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.