Hyperfocus and Autistic Inertia, A Blissful Relationship
Let’s discuss the definitions of these terms heard frequently around the neurodiverse community: hyperfocus and inertia. Hyperfocus characterizes profound and intense concentration observed in certain individuals with ADHD. ADHD doesn’t solely denote an attention deficit; instead, it signifies difficulties in managing one’s attention span concerning tasks they wish to engage with.
According to Pete Wharmby, an Autistic bestselling author from the United Kingdom, “Autistic inertia is the name we give to the peculiar phenomenon of autistic people (on the whole – as with all else, this is not entirely universal) struggling to change task, direction, or focus. Even when we want to. The idea is that I might, say, want to go for a walk. I am able to, and there is nothing blocking this modest ambition. But I just can’t. For some reason, my brain won’t let me commit to it. I cannot bring myself to stand up, put my shoes on, and open the door. It is a bit like procrastination – that inability to do the washing up because it’s boring and there are a billion things you’d rather do – only far stronger and also far less logical.”
Why talk about these two things? Are they the same thing? I mention them because I tend to think of them both almost as superpowers. But like superpowers, they are not typically “always on” they require a power-up.
If I had an instruction manual, I imagine one of the warning labels would read something like: Do not interrupt during spin cycle, all ability to function in organized creative critical thinking will be lost.
I have been told that I have an amazing ability to be creative, organized, and critically think about advanced concepts. I have demonstrated my ability to do it many times over. But it is not a switch that can be forced on or abruptly switched off. I am very adept creatively, often coming up with ideas and perspectives that are considerably different than my peers. The feedback I have received has always been that I am extremely creative and innovative. Yet, these superpowers require much preparation and environmental stimulation, or lack thereof. What do I mean?
The environment I need to create, and problem-solve is very specific to my ability to hyperfocus in a place where I am comfortable and uninterrupted. I cannot hear conversations going on in the background, shuffling of papers or feet. I must be in a place of silence with only a fan or music that I have heard a hundred times going on in the background. I must not be warm, sweaty, hot, tired, annoyed, exhausted, or rushed. The room’s light must be warm and soft, not oppressive and bright. The room should be approximately 70 degrees in temperature. My seating arrangement must be comfortable, and my mind must be clear of distractions, and I can’t be hungry.
If I reach this state, which most often occurs in solitude, I will impress even the most brilliant of minds. I have the ability to hyperfocus and create solutions for complex problems, outline how to train others to do the same thing, and organize a plan of action to complete the goal. If I reach this state, I have been known to only take restroom breaks and work 10 uninterrupted hours until I have reached a place of perfection where the only tasks that remain are simple and can be completed without complex thought. I will tell you after these periods of intense creativity, I come alive, and afterward, my soul feels full.
In a way, I wish I could live in this space all the time because it is clear, calm, and collected. It’s just incredibly hard to reach this ability. I have to power myself up to do it. I have to address all of the environmental distractions, including parenting neurodiverse children, and controlling lighting and temperature which is not always easy and never seems to happen when I am at the office. Even though I
brought in my own lamp, the distractions of sharing the space won’t allow my brain to reach the feeling of solitude and discovery necessary for hyper-focusing.
I am still capable of completing tasks and being an effective employee without hyperfocus, I am just not able to tap into the ability to solve complex problems without being able to hyperfocus. Most problems are not complex, so my abilities are usually sufficient, however, I long for a career that enables me to reach my superpower’s full potential.
This feeling and energy are very common for people who are neurodiverse, and I truly wish more employers understood the benefits of employing individuals with these abilities. One of the most commonly reported problems by neurodiverse staff is being placed in high-traffic areas in their work environments that prohibit them from being able to reach their potential hyperfocus abilities. During Neurodiversity Celebration Week in March 2023, many of the Autistic speakers in panels for higher education and workforce development noted how important questioning led to the creation of more neuro-inclusive space. Offering appropriate accommodations is necessary and individual-specific for those who are ADHD or Autistic-identifying individuals.
In next month’s blog, I will discuss some of the accommodations I have received and the specific sensory issues that I have to attend to.