assure you that *YOU* didn’t sound patronizing. I find with word choice, it’s not just the words, it’s the context they get placed in.

        I have been thinking about all this since we had this conversation and I thought about the joke I heard from a comedian. He said he didn’t like hearing the marriage issue referred to as “gay marriage” because he said, “to me, it’s just marriage, and it’s being opened up to more people. I don’t gay drive my car to my gay job and take a gay break to eat my gay lunch, right?”

        Like all good comedians, he made me think. I translated his comment to autism, where allistic people get to have hobbies and passions and loves when they are deeply interested in radios or trains or animals, but when an Autistic person has those same deep interests, we get a special name — special interests. It’s something many allistic people do, but autistic people tend to do it more so ours gets pathologized and theirs gets normalized.

        There’s a really great poem about this whole tendency to take things that we do and pathologize them because they are ours. I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting the whole poem here, but it’s not too long:

        -=-=-=-
        The Language of Us and Them, By Mayer Shevin

        We like things.
        They fixate on objects.

        We try to make friends.
        They display attention-seeking behaviors.

        We take a break.
        They display off-task behavior.

        We stand up for ourselves.
        They are non-compliant.

        We have hobbies.
        They self-stim.

        We choose our friends wisely.
        They display poor peer socialization.

        We persevere.
        They perseverate.

        We love people.
        They have dependencies on people.

        We go for walks.
        They run away.

        We insist.
        They tantrum.

        We change our minds.
        They are disoriented and have short attention spans.

        We are talented.
        They have splinter skills.

        We are human.
        They are…….?
        -=-=-=-

        Shevin’s poem highlights why I don’t support special language for things allistics do but we do more of. It’s why I don’t like the phrase “special interest” because I’ve met so many allistic people with “special interests” but no one uses pathologizing language for theirs. It’s why I don’t like the term “self-advocate” being applied to Autistics who speak out about disability rights and the Autistic community at large, because “self-advocate” in the allistic world means a patient who learns about their medical condition and advocates for their medical needs with their doctor. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a “self-advocate” and it’s another way to pathologize us when we do things that non-autistic people do.

        But I’m fine with terms like “Autistic Inertia” because it describes something that generally doesn’t happen with allistic people. It’s our own thing — not really something they do but we do more of. So we actually need a special word for it.

        Now I feel like I’m getting lecture-y and that really wasn’t my intent because I love your blog and I love you and you’re doing everything right!! Seriously, you are! I rush to read your posts every time I get notification of a new one and I think you’re awesome, so just because I have a tendency to get lecture-y, please don’t think I was actually lecturing at you, because I wasn’t and you don’t need lectures!! I just tend to . . . pontificate. 🙂 (See how I didn’t say monologue? LOL!!!)

        • “Pontificate” is good! And so glad that you enjoy my blog that much!

          You’ve got a very good point regarding language usage and othering there, and I certainly have no problem with you quoting the poem in its fullness.

          And hey, I have no objection to people bringing things like my language usage to my attention. If I want to make this blog an open, safe space for fellow autistics, then I have to think about how we all feel about things – and (as with most people) there are some things that I simply don’t notice because they’re so ingrained that I need someone else to point them out to me. So I did appreciate that comment – please don’t think I didn’t. (Just like I appreciated your suggestion regarding the phrase “confined to a wheelchair” on my post about SciFi on the Rock.)

          *{{{Virtual Deep Hugs!}}}*

          🙂 tagAught

  2. I laughed when I got to the part about “reading a book when you should be going to sleep”, I never understood how people could say they read a book in order to fall asleep. When I love a book I read and read and then all of a sudden it’s 4:45am and I have no more book left. Or 8am. Or two days later. I probably got some sleep somewhere in there but no idea when or how much. Yes, I like reading.

    (My dad wrote me a poem when I was 9 about all the times they’d call me down for dinner and find me halfway down the stairs. Reading a book.)

    Your music while driving? I do something similar during yoga class. When we do the meditation bits and the teacher says to close your eyes… if I do that then her voice becomes SO LOUD and I can’t concentrate on myself anymore and it bounces around in my skull and it’s a bit painful. So I always keep my eyes open, getting random visual input helps me filter the sound a bit more and not become hyperfocused.

    Interesting post!

  3. A lot of this sounds very tied in to being an introvert. You sound similar to me, especially when it comes to how energy is being spent. Are you aware of your introvertedness? I think it plays a big role in the tendency to hyperfocus, as well as be overwhelmed by too much stimulus.

    Right now, I’m realizing I hyperfocus all too often. Particularly, on the SO in my life. I think it’s a factor of my depression. I stop caring about all else and fall apart if it falls away. Thank you for the post

    • Yes, I’m very aware of the fact that I’m an introvert, but I’ve never connected that to hyper-focus, given that isn’t a defining trait of introversion. (The accurate definition of an introvert vs. an extrovert involves whether you are drained or energized by crowds vs. being alone. Introverts are energized by being alone, and drained in crowds, and extroverts are the reverse.)

      Apparently, according to a biologist friend of mine, there’s also an actual difference in the way memory works between introverts and extroverts, which means that introverts can take up to a minute more to respond to verbal communication than extroverts, but that’s not a part of the “personality matrix” description of introversion vs. extroversion.

      🙂 tagAught

  4. In the last few months my son has gone from an A in Social Studies to an F . He can’t focus at all on this subject to a scary degree . When I try to study with him he just looks at me with a blank stare . Getting angry with him doesn’t help . I usually pretty much have to tell him what to write down in his homework word for word so that he can pass the class . I don’t know what’s going on and why this is happening all of a sudden . Could it be that he is s teenager and hormones are affecting his brain? Could it be something he is eating ? I don’t know what to do with him or where to take him for help . Anyone else having this problem with their autistic teenager ?

  5. Pingback: GPS Blog | 5 Tips to Boost your Child with Autism's Concentration

    • Please note: There is one problem with the above blog post – namely they repeat that idea that forcing eye contact can help autistics concentrate. I’ve left a comment on there about how they are absolutely wrong about that; we’ll see where that goes.

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