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Hyperfocus and Aspergers

Posted Sep 08 2008 12:00am
One of the unusual abilities that aspies have is " Hyper-Focus . Like all aspie traits, hyperfocus is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand when combined with the special interest and aspie long-term memory, it is responsible for the genius label as it applies to apsies. On the other, it's responsible for many learning and obedience issues with Asperger's children.

Hyperfocus is commonly found in Asperger's children who also have the ADD/ADHD comorbid.

Hyperfocus and ADHD/ADD
In recent years, the definitions of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) have merged, in the medical sense under the banner of ADHD.

Personally, I'm not keen on this merging of diagnosis because while the two share similar definitions, there are some fundamental differences between them.

While both ADHD and ADD children have, by definition, attention issues, the hyperactive child is more likely to have attention problems due to hyperactivity itself while the ADD child is more likely to have a hyperfocus problem.

Consider the differences between between

  1. A child who does not respond when his name is called because he is distracted or is shouting and jumping from chair to chair.

  2. A child who is intently starring at a spinning wheel, or playing with some lego bricks and does not respond when his name is repeatedly called.

Hyperfocus is possibly the cause of the problem only in the second case.

Hyperfocus and Discipline
One of the basic tenants of positive parenting and positive schooling is that the obedient child should be rewarded. In school for example, a child who is obviously paying attention will receive a reward while one who is not may be rebuked or simply ignored. This technique is generally quite effective with neurotypical children.

Unfortunately, this technique does not work with hyper-focussed children who go into daydream state (or "zone out") automatically. Zoning out is not disobedience. This child is not trying to be naughty - they just happen to go into that state automatically.

The best remedy for these children is for the teacher to work more closely with them and for more one-on-one time to be allocated. In schools, this isn't always practical and hyperfocused children can often miss out on necessary attention and can fall behind. Often, such children are labelled "slow" and are put into remedial classes simply because they lack the ability to remain "on-task".

Making use of Hyperfocus
Hyperfocus has a lot of advantages. It allows one to think more abstractly and with greater complexity. It is a particularly useful skill to have when you need to be able to model complex systems or think in an extremely logical manner (for computer programming). In the adult world, hyperfocus allows aspies to deal with excessive levels of detail while still retaining a top-down approach.

Aspies tend to hyperfocus mainly on their special interests and they are able to take in and process large amounts of related information as a result.

The best way to make use of hyperfocus in primary school children is to attempt to line their work up with their special interests whenever possible.

For example, if your child's special interest is trains, then giving them sentences to write about trains or mathematics problems regarding carriages, train sizes or weights or giving them scientific projects on the use of electricity or steam in trains will allow the child to use their special interest to further their normal learning.

Psychiatric Recognition of Hyperfocus
The DSM-IV manual used to diagnose autism, aspergers and other mental disorders does not recognise hyperfocus at all. Only the symptoms of hyperfocus are discussed.
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