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!