Hyperfocus and obsession

One trait that is shared by a lot of people on the autistic spectrum is that of being able to hyperfocus on something which is fascinating to us. When I am interested in something, I can spend up to 10 hours at a time obsessively researching it and everything related to it. I believe that it is this trait that allows us to retain so much information about our obsessions and spend so much time on them.

A lot of people who aren’t on the spectrum don’t fully comprehend the level of concentration and time that we dedicate to our obsessions. I have met a lot of people who say that they are obsessed with something-a particular TV show or a band, but actually can’t retain half as much information as I would be able to if I was obsessed with the same thing. I guess it’s a fundamental difference between how people on the spectrum class as an obsession versus how people who aren’t on the spectrum class it.

Several people have asked me in the past how I can concentrate on researching something for such an extended period of time. My answer is that I see it from a different perspective. To most people, researching topics seems tedious and boring (and indeed I find research boring when it is based around a topic that I have little or no interest in) but, to me, when I am researching a topic that I am obsessed with, I don’t see it as work-I enjoy it and see it as fun. I can get so absorbed in what I am researching that hours can go by between when I look at the clock. Even in the days before wireless Internet, I used to spend hours poring through Mothercare catalogues memorising all the different models of pushchairs available in their High Street stores. I was six years old when I had this obsession and I could hold my concentration around the topic of pushchairs far longer than the average six year old.

Hyperfocus can also be a highly useful trait in the field of academia. When I was interested in the topic of a particular essay, I never needed to spend a little bit of time on it each day-I would just research it avidly and then write it in about an hour and a half. I know that the same can’t be said for everyone with Aspergers and that some people with the condition really struggle to focus themselves academically but, for some of us, hyperfocus is a gift that enables us to achieve well academically.

I want to push the point here that hyperfocus is not solely the preserve of those of us on the higher functioning end of the spectrum. It may present itself in a different way in people who are more severely affected by autism but it is still there. The stereotypical example of a child with autism spinning a particular object for hours on end-that is an example of hyperfocus. They get so “in the zone” that hours can pass with them still doing the same activity. Yes, this would be classified as a self stimulatory behaviour but the sheer length of time they dedicate to this activity indicates hyperfocus and it should be understood as such. Just because it may not be seen as beneficial to the world in the same way that an autistic lecturer’s knowledge on his or her specialist subject is, it does not mean that their ability to focus on something for an extended period of time should be doubted. 

There is also what I call the negative side of hyperfocus and this is when it is related to something that you actually have little interest in. An example from my personal life is the tendency that my mind has to hyperfocus on emotions and analyse all the previous occasions when I have made social mistakes and then realised them later. My mind will hone in on one particular incident and go through it in exruciating detail. This is what I refer to as “over thinking” and it is the part of the personality that causes depression and anxiety in a lot of people with Aspergers. There is actually no scientific proof that it is related to the trait of hyperfocus but that’s what I believe from my personal experience.

Overall, though, I love my ability to hyperfocus on topics which are interesting to me. It means that I never get bored as there is always something to be done. I can spend entire days reading topics on Internet forums and blogs that many may view as time wasting but, for me, it is a hobby and one which I enjoy immensely. I just need to learn how to rein it in sometimes!

Please consider that obsessions you may simply view as a waste of time and energy are enjoyable to people on the autistic spectrum. They may be stranger than the average hobbies but that does not mean that you have the right to mock people for being interested in them. Obsessions often stop people on the spectrum from feeling miserable and this is a viewpoint that I have seen a lot online. Nobody has the right to take away somebody’s source of happiness as long as it is legal and harmless-please remember that next time you want to take somebody’s obsession away from them.


18 Responses to Hyperfocus and obsession

  1. Marcus says:

    Wow, I didn’t expect to find a blog on hyperfocusing written by someone else with aspergers. I struggle severely with it, and I can’t get my brain to focus on anything that I need it to. I recently, ironically enough, got to focusing on hyperfocusing and have been researching it, even more ironically, for a few hours now. Too bad we can’t just switch it on or off and direct it to certain tasks. If we could do that, all of us with aspergers would have so many less problems.

  2. Corey says:

    I have the exact same problem as above. To add to the irony, I have also been obsessively researching hyperfocus in an attempt to better understand my new Asperger’s diagnosis. I struggle with hyperfocus, but I often find that the my only issue with it is the fact that the rest of the world demands my attention to so many different things. The only complaint I have about my tendency to hyperfocus is the overwhelming desire to be able to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can. I wish I could just lay my head to a book and absorb it via osmosis, because it seems as if I can never learn ot fast enough. There’s always something that forces me to have to divert my attention. And that is one of the most frustrating feelings I experience.

  3. They covered this on Scorpion which is being shown on ITV at the moment. Its a shown based on Walter O Brien who has an IQ of 197. ‘Going down the rabbit hole’ is a place that is wonderful and only thought exists but you forget to eat you are so obsessed and talk gibberish. You have to be snapped out which might take a while. This can be quite dangerous for your well being.

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  5. James says:

    I don’t have an official diagnosis, but this article hits home for me incredibly accurately. You may have helped me more than anything else I’ve read about ASD. Thank you.

  6. It’s such a comfort knowing that others also have this blessing and curse. …. Now what do we do about it, so that we can accomplish other equally important things, like earning a living, or staying employed when the job may become terribly boring after a few months?

    • sjmarsh2013 says:

      I’m afraid I can’t be of much help there as I have always worked in my area of obsession (learning disabilities) and have never had a boring days work. I do appreciate how lucky I am in this regard though xx

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  9. Alex K. Chen says:

    isn’t executive function often compromised during hyperfocus?

    • sjmarsh2013 says:

      Yes it can be. I know of people who get so into something that they neglect to shower or groom themselves until their task is completed. Like I said, it has its downsides but can also be a brilliant trait.

  10. Katrina Weston says:

    Thanku for writing this im recently diognosed aspi n am currently absorbed sooo much in my new found hobby that it all kiked off last night with my hubby of 17 years .he says im here but not here as im soooo absorbed by researching and doing my new hobby to the point its all i think about 24/7 help please

  11. Katrina Weston says:

    Ok hun thanku .my obsession is pottery @trina333 my creative clay creations on facebook .i think pottery 24/7 like nothing else exists n i cant stop .my attention to detail is obsessive only been doing it 10 months n just want to be the best

    • sjmarsh2013 says:

      You sound like a very creative person-it’s good to have that creative outlet. What is it that your husband gets angry about? When you work on it or when you talk about it? Maybe setting an hour or so every day for time just the 2 of you (pottery free zone) May help. It’s tough when your loved ones don’t share your obsession but I hope things work out for you xx

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