Hyperfocus: A New Symptom of Attention Deficit?

While most of us are familiar with some of the problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – such as an inability to focus, daydreaming, avoiding mental tasks, etc. – another aspect of the attention deficit that people are less familiar with is hyperfocus.  Hyperfocus is the ability to effectively work and focus for hours at a time, but only on topics of interest.  Whether it is reading the latest Harry Potter book, playing World of Warcraft, or participating in a basketball game, we (and our children) have all had experience with hyperfocus at one time or another. However, as Child Mind Institute reports in a recent blog post, focusing intently isn’t always a good thing for people with attention deficit:

People with ADD can pay super attention, but when they’re not interested their mind goes somewhere else …  Many kids (and adults) with the disorder are perfectly capable of losing themselves in intense focus on things that interest them—sometimes to the exclusion of “things that aren’t interesting for them to do but are important for them to do.”

CC Image courtesy of MattMawson on Flickr
CC Image courtesy of MattMawson on Flickr

The problem is clearly not with having good or bad attention, the problem is with the regulation of attention. However, Child Mind Institute neuropsychologist Dr. Rosenthal states that individuals with ADHD will often “get into something and that thing is so rewarding for them that it’s hard for them to shift their attention to something else.”

The question then is whether this is due to issues with attention regulation or simply a lack of rewards in other areas?

Gamification and Feedback Systems

Lack of rewards is a particularly relevant topic in education these days and gamification is a growing area that we as school psychologists need to be aware of. In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal argues that the feedback system in games provides the necessary rewards we may lack in everyday life. We can see that this idea is already being implemented – the comic-building educational software Bitstrips for Schools has been licensed to all publicly funded schools in Ontario.

Attention Regulation with E-Coaching

In addition to rewards, for people with attention deficits, help with regulation is still often needed. One of the more recent approaches to attention regulation is e-coaching. E-coaching (sometimes referred to as ADHD coaching) utilizes the power of accountability and goal setting. In this model, a professional coach will meet with the client via phone or Skype to set goals, organize and structure what needs to be done for the week. Then throughout the week, the client will stay accountable to the coach for their successes and failures through frequent texts or emails.