It’s no secret that children and adults with ADHD often struggle to focus on tasks they find uninteresting. High distractibility — children with ADHD who are unable to stay focused on a classroom lecture or adults with ADHD who never get around to doing their paperwork — is a key ADHD symptom and diagnosis criterion.
What you might not know about ADHD is that there’s another side: the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit disorder to focus very intently on things that do interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them.
For children, the object of “hyperfocus” might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside.
“People who think ADHD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADHD is,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. “A better way to look at it is that people with ADHD have a disregulated attention system.”
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.
“Children and adults with ADHD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another,” says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a research professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. “If they’re doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they’ll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things. The brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback.”
“It’s a way of dealing with distraction,” Silver says. “College kids with ADHD tell me they intentionally go into a state of intense focus to get work done. Younger kids do the same thing unconsciously when they’re doing something pleasurable, like watching a movie or playing a computer game. Often they aren’t even aware that they’re focusing so intensely.”
There’s nothing inherently harmful about hyperfocus. In fact, it can be an asset. Some people with ADHD, for example, are able to channel their focus on something productive, such as a school- or work-related activity. Others allow themselves to hyperfocus on something as a reward for completing a dull but important task.
“Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADHD have had very successful careers, in large part because of their ability to focus on what they’re doing for hours on end,” says Nadeau.
But unrestrained intense focus is most often a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.
“Children with ADHD often gravitate to what’s entertaining and exciting, and are averse to doing things they don’t want to do,” says Joseph Biederman, M.D., head of the pediatric psychopharmacology program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Combine this with poor time management and problems socializing, both of which are typical of kids with ADHD, and the child can end up playing Nintendo alone all weekend long.”
Adults with ADHD tell stories of missing meetings or deadlines because they got so absorbed in something that they lost track of time. In one extraordinary case history, cited by Nadeau, a woman with ADHD was so focused on a project that she failed to notice that her house had caught fire. “It was only when firemen came through the house, searching for anyone left inside, that she looked up and realized what was going on,” says Nadeau.
Best Ways to Intervene
If a child with ADHD tends to get lost in a favorite activity, parents or teachers should first take steps to limit the amount of time the child is allowed to spend on the activity.
“Even if a child is on ADHD medication, playing Nintendo will always be more attractive than studying for a math test,” says Biederman. “So the child should be allowed to play it only in doses — not at the expense of an entire day.”
“If you have a child who hyperfocuses on a favorite activity, you’ll need to counter this tendency by being extra-vigilant about limiting the time spent on the activity and about being careful to stick to his schedule,” says Carol Brady, Ph.D., a Houston psychologist. “It can also help to make an agreement with your child ahead of time about when the activity can be done, and when it can’t.”
Then, it’s essential to develop a system to help your kids redirect their focus. When the time comes to conclude the activity, Brady recommends being a bit flexible and, if possible, waiting for a natural break — the conclusion of a TV show, for example.
But it’s not enough to give the child a time limit and expect her to stop. “I tell parents they’ll need to do something to break the ‘trance’ their child is in,” says Silver, “such as tapping him on the shoulder, waving a hand in front of his face, or standing between him and the television or computer screen.” Unless you do, he says, the child may not even realize that you are trying to get his attention.
“These children aren’t being disobedient,” says Nadeau. “Their brains just aren’t registering what you’re saying. That’s why the interruption should never be done angrily, and why you should allow a few minutes for the shift in attention to occur. It’s almost like pulling someone out of a dream.”
To help smooth this process, Nadeau recommends taking the time to educate your child about the way his or her brain works. “Your child needs to understand why it’s hard for her to stop doing something she’s really into,” she says. “The child also needs to know that, because of this, teachers and parents may have to intervene from time to time to stop an activity.”
Establishing External Cues
For adults with ADHD, managing bouts of hyperfocus requires setting up external cues to redirect their attention. “This sort of intense focus isn’t something you can just buck up and talk yourself out of,” says Barkley.
Nadeau, who has ADHD herself, often experiences hyperfocus when she tackles a writing project. So she sets a timer to remind herself of appointments she needs to keep or phone calls she needs to make. Computer messages, designed to pop up on the screen at preset times, can also be useful. So is enlisting the help of a spouse or co-worker. “I worked with one man who got so absorbed in his work that he trained a colleague to come and pull him out of his office for meetings,” says Nadeau.
Another of Nadeau’s patients was in the habit of working on his computer after dinner. “He would completely zone out,” says Nadeau, “to the point where his wife would go to bed and he wouldn’t even notice. He’d just keep working until two or three in the morning.” Exasperated, the man’s wife began literally pulling the plug on his computer when bedtime arrived. “It was the only way to get his attention,” says Nadeau.
Making Boring Tasks More Compelling
Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it. “If school or work can be made stimulating, it will grab focus in the same way,” says Nadeau.
“Kids with ADHD are demanding a higher standard of teaching,” says William Sears, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “A child with ADHD gets bored quickly when he’s asked to memorize a bunch of history dates. But if he helps write a play on the subject and then performs in it, he’s going to shine.”
The same is true for adults. “A job that provides public accountability, along with more immediate and enjoyable consequences, can be ideal for those with ADHD,” says Barkley. “Perhaps this is why 35 percent of people with ADHD are self-employed by the time they’re in their thirties-a figure far higher than the norm.”
The Upside of Hyperfocus
Once you learn to turn hyperfocus to your favor, it can be a built-in advantage. Stories abound about individuals with ADHD who can concentrate intently for long stretches of time on complex projects.
“When I used to direct TV commercials, I could never get myself to sit down and do an expense report,” says Frank Coppola, of New York City. An ADHD coach who himself has ADHD. “But on the set, I’d have nine things going on simultaneously, and I could focus on all of them without any problem.”
“I coach baseball,” notes Sears, “and I always put kids with ADHD in as pitchers and catchers. As pitchers, their ability to hyperfocus helps them focus on the target, and as catchers, it heightens their awareness of the batter. Kids with ADHD make great hockey goalies for the same reason. When the puck’s at the other end of the rink, they’re looking around, distracted-but as soon as the puck comes down the rink toward them, they click in to hyperfocus and become very alert.”