Join the Discussion! Is hyperfocus a benefit or liability of ADHD?

Community Member

Many people assume that ADHD means that the individual cannot pay attention. But this is not exactly accurate. The real problem for people who have ADHD is not that they cannot pay attention but that they have trouble shifting their attention. If the person with ADHD finds something interesting they can focus so intently upon it that they lose sense of time and space. This intense focus, which quite often causes the person to be oblivious to the outside world, is called "hyperfocus." The child or adult who hyperfocuses can find it extremely difficult to switch their focus to an activity or task of lesser interest.

Royce Flippin who wrote an article about hyperfocus for the 2005 October/November issue of ADDitude magazine explains the biochemical origin of this extreme attention to one thing:

"Like distractibility, hyperfocus is thought to result from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain's frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency makes it hard to "shift gears" to take up boring-but-necessary tasks."

Whatever the cause I can tell you that my son Max has this hyperfocus which is common for people who have ADHD and also for people who are on the autism spectrum. To say that my son loves to draw is an understatement. He has been drawing since he was four and there has not been one day in his life since then that he has not been drawing. If he were on a desert island without the use of pen and paper he would be drawing in the sand with his fingers. Max can draw for hours on end and never lose interest. But you try to get him to sit at a table and learn something he is not interested in and it is a totally different matter.

I have always considered Max's intense interest in art to be a true gift. I am grateful that he is passionate about something that he enjoys so much. However, other people have considered his need to draw more of a liability than a gift. We had hired a speech teacher to work with Max early on in our home. She very quickly told me that I would have to limit his time drawing and that she could not work with him because he was so reluctant to stop drawing. This speech teacher's attempts to control my son were backfiring and the speech sessions were becoming a source of frustration for both my son and the therapist. Her attempts to get Max to switch gears consisted of manhandling him and ripping the materials out of his hands. Needless to say this didn't go well.

One day I led the speech teacher into another room and pulled out a photo album. I showed her a photo of a vibrant and beautiful young woman. I told her it was my mother from many years ago. I told her the story of how my mother had loved to draw and paint. Then I explained how my mother developed schizophrenia and how she had a scholarship to go to school for art but her mental illness robbed her of this opportunity. In addition the years of being in and out of mental institutions had also diminished her desire to create art. Hospital staff and mental health programs had their strict guidelines of what they thought she should be doing and art was low on the list of priorities. My mother's hyperfocus was permanently dimmed. I concluded my story to the humbled speech teacher that my mother no longer paints or draws.

I am telling this very personal story for a reason. Yes a person needs balance and must do other things in life than their hyperfocus will dictate. But do not let anyone take away your desire or your child's passions. There are many writers, artists, and scientists who use their hyperfocus to change the world. Imagine if someone had stopped Einstein from hyperfocusing on his theories or Babe Ruth to stop focusing so much on baseball. This ability to become so immersed in a topic of interest is sometimes called "flow." If we use this term it is not something pathological but a gift.

In the end I ended up firing the speech therapist and got someone who would work with my child and consider his special interests as a wonderful opportunity to teach him. The new therapist used my son's love of drawing to help him to communicate instead of fighting with him to be taught in one way. My son did learn to switch gears with techniques which allowed him the time he needed to process transitions. I can tell you firsthand that control and force do not teach anything.

So now I pose the question to you all. Do you feel that the ability to hyperfocus is a curse or a blessing? How do you achieve balance? Do you feel that hyperfocus can be pathological? Tell us your thoughts. We always love to hear from you