The Hyperfocus Myth

I recently came across a blog entry by a well-meaning psychiatrist who wanted to stress how important it is to not diagnose nonconformity as a disorder (the original blog entry is linked below). Certainly I cannot argue with that point!

However, the example she used was ADHD. In this example she attributes to the ADHD child a sense of internal focus: as if the child were simply “attending to something else” rather than the thing her parents would prefer she attend to. This is the hyperfocus myth — that in ADHD, the child is somehow focused strongly on one thing rather than another. The reality, unfortunately, is far less beautiful.

For those without ADHD, imagine if you were watching TV on a large, 50″ digital HDTV. Everyone is watching a person running across the screen. But one person is watching the same show on an old, noisy, 12″ TV. There’s just static, so their eyes are darting around the screen, trying to see the person all his friends are talking about. You would not describe him as “just attending to something else” — you would agree he’s trying and would very much like to attend to the person, but can’t find it!

*That* is the internal experience of someone with ADHD, and simply reframing it as “attending to something else” trivializes that experience and creates what I believe to be a potentially dangerous paradigm shift toward the myth of “hyperfocus” that pervades our field today. As Barkley so accurately describes it, the ADHD patient does not “hyper focus”, they “persevere.” It’s not that they are attending strongly to something else, but rather that they cannot generate enough affective signal to start focusing on something else. They are staring blankly into the screen, and would love to find the person running across the screen.


The original article can be found here:

Did Ferdinand the Bull Have ADHD?

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