Hyperfocus is often regarded as one of autism’s defining traits. However, are you aware that this term, by itself, is not even well-defined? This can be a challenge for parents who think that an obsessive focus on limited topics and subject matters is just another negative aspect of the condition.
More often, the problem lies in emphasizing the things that an autistic child is not doing because they are so absorbed. Some of the most common examples include being too preoccupied to notice someone entering the room or return a greeting. Others include not coming down to dinner after being called because the child is caught up in their favourite activity.
You might think that this sort of thing also happens with neurotypical children, and that the easy answer it to just firmly remind the child to set aside what they are doing. But as always, this approach forgets that an autistic child is not going to respond in the same way.
Instead, it is better to at least be more appreciative of hyperfocus in autism. This doesn’t mean that a child should keep on doing what they’re doing to their detriment. Rather, it means a softer approach to curbing their focus and even play to its strengths.
Here are just some tips that can help:
1. Work to understand their obsession.
It can be something as repetitive as stacking cans, or something as incredible as drawing. But whatever they’re focused on, try to put some effort into seeing things from their perspective.
If they can still communicate verbally, try to talk to them about it and ask what is it about the activity that they like so much. Keep your mind open and listen, no matter how strange it may seem to you.
And if they’re non-verbal, then just take a moment to observe them. You might end up noticing something that could explain why they enjoy doing something very much. It could be the sensation it has on their skin, a particular smell or a sound that they enjoy.
2. Improve sensory integration.
Without a doubt, any activity that they seem obsessed with seems to be quite a treat for both their differently wired brains as well as their senses. That said, however, it also indicates the poor integration of those senses.
The good news is that improving that integration can be another gentle way to help with a child’s ability to manage their focus. In our own Tomatis® program, for example, we use specially filtered music to improve the integration between the ear and the brain. The process exercises their ability to observe these changes and improve their ability to actively listen for when people are talking to them.
Of course, that is just one way you can use sensory integration support. Consider consulting a professional to tackle the specific issues involved in your child’s autism. Find ways to improve their use of other senses rather than just constantly suppress the ones that stimulates them the most.
3. Encourage them to develop a talent.
Instead of seeing hyperfocus as a path to distraction, see it as something that could indicate latent talents and gifts in your child. If your child seems engrossed in playing with building blocks, then encourage them to take up similar, enriching activities like teaching them cooler ways to build or some small lessons in engineering.
After all, having top focus is a key element in excellent performance so why not help a child get better at whatever it is they have the most focus on?
Today, many experts are moving past the conventional wisdom of using a tough approach to manage hyperfocus in autism. For individuals with the condition, it can serve as a key strength that is more helpful with a gentle, guiding hand.
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