Hyperfocus: ADHDs Long Lost Twin Brother

stare at the screen for hours, boy staring at screen

Hyperfocus is something that anyone who has a child with ADHD will easily recognize as one of the hallmarks of the disorder. It’s what you call it when your child is so sucked into watching what’s on his computer screen that he doesn’t hear you when you ask him a question, addressing him by name. It’s what you call it when YOU have ADHD and you suddenly hear someone calling your name repeatedly in an exasperated tone of voice, and you realize you totally zoned her out because you were concentrating so intently on the Powerpoint presentation you’re creating for a work project.

So what’s up with the subject line? If we all know about it, and acknowledge it exists, why would anyone call it lost, let alone a “twin brother” considering it’s part and parcel of the ADHD experience?

Hyperfocus Isn’t Listed

First of all, hyperfocus is not listed as a symptom of ADHD in the DSM-5 criteria. Second of all, because it doesn’t seem to make sense. If Attention Deficit is about not being able to focus on the matter at hand, whether in the classroom, or during a conversation with a parent, how can it be that being focused like laser on a given endeavor is “attention deficit?” Does that even make sense?

Daydreaming female student
She’s a million miles away because geography bores her to tears.

Actually, it does. A person with ADHD is unable to pay attention to things the way a regular person does. He may not be able to keep up with a teacher’s instructions, processing the thing she said earlier way later than the other kids, and while processing that, missing what she said later on.

Hmm. Let me rephrase that. The teacher says, “Everyone please turn to page 187 in your history book.”

Everyone turns to page 187 in his history book except for the student with ADHD. He can’t immediately translate what he hears into any meaningful form. He works hard to concentrate, trying to parse out the sentence and glean its meaning.

Meantime, the teacher has already gone on with her lesson. She has said, “Take out your pencils and underline every date on the page.”

The students obey. That is, except for the student with ADHD who hasn’t heard her, so intent is he on figuring out what she said about what page to turn to in what book was that exactly???

Then the teacher says, “What is the earliest date you see on the page,” and hands shoot up all over the classroom.  That is, except for Bobby’s hand. Bobby has ADHD.

The teacher says, “Bobby! Why isn’t your hand up? Do you even know what page we’re on?”

And that’s when Bobby finally understands: Ooooooh! We were supposed to turn to page 187 in the history book. NOW I get it.

It’s nasty to be in that position. Nasty and frustrating.

He isn’t hearing a thing. He’s totally focused on that screen. Go ahead, call his name. He won’t hear.

Hyperfocus, on the other hand, is the other side of the ADHD coin. It’s yet another manifestation of the ADHD personality, the inability to focus in the way that other people do. With ADHD it’s a matter of feast or famine, all or nothing. Either totally zoned in on one thing to the exclusion of everything else (God forbid, the fire alarm goes off while your kid is in hyperfocus at the family PC), or completely unable to focus on the subject at hand or process the information received well enough and quickly enough to act on it —such as a teacher’s instructions to the classroom.

So okay, you’re wondering, wouldn’t hyperfocus, sometimes be a boon to the person with ADHD? A positive aspect of what is a very annoying, frustrating, and inconvenient deficit? The answer is an unqualified yes.

In fact, Richard A. Friedman, in an op-ed he penned for the New York Times, refers to hyperfocus as a “natural fix” for ADHD. Those with ADHD, says Friedman, are built to find most everything boring, so they must constantly engage in “novelty-seeking” or looking for something that interests them.  Friedman posits that what we think of as a “disease” is really “a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.”

Friedman then goes on to tell the reader about a patient of his, a woman who was always thrill-seeking, the kind of person who loves alcohol and wild roller coaster rides.

She should be painting.
She should be painting.

One of my patients, a young woman in her early 20s, is prototypical. “I’ve been on Adderall for years to help me focus,” she told me at our first meeting. Before taking Adderall, she found sitting in lectures unendurable and would lose her concentration within minutes. Like many people with A.D.H.D., she hankered for exciting and varied experiences and also resorted to alcohol to relieve boredom. But when something was new and stimulating, she had laserlike focus. I knew that she loved painting and asked her how long she could maintain her interest in her art. “No problem. I can paint for hours at a stretch.”

Rewards like sex, money, drugs and novel situations all cause the release of dopamine in the reward circuit of the brain, a region buried deep beneath the cortex. Aside from generating a sense of pleasure, this dopamine signal tells your brain something like, “Pay attention, this is an important experience that is worth remembering.”

Adderall and other psychostimulants, such as Ritalin, work by stopping the transport of dopamine to the neurons which means more of this good stuff remains available to the brain. But, suggests Friedman, the person with ADHD can essentially “heal” himself by engaging in activities he enjoys. For instance, a woman who loves painting should not be sitting in an office cubicle answering phones for some large, faceless conglomerate. She should be PAINTING.

Here is someone who should be working with flowers, and NOT stuck in an office cubicle crunching numbers.
Here is someone who should be working with flowers, and NOT stuck in an office cubicle crunching numbers.

That is where she can use her natural hyperfocus to increase the dopamine in her brain so that she can actually enjoy life and what she does with her natural, innate talent! Keep her in that cubicle and she’s bound to make costly mistakes and end up fired and looking for work AGAIN.

So how can you use hyperfocus to improve your child’s future? Find out what he loves and make sure he has plenty of it in his life. If it’s music, let him hyperfocus on Beethoven’s Fifth, on composing, on recording, any aspect of music that he enjoys. Discover your child’s gifts to discover the natural way to a better, more fulfilling life!

What does your child love to do above all else—the thing that can keep him focused for hours? Tell us in the comments section, below.



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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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