- Need to know: ADHD and hyperfocus: challenges and opportunities
- ADHD hyperfocus symptoms, strategies and triggers
- ADHD hyperfocus impacts both adults and children
ADHD and Hyperfocus
You might be surprised to learn that children, and adults, with Attention Deficit\Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) don’t have a deficit of attention as such, the problem is actually due to a difficulty with regulating and sustaining attention to meet goals and expectations.
The ADHD brain is an interest based nervous system, this means that when it comes to things we are passionate or curious about, our focus can be incredibly powerful – this is sometimes referred to as hyperfocus. This can be confusing for parents who watch their child be super focused on building Lego, creating art, reading or doing another favourite activity, but who struggle with attention while getting ready in the morning.
Daily life is made up of boring and challenging tasks, and also fun and interesting activities. Children with ADHD can do really well in exciting and engaging situations, but the mundane parts of reaching a goal or meeting expectations can make it more difficult to get started, to sustain attention and to finish tasks.
Scientists think that executive function, an area that individuals with ADHD struggle with, is situationally variable. Children who do intrinsically motivating tasks are more likely to show fewer to no executive functional impairments. It is thought that this is because ADHD affects how the motivation-reward system works.
Understanding ADHD and hyperfocus
Hyperfocus is not a diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but it is a recognised phenomenon that people with ADHD can experience. Neurotypical people can also experience something similar called “flow” or “in the zone”.
The positives and challenges of hyperfocus
Hyperfocus has many positive aspects that can help people with ADHD be highly productive and focused on meeting intrinsic goals. There are several athletes, business professionals and artists who credit their ADHD for their accomplishments, because of their ability to be single-minded in doing something they love.
Although the ability to hyperfocus is incredibly powerful, it can also create some challenges for people who experience it and those around them. Hyperfocus is a phenomenon that describes a person’s ability to be so absorbed in a task, to the point of being able to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else.
Shifting attention to internal and external cues becomes a challenge when someone is in this mode of intense focus. You might notice that your child:
- Can’t hear their name being called – you might call out to your child over and over again without a response to the point you think they are ignoring you.
- Misses physiological cues like hunger, thirst and needing to use the toilet – your child might have more accidents while they play video games because they haven’t recognised a full bladder in time to use the bathroom.
- Loses the concept of time – your child might still be half dressed for school and their breakfast on the table untouched because they are fixing a lego build that broke when they accidentally walked past it.
- Becomes defiant when they need to stop – a request to do something else might trigger your child to respond with defiance or anger because you are asking that they stop an activity that they are intensely focused on.
- Is more fatigued – your child may use up more energy during periods of hyperfocus, which then affects their ability to take on subsequent tasks. This might present as oppositional behaviour when you ask your child to do anything that requires effort and is not of interest.
Tips & strategies
Hyperfocus isn’t inherently negative; in fact, it can be a powerful tool when managed effectively.
How to make the most of hyperfocus
Identify areas that trigger hyperfocus
For many children, gaming or technology tend to be areas that activate intense focus. Short videos, exciting games, bright colours tend to turn on the reward system in the brain and in turn a flood of dopamine. This is why it is always incredibly difficult for kids to end their tech time.
Use multiple visual and audio cues
The intensity of hyperfocus can be so laser focused that your child might miss external and internal cues. Use audio and visual cues like your voice, a timer, alarms or similar to give warning and count down the time to end the activity.
To smooth the move from a highly rewarding task to another activity, you need to make that option worthwhile for your child. The best way to do that is to make the move fun (a race, a competition, etc) and to transition to an activity they love.
Stick to consistent routines
Consistent schedules and clear expectations can help you and your child manage periods of hyperfocus with healthy breaks to attend to physical needs.
Help with self-awareness when it comes to hyperfocus
Teach your child to recognise when they are in a hyperfocus state and to develop strategies for transitioning to other tasks. This skill is something that develops over time and you will need to be your child’s external awareness system until it matures.
- Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention – PMC
- Testing the relation between ADHD and hyperfocus experiences – ScienceDirect
- ADHD Hyperfocus: What Is It and How to Use It | Psychology Today
- Hyperfocusing as a dimension of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – ScienceDirect
- (PDF) Delay and Reward Choice in ADHD: An Experimental Test of the Role of Delay Aversion
- “Dysregulated not deficit”: A qualitative study on symptomatology of ADHD in young adults | PLOS ONE
- The relations between hyperfocus and similar attentional states, adult ADHD symptoms, and affective dysfunction | SpringerLink
- Executive Function: Implications for Education
- ADHD and Screen Time: How to Steer Kids Away from too Much Technology