ADHD Hyperfocus: An Oxymoron?

Are children and adults with ADHD able to hyperfocus better than those without ADHD?

I am often asked this question in my clinical practice as it seems to contradict the notion that these individuals have an “attention” disorder. If they have such difficulty focusing, how can they sometimes seem to hyper-focus on what they are doing better than their peers or colleagues?

Understanding ADHD hyperfocus

The answer to this question requires a nuanced standing of the nature of ADHD and where the attention problems come from. Specifically, it has been established in research for the past several decades that ADHD does not mean difficulty paying attention, but rather difficulty regulating attention.

In one formulation of regulation deficit understanding, the cognitive-energetic model (CEM) suggests that attentional deficits in ADHD are caused by an under or over-activation of an optimal energetic state. When the individual engages in a task while there are competing stimuli for their attention, they struggle to maintain focus on the task they are doing because they cannot regulate how much energy to divert to that task. This can be caused by visual distractions such as phones or “pop ups”, or internal distractions (e.g. wondering “Who won the playoff game” while working on homework).

They quickly lose focus because they cannot control how much mental energy they devote to the task. However, this can also work in the opposite manner in which they allocate too much energy towards a particular task, and thereby become overly engrossed in it. An entrepreneur with ADHD might get lost in the details of a marketing plan and focus on it for hours, forgetting other commitments or appointments because they have devoted all of their mental energy to the task. This may give them an edge in the long run as they accomplish more, but it can also lead to disastrous outcomes.

Outside of the theoretical explanation, is it really true that individuals with ADHD experience hyperfocus more often?

Research has been mixed on whether ADHD children do in fact experience a higher frequency of these hyperfocusing episodes. Some studies confirmed the impression that many parents and adults have in which their ADHD children appear to have a special ability to focus when engaged in specific tasks, giving them an edge over other children while others do not.

The discrepant findings in the research have been hypothesized to be related to differing definitions of hyperfocus. Some researchers defined it as a “period of complete engagement in a task accompanied by failure to notice time and the world”, while others highlight difficulty in stopping and switching tasks or particular enjoyment in the engagement of the task.

Given the nature of ADHD, it makes sense that these various definitions may impact the experience for specific individuals. For example, a child with ADHD might have difficulty stopping an enjoyable task or keeping track of the time they are devoting to it. This can be particularly problematic if the task is inherently enjoyable and provides constant feedback for their responses (e.g. video games). This also may explain why some researchers have found that the periods of hyperfocusing experienced by individuals with ADHD are less common in educational settings than in other settings when compared to non-ADHD individuals.

As of yet there is still more research to be completed on this subject.

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