The peaks and the perils of hyperfocus: a seasonal perspective

There have been sooo many improvements in my quality of self-management since realising I’m autistic and this year especially. For instance, I realise that setting boundaries has to improve, now I know I’m autistic, because they are far more important to me than to most. At a time of year when being sociable is almost a prerequisite of the season, this is so important to remember and an interesting experiment, being my first year of feeling so fully informed.

However, today my big topic is the autistic trait of “hyperfocus” with all its glorious ups and downs; always an interesting juxtaposition with the season!

Finding this trait in myself, in many spade loads, pre-arms me for this season and also for the end point of the year, as stresses and strains tend to bottleneck at this point (for all of us, autistic or not). Because of this tendency to hyperfocus on my interests and projects, I also tend to get incredibly deep and borderline obsessively into something and then push and push myself to the expense of all else. In fact I get hyper-energised by doing this (a mark of my ADHD, which is the other…sometimes contrary…aspect of my neurodivergence) so that, when I am in the middle of hyperfocus, it feels sustainable and I don’t see the hazards mounting.

Part of this is because it can be hugely addictive to hyperfocus to this degree (in essence, I use it to “stim”) but also because, when I’m in it, I tend to assume it’s all manageable or that it’s worth it. Every time it happens, I honestly believe that, when the end comes, I can easily recover myself and catch up on my need to breathe before starting something else. Please bear in mind, though I seldom do, that I typically hyperfocus on many more than just one interest or project at a time so this is hugely unfeasible and yet I still tell myself I’m doing fine and can cope.

The reality is, I have a lifelong tendency of using burnout as my brakes; as in, that crash-wall I hit against is sometimes the only way I know how to stop or take time out. I’m incredibly black and white in my thinking, so I’m either all in it or all out and, if I happen to be “in” to something, I give it all of my attention without ever having properly developed the ability, or the motivations, to stop. Taking pause or factoring in breaks is seldom my natural priority unless I enforce this kind of thinking. There’s also a big part of me that, from precedent, tends to think a certain kind of genius or inspiration comes from times when I give it all I’ve got and push my fixation to the limits against some sense of deadline (and it’s true, it has sometimes got me extraordinary results). Its very hard to unlearn this, later in life and part of me simply doesn’t want to because of (as before) the sense of generating my own energy it gives me. It rewards me to be under pressure so why would I stop!

So, in a way, I’ve just come to expect a wall to appear when I absolutely need to stop (since it always does), and because I believe this I tend to race all the more in order to get what I want done before that inevitably happens which, of course, only increases the impact and the dire consequences when I inevitably hit it and slide down once again into burnout. There’s that phrase about ADHD; that we are like a racing car with bicycle brakes…well, after years of that, you tend to ditch the brakes and wait for the obstruction to come along.

It’s a no-brainer how this all relates to chronic health issues and fatigue; if not the absolute cause then a major source of its fuel.

Because of my recently recognised autism, I’ve now realised how much I really need some sense of balance in my life and, also, to cultivate the ability to switch off. These are things I have to constantly work at as they don’t come naturally; in other words, I have to constantly persist at achieving them, far more than I ever realised before seeing my neurodivergence in the spotlight, thus it’s work in progress but I’m making headway.

For instance, I notice now Christmas is here that a big part of my struggle with the season is the need to interrupt my normal hyperfocus tendencies in order to change my routines, to play host to family and be fully present with them as the season demands. In a nutshell, all of my interests and routines get derailed and there’s not much I can do about it except grin and bare the discombobulation!

I can’t just ignore my husband being off work and my daughter coming home…and its not that I want to either; however this conflict of interests doesn’t arise from a choice but a compulsion to spend time in my own little world, thus it doesn’t come naturally for me to switch to these behaviours. Before I became conscious of my autism, it was as though a subliminal wrestling match would play out every year between what I should be doing and a sort of bubbling undercurrent of resentment and dread at having to surrender my hyperfocus tendencies for the Christmas duration.

