Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder which tends to develop early in childhood. Typically presenting symptoms are hyperactivity, fidgeting, inattentiveness, impulsivity and distractibility, among others.
Hyperfocus and hyperfixation can be experienced by both adults and children with ADHD, though the link is considered somewhat controversial by some medical professionals. This is due to a relative lack of evidence supporting them as official symptoms, and the fact that not all people with ADHD experience these cognitive difficulties regulating attention.
But what is hyperfocus, and how does it affect children – particularly those with ADHD? In this blog post, we’ll examine more closely what hyperfocus is, and discuss how it differs from hyperfixation. We’ll consider the various ways hyperfocus can affect children, before outlining some strategies to help them manage better.
Please note: neither hyperfocus nor hyperfixation habits are exclusively ADHD-related symptoms, and links can be drawn to a number of other childhood mental health conditions, such as autism or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With that said, this post will consider hyperfocus especially as it relates to ADHD in children.
This intense absorption with a task or activity can impact a child in a number of ways. Much of what is known about hyperfocus is anecdotal and comes from observed behaviours; so, while this list is by no means exhaustive, it does present some of the common effects of hyperfocus.
When a child is hyperfocussed on their fixation, they often seem oblivious or indifferent to things happening around them. Their singular, deep concentration effectively ‘tunes out’ other movement, noises, voices (even people speaking to them), smells, and other stimuli.
Hyperfocussed children often have little perception of time moving, which is partly due to differences in how the brain perceives time. While they are engrossed with the activity, they may lose track of time, and later be unable to say if they spent 30 minutes or 3 hours performing it. Additionally, they may appear to feel like they were ‘gone’ or ‘missing’ for that time period.
The target of a child’s hyperfocus may be so consuming for them that they seem to simply ‘forget to notice’ typical bodily sensations. For example, they may not realise that they are hungry, or not eat, even if food is placed near them. Alternatively, the child may not notice that they are cold, or that they need to use the bathroom.
While carrying out the task or activity, the child’s deep and intense hyperfocus may seem interminable, almost as though they are drawing on an unlimited concentration supply. They may be unable to take themselves away from the task, with their attention remaining held until it ends, or something ‘jolts’ them out of it. In some situations this can lead to burnout. While the child may appear to be operating on unlimited resources of attention, in fact they can only expend a certain amount of energy before they become ‘burned out.’ For instance, a hyperfocussed child may lose track of time and stay up for hours past their bedtime working on homework, and this can cause extreme tiredness and burnout.
Hyperfocus is not necessarily a negative or harmful thing for the child. Conversely, it may be the case that, while hyperfocussed, they are able to carry out the task more effectively and more efficiently. For instance, a child who is hyperfocussed on an art project may be able to quickly create something of a remarkable standard; or, if their hyperfocus is centred on something like a video game, the child may be able to succeed at a surprising level of difficulty.
While hyperfocus can have an unhelpful influence on a child’s life (for instance, an apparent inattention to human relationships while spending excessive time on ‘unproductive’ activities), when applied to constructive tasks such as educational assignments or creative projects, it can be beneficial.
Parents may find that explaining hyperfocus as a part of ADHD is useful in helping their child manage better. Understanding when and how they hyperfocus can lead a child to become more aware of their concentration and distraction tendencies. This can help the parents and child to notice early warning signs, so they can put things in place to ensure they are taking advantage of enhanced productivity but also taking care of themselves and not burning out, or allowing other areas of their life to suffer.
Equally, clearly-defined schedules, or markers of routine (such as a regular dinner time or the end of a TV show) can be helpful in dealing with hyperfocus. The child will benefit from having a clear schedule that tells them what they need to focus on and for how long throughout their day, and they will be less likely to seek distractions if they are aware of the upcoming step of a specific routine.
Hyperfocus is not associated with ADHD alone, and much scientific thinking linking the two is based on anecdotal data. However, hyperfocus is a symptom that many children with ADHD can experience, and depending on how it is harnessed, can vary greatly in the way it affects the child.
If you think your child might be dealing with the symptoms of ADHD, or another mental health condition, and you’d like a professional medical assessment, book an appointment with Psymplicity Healthcare today. Our mental health specialists have helped thousands of adults and children dealing with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and OCD and we provide a warm, caring approach that facilitates effective management of challenging symptoms.
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