Some of my readers will know that I was recently diagnosed as having High-Functioning Autism, likely what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome. It is also highly likely I have ADD as one of the most prevalent symptoms I display is “Hyperfocus”, which is very common in ADD/ADHD cases. Here I am going to try and give anyone that has never experienced Hyperfocus some idea of what it is and how it affects my life.
I don’t know if that’s the proper clinical term for it, but it seems to be the most apropos. Even though it is somewhat self-explanatory, I know from experience that many people have no clue what it actually means. It’s not just “getting lost in something” or “getting into the zone”. It is total & complete absorption in something to the point the rest of the world ceases to exist to your mind and all sense of time is lost. I have honestly thought I spent maybe 5-10 minutes on something only to be told it had been several hours. People can talk to me and I might even respond, but I often have no recollection of having done so or of what either of us said.
The plus side of Hyperfocus is that when I’m interested in something I can learn it very quickly if given the time to focus on it. This was been a benefit to me in my professional life as I gained a reputation for being able to take on new roles and thrive quickly.
A major downside of my Hyperfocus is that when the outside world forces itself in, it feels like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, and Michael are all trying to break into your home at the same time with the intent of ripping you from your safe, warm bed to subject you to all sorts of depraved torture.
Melodramatic? Maybe. Hyperbole? Maybe. However, it’s the closest analogy I can think of. The outside world can seem like a hostile invading force when I’m Hyperfocused on something. This results in my natural fight or flight instincts to kick in & my response is often defensive/aggressive or I shut down, essentially running away from the invading force.
What do I mean by “Shutting down”? It’s a mental withdrawal from the world. I “lose my words”, basically a serious debilitation of my verbal communication skills. I quote the phrase “lose my words” because that’s about all I can often get out at those times. There is no way I could come up with some like “serious debilitation of my verbal communication skills” when I’m shut down. As I’m sure you can guess, shutting down can be extremely frustrating for me & those around me.
I also shutdown when stress overwhelms me, retreating into a Hyperfocus on a special interest of mine is a typical response; or sleeping. This unfortunately means real world responsibilities get left unattended. Hyperfocus is like the ultimate “safe space” though. All my stress gets left behind in “the real world” & stops existing to my psyche for as long as I’m Hyperfocused.
Obviously the stress doesn’t go away. It’s like a giant tiger crouched in the shadows, it’s back end twitching side to side waiting to pounce the moment my mind comes back. If you can imagine having a 1000lb “Stress Tiger” leap at you, claws and teeth bearing down on you, then you might understand why I might want to run back to my safe space. Hunting down & killing a beast like that is not easy. What’s easy is hiding in my cave with something I love doing.
To find the strength of heart and mind to not only willingly step in front of this terrifying monster but to actively try to wrestle it into submission takes a powerful “why”. When that Tiger gets big & fierce enough, that “why” might need to be near an emergency level.
To an outside person, this can look like laziness, distraction, or forgetting. What they can’t understand is that when I become Hyperfocused I don’t “forget” to do things, those “things” literally don’t exist to my mind. You can’t say you forgot to do non-existent dishes. You don’t get distracted from doing non-existent laundry. You’re not being lazy if you don’t build non-existent shelves.
This can have potentially dangerous consequences, especially when you have kids & your kids essentially stop existing or start feeling like an invading force. It’s painful and embarrassing to admit that, but it’s important I do. Without admitting this, it would be easy to try & pretend it’s not or outright deny it is a a problem. In someways that would be easier because admitting to it just makes that big’ol Stress Tiger even more fierce, but not admitting to it isn’t an intelligent option since it has potentially dire consequences. If I admit it, I can try to mitigate it. It’s hard, but not as hard as possibly living with the consequences of not admitting it.
Today I’ve been looking after my kids on my own all afternoon. I have to be on constant self-patrol that I’m not getting sucked into a Hyperfocus. It’s very draining. I want to say more draining than for a neurotypical person, but that’s impossible to know. I just know I’ll be wiped by the time my wife gets home.
Hyperfocus isn’t all about hiding from life’s stresses. Hyperfocus is something I crave and probably need a certain amount of to maintain my mental health. That’s when I recharge the most. By taking the stress off for a bit, especially if I can Hyperfocus until I naturally break from it, my “mental muscles” get to rest & recover just like our physical muscles need rest between workouts.
To try & maintain focus for an extended period on things outside my “autistic special interests” is very much like a visit to the gym for my mind. It’s probably good for it like the gym is good for my body, but it’s still exhausting and needs regular breaks. Something I need to accept and incorporate into my life better.
Until next time, keep drinking the Kool-aid & be nice to one another.