Even as a child, I would withdraw from the typical family dynamics to “do my own things” in my head and pursuing my own interests and fixations. In fact, looking back in detail, as I’ve been doing a lot lately since digging out my old diaries, I can recall experiencing such conflicted emotions going on internally, including deep sadness, whenever I (frequently) withdrew to my bedroom with my books or to listen to music at Christmas whilst other family members gathered merrily downstairs, or, during the many times when I forced myself to join in and, though part of me wanted to be there, I still felt such a compelling need to get back to my own interests that I would often try to lose myself in them, even in a room full of people which you would think would make it next to impossible yet I could somehow create a sort of bubble and lose myself in it, even in a noisy and chaotic space. But then I would often end up feeling bad and sad, or somehow wrong-footed and desolate in my own separateness when it was all over and I knew I hadn’t properly joined in. I would get just so caught up in all the magic and the mystery of the season (in fact these aspects would affect me the most, stirring my soul), would feel all the intense emotions converging all around me and through me and yet feel so oddly and precariously annexed to it all; as though there but not part of the main unit.

So I was that kid who took a pile of stuff, especially reading and writing materials, to the relatives’ house and sat in a corner and now I do the same thing (write constant notes) only its now tapped into an app but that’s not the real point; which is that my thoughts are usually very deep and many miles away from what is “going on” at the surface. In short, surface level isn’t my strong suit and I don’t spend a lot of time there so, when I have to, it feels so alien I’m almost spooked by it and it can really rock my boat. Its also not that I don’t care about my separateness; in fact, being the consummate observer of other people, I have been painfully aware of how other people mesh together, and how I somehow don’t, all my life and yet felt utterly helpless to do anything about it, wishing I was made differently. Christmas has a tendency to be the salt in that particular wound.

I continued to struggle with this conflict of expectation and desire all the more during the hands-on years of parenting two kids, my own sensitive daughter plus a stepchild who brought a very different dynamic to the house, since a very big part of me needs my solitary time and to engross myself in interests that are unique to me and not all that translatable to others. I need this like other people need air to breathe, come what may, or I fall apart. I have to be able withdraw into my projects and not feel obligated to share them with, or curtail them for, any other person. My rich, deep inner life accounts for most of who I am, not some addendum, yet for years I was meant to become this surface operator…and it was hard!

In order to engage at all with something as social as Christmas, I tend to have to turn the event into another area of hyperfocus, meaning I can get really “into” the whole project of planning and arranging, which then used to confuse me given that, after all that investment I made in all the preparations, I was the one to least enjoy what unfolded (because the project itself meant more to me than the execution of the social gathering) and of course my perfectionist would run riot plus I had no scope for flexibility and could become such a control-freak, not to mention quickly knocked sideways if people didn’t react the way I had rehearsed in my head. I also find it so hard how people take my delivery wrong; often assumed to be too blunt, too dogmatic or loud-speaking or too something else because this is just how I am when I’m having to work so hard to get a point across but it can wear me very thin after a few such reactions, the more so if I’ve invested very much energy into being the perfect host or trying to join in (its as though people think I have no feelings, because of the way I “seem”, when I actually have a surfeit of them under the surface and am really very sensitive to how others react to me). At least now I know all of this is is just the nature of autism, not some dark personality flaw. I see why all these misunderstandings now. In fact, it turns out that I’m not all that weird at all…amongst other autistic people, and that comes with such relief!

The antidote isn’t for me to bob up from below the surface of my current fixation only to expect to launch into a long wordy monologue about whatever’s on my mind to whoever is prepared to sit still long enough to listen. In fact those monologues (another classic traits of autism to which I am prone) are the clue my mind never really left my inner world to be with the other person. I now realise I need to actively change track and listen to what other people have to say for a change when I’m with them; not my natural turf but if I care about them (which I must do if I’m spending time with them) then I can work at this, now I see my foible clearly. Before I knew I was autistic, this was a real blind spot because I really wasn’t aware I was being any different to anyone else since everyone tends to talk about their “thing”; but its the degree of hyperfocus and persistence I tend towards, without always picking up social cues of boredom or total lack of interest, that is the tricky area. Now I try to overcompensate for it by holding back my urge to launch a tirade of words and giving others more floor space and attention than ever. Which is pretty much what I did as a kid (I was so withdrawn around people I was assumed to be shy) only this time I plan to actually listen more and not get my crayons out!

