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Dancing through Life with Asperger's Syndrome

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Executive Function Support for #Aspergers: Hyperfocus

Not everybody with #Aspergers Syndrome has hyperfocus but a lot of us do. Hyperfocus is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s an intense state of tightly focused concentration that can deepen to the point where the person loses awareness of the environment around them. When deeply hyperfocused, I can miss the sound of my own name and not realize that people are talking to me. I’m not intentionally ignoring them, I literally haven’t realized that they’re there! Hyperfocus is not exclusive to Asperger’s Syndrome; there are several other conditions of difference that feature hyperfocus as one of their constellation attributes.

Hyperfocus is not harmful. It’s how these brains work. Some people are gifted multi-taskers; hyperfocused people are gifted concentrators. If properly managed, there is nothing wrong with stayed deeply focused for hours at a time. Trying to discourage them is like trying to discourage a flower from blooming - it can’t be done, it’s in the flower’s nature to bloom. It is, essentially, discouraging the person from using their brain. Since that is their brain’s natural tendency, any time they’re required to concentrate, they will deepen into hyperfocus, they can’t not. And when they’re frequently interrupted, they get irritable, because it is hard for us to shift our focus.  Quite literally (according to some brain activity scans), we have to disengage one part of our cerebral cortex and engage a different part, in order to shift our focus.  

I look upon hyperfocus as one of the gifts that my Asperger’s Syndrome has given me. When hyperfocused, I can get a lot of work done very quickly and can meet seemingly-impossible deadlines. If I’m hyperfocused while writing, the words can just flow from my imagination out through my fingers to the keyboard, seemingly by-passing the rest of my mind. I speed up, a lot, and can break 100 wpm. I do my best work while hyperfocused. I consider it to be my ‘superpower’ ^__^

Hyperfocus doesn’t just happen at work, it also happens during play. A person who hyperfocuses can become deeply absorbed in a hobby, knitting an entire sweater in a day. They may plow through a novel from start to finish in a single afternoon, or they may spend a full day absorbed in their favorite video game.

You know the phrase “Time flies when you’re having fun;” time flies when you’re hyperfocused, too, wherein lies a problem: A person who is deeply hyperfocused may not be aware of the passage of time or of the needs of their bodies. It wasn’t unusual for me to emerge from hyperfocus exhausted, shaking, and incredibly hungry, looking at the clock in surprise to see that 6 or 8 hours have gone by without me being aware of it at all. This puts a lot of stress on the body, triggering coritsol imbalances and starvation responses. Another hazard is sitting for a long period of time: Sitting is a weight-bearing activity and places stress on the blood vessels in the legs, leading to embolism risks even in young people. Because of these risks, hyperfocus needs to be managed.

The easiest way to manage hyperfocus is with a timer of some sort. The tricky part is finding a timer that will get your attention ^__^ I have a timer program that will toss up a window when I’m on the computer, right in front of what I’m doing so I can’t miss it and I have to acknowledge it to get it to go away ^___^ Elsewhere, a loud alarm or strobing light alarm can be useful to pull me out.

How long to set the timer for? This varies from person to person and is almost always a lot longer than our neurotypical associates would like it to be ^__^ But they’re not gifted with hyperfocus; I am and I look on it as a blessing, so my goal is to get deeply enough into hyperfocus for long enough to be beneficial, but not so long as to become unhealthy. In practice, this works out to be about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. I set my alarm for 2-1/2 or 3 hours, then go to it. When the alarm pulls me out of hyperfocus, I get up, stretch, go to the bathroom, get something to eat, walk around a little to get the blood flowing, and look out the window to give my eyes a break. I give myself 15 - 20 minutes of break time before setting up for my next focus period.

When managed this way, I still get the full benefits of my hyperfocus, but I don’t have the shakes and I don’t get the periods of fog that occur when the body has run out of energy but the brain is still plowing full steam ahead. Instead of exhausted, I feel exhilarated when I finish up, tired but mentally energized.

This is the model I use for managing that aspect of Aspie life that seems to wig out our neurotypical relatives the most - a special-interest binge.  And in my next post, I’ll tell you how I set up for one of those.

Filed under aspergers asperger's aspie executive function support strategies hyperfocus

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