Understanding Hyperfocus in ADHD

From PsycCentral By Helen Nieves

A symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the inability to focus at a task for a long period of time. Being distracted is also another common symptom of ADHD, where the individual finds difficulty in maintaining attention to a specific task.

However, when I work with children diagnosed with ADHD, I often hear the parents tell me that their child can play video games for hours and get immersed in the game without anyone breaking their attention. But when it comes to completing their homework, it takes them forever to complete one simple assignment.

Although many parents are aware of the symptoms of ADHD, they sometimes overlook a less common symptom, which is the child’s ability to absorb themselves and have an intense focus and concentration in tasks that are stimulating. This is called hyperfocus.

“ADHD is not necessarily a deficit of attention, but rather a problem with regulating one’s attention span,” wrote Eloise Porter in ADHD and Hyperfocus (www.healthline.com, 2012). Individuals who have ADHD find it difficult to focus on activities that are not stimulating or that are boring, but can spend hours focusing and concentrating on playing video games, sports, or activities that interest them.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus can have its advantages and disadvantages. I often explain to parents that being in a hyperfocused state can have its pros and cons. If not used properly, hyperfocus can lead to failure to take care of other commitments. Children may hyperfocus on unproductive tasks which can lead to setbacks and failure in school.

Usually, people go into a hyperfocused state when a stressful situation arises. This can happen when a child needs to prepare for a test or to write a paper. It is important for parents to realize and be aware when their child becomes hyperfocused in order to prevent this state from happening, and to use relaxation techniques to help them de-stress and help them set and finish their goals.

On the flip side, if used effectively, hyperfocus can be an advantage, such as when individuals set their mind on a goal they want to achieve and work until it is attained. I often tell parents about famous actors and artists diagnosed with ADHD, including Adam Levine, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who directed their hyperfocus toward their craft which allowed them to perfect their talent. Besides, if it wasn’t for the ability of many scientists, writers, and artists diagnosed with ADHD to focus on what they’re doing for hours, we wouldn’t have some of technologies today.

How to Cope with Hyperfocus

Parents tell me that it is difficult to get their child out of a hyperfocused state. It takes a lot of awareness and forcing a child to get “unstuck.” Most children, however, are not aware of when they go into this state, and most will not rationalize or stop to de-stress themselves in order to break the pattern.

Here are some suggestions I tell parents to help their child cope with hyperfocus and to set their mind on a goal:

  1. Create a schedule for activities that you know your child will tend to hyperfocus on. If your child hyperfocuses while watching television or playing video games, do not allow them to engage in this activity before homework. Restrict time spent watching television or playing video games if you know your child will “zone” you and the world out.
  2. Help your child find activities that are built on social interaction and remove them from isolated time. If a child is isolated, they are more prone to find activities that they will hyperfocus on.
  3. Try using a signal to refocus their attention. Tapping them on the shoulder or using a bell can help to refocus their attention. Unless something or someone interrupts the child, hours can drift by.
  4. Use timers and alarms so your child is cognizant of how much time has passed since they started the activity.
  5. Help set breaks in between activities that your child may hyperfocus on. Set milestones on activities and have your child stop each time he reaches one. For example, if a child is playing a video game and wins a level, ask your child to stop the game and help you with a productive activity.
  6. Turn off the television or computer to get your child’s attention.
  7. Find ways to make your child’s homework more stimulating. If your child does not want to complete an assignment or study for a test, make it fun. Instead of memorizing information for a science test, have the child draw the information they need to learn, use hands on activities to convey the information that they need for the test, or make a game out of it.
  8. Use activities that your child enjoys as rewards for the tasks he does not find enjoyable. For example, if your child likes to draw, have him do five English questions, and then spend five minutes drawing (make sure you set a timer), and then do another five questions.
  9. If you see your child is stressing out, do some fun relaxation techniques to help them de-stress.

Hyperfocus can be a gift if used constructively on things we want our kids to focus on, such as schoolwork. Managing hyperfocus is important in managing ADHD, and learning the right tools and techniques to help them move in a positive direction is key.