Also, perhaps this year I can bear to change my routine without the typical, previously misunderstood, meltdowns or the constant feeling I’m about to have one on the inside (only narrowly avoided by using up all my resources to hold myself in check, which then makes social engagement even more exhausting than I already find it to be). Now I’m aware of my autism I can have compassion for just how difficult changes in routines, expectations and exposures can be, even when they’re positive ones, and I can then be aware of the sizeable gap I have to bridge in order to make this viable for me. I need the punctuation of regular and predictable (sacrosanct) time on my own, every day, and there’s no need of apology for that (I finally realise). I may have to compromise a bit… as I’ve always ended up doing…but now without all the self-blame or misunderstanding as to my motivation; I’m not being horrible or not caring, its just the way I am wired and its hard for me to do different to what my brain is (and isn’t…such as small talk!) programmed to do. People will just have to learn to accept autistic me, as I am finally learning to do.

As Christmas launches, there’s no mistaking this feeling I now notice building inside me (as well as an awareness that I am starting to hold my breath for prolonged periods and to lock my muscles into tension, inching closer to overwhelm before its even started) as though bracing myself for all the additional company and the high expectations of the season. It’s like getting ready to jump from a plane, hoping my parachute will open and that I will remember how to put my feet down and land gracefully as I know I’ve been told to so many times but the instinct to do so isn’t natural for me; every step of this social season, if well-rehearsed, is learned by rote and not from instinct, which is where my strengths lie. Yet, in a sense, I have never been so well-equipped as “now I know” about autism.

Normally, I would dig even deeper into my inner realms in order to cope but now I wonder whether its possible that, if I can guide my focus towards less intense yet no-less sacrosanct pursuits that hold my focus and which I can inoffensively enjoy at certain predictable times of day, I might also be able to turn my focus more fully outward at other times. If I can remain simultaneously aware of the subplot as to why I’m feeling triggered or potentially triggering others (autism!) then perhaps I am better positioned to pull the fuse out of the feeling before it blows up in anyone’s face. I can self advocate for my needs yet still be there for others for as long as the season requires before, almost inevitably, throwing myself back into my hyperfocus areas with all new vigour in January. In fact, that is the promise that gets me through it all.

Yet (new year’s resolution of sorts) what I do hold out hope for, this time, is the elimination of a need for a crash-wall to slow me down or stop me from now on. If I can learn to apply my own brakes better, and more often, then perhaps I can cease crashing, or burning out at all; or at least I can but hope!

This is because, though I can’t ever change my autism (nor would I want to) I now have some agency over these traits; for instance, the ways I get stuck in my fixations and comfortable habits and where these aren’t always great for my own well-being or my relationships with others. I see where I could strive to stretch my habits and adapt them, at least some of the time, whilst gaining some natural pauses in my otherwise headstrong intensity so that I don’t burn myself out repeatedly or rely on a heinous level of pressure always being there to drum up the kind of energy that feeds me; in fact, perhaps I can find healthier sources of energy and motivation than pressure and stress. It’s still early days but who knows how all this could offer some respite from some of the ingrained trains of behaviour that haven’t always served me as well as they could.

The point I am trying to make here to anyone in the early stages of coming to terms with autism is that learning about your autistic traits can be such a blessing and an opportunity for self-compassion and better self-understanding, also for learning new ropes to help cope with situations that have long generated struggle or burnout. I hope this post can be a nugget of hope or inspiration for anyone else walking the territory, wondering what they can possibly get out of knowing, and wearing, their autism more openly (to themselves and others). For me, this past year of fully donning the “outfit” of what it means to be autistic has been the most empowering process of my life!

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