Something many autistics struggle with is FOCUS.
Parents with autistic children ask me: “Why can’t my kid focus?” “Why can they focus on one thing and not others?” “How do I get them to give all school subjects equal focus?”.
Adults on the spectrum ask, “Why can’t I get motivated to do [subject/ work]?”, “Why I am terrible at sticking with something?”, “How do I stop procrastinating?”
All these questions point to one thing:
I know. As soon as someone says your kid (or you) have “focus issues”, there are raised eyebrows and accusations of other conditions, communicated in a derogatory fashion- “do you have ADHD?” or you get comments like, “You seem a bit bipolar”.
Don’t be confused here. The “problem” autistics experience is not that they lack the ability to focus, but rather that they are continuously hyper-stimulated in their ability to focus.
Remember, we autistics experience the world at full-volume: 100%.
The “problem” about focus
If something is interesting, everything and everyone outside that laser-focus is ignored. At school, that means autistic kids may ignore the teacher; you may ignore your boss or your parents… This also happens to me in my love relationship a lot. I get so involved in my work that I complete exclude my partner. I ignore SMSes, calls, and when Z. is in the house, I can shut myself off from him emotionally. It’s not malicious. It’s simply that everything outside the focus loses importance. This laser-focus can make autistics seem to “disappear”. The interesting thing is the focus. Nothing else. Then after a number of hours your autistic will reappear and are starving because the focus has replaced the need for food, or they are exhausted because the focus has replaced the need to sleep. Eh, I digress.
To neurotypicals (people not on the Spectrum), consider autistic-focus like this: You know when are “in the zone” and you get loads done? That special kind of experience doesn’t happen much, but when it happens you feel great. Now, imagine being “in the zone” all the time. You can get heaps done, but also by the nature of being “in the zone”, you will reject everything outside of your focus. Now, imagine that everywhere you look, you see everything with that “in the zone” ability. What do you focus on? What do you choose to do?
Need for Harmony
In my experience (lived, observational and working) with autism, it seems many autistics view their relational world as a system which needs to be harmonious. The need for internal harmony is exceptionally important. This homeostasis need, or striving for ‘universal balance’ means that autistics tend to create structures within their world that bring order and maintain calm. By the way, this is where the desire for routine comes in. Now, the issue of focus is such that autistics often have difficulty prioritizing stuff. Our internal harmony needs always come first. Internal harmony needs are not to be confused with basic human needs. What maintains harmony in our own individual worlds is a completely personal and transitory experience.
The problem with getting outside-world things done (like meeting a deadline/ doing schoolwork/ getting to an appointment on time) is that the need for internal harmony takes precedence. Given enough time, however, outside-world things do get it done. Deadlines, generally, are frustrating to most autistics because of these focus issues. That is– No autistic likes to be told, “you MUST [be somewhere/ do something]”. That outside element of “must” is horrifying. If we create our own rules, it’s universal law and internal harmony, but if the rule or demand comes from outside, therein lies the challenge! (Consider theory of mind)
“We are doing something very intensely, but to the outside world, it seems like we’re doing nothing”
This inner world/ outer world struggle is something that autistics continuously re-evaluate. For example, autistics are sometimes misinterpreted as “doing nothing” or being distracted over “pointless” things. Rather, we are doing something very intensely, but to the outside world, it seems like we’re doing nothing.
The outside world (neurotypicals) do not see what we see. So, quite understandably, if I were to I spend a whole day at home, micro-adjusting the pillows on my couch, most people not on the Spectrum would view that behaviour as A) crazy; B) a waste of time; C) pointless; D) incomprehensible. However, in the autistic world, that intense pillows-adjustment has now enabled me to maintain inner-world homeostasis. By maintaining my inner structures, I can now spend a measly 3 hours working on an assessment, where I write 5,000w in perfect academic prose. Tell another autistic this, and they shrug – it’s normal. Tell a neurotypical and they don’t know what to do with it.
Basically, the need for harmony is such that the internal balance comes first. Now, the assessment might have a deadline, and it might be important in some external outside world kind of way… but in my internal autistic world, there cannot be balance in the Force until the pillows are adjusted!
Strategies to improve focus
If you want an autistic to stay focused, then you have to make the desired topic of focus the ONLY focus. It’s hard to stay focused on someone speaking to you when they are wearing glittery earrings and the light is dancing all over them. It’s hard to stay focused on the teacher if there is a spelling mistake on the board. Equally, it’s hard to feel inspired to start something if there are other distracting things in your immediate environment. You may find this is precisely why most autistics like to study in complete silence, in a cocoon of comfort…
What I hope you might gain from this article is that though focus issues might appear to manifest in autism, they are not permanently debilitating. If you absolutely must complete a task, a key way to manage or hone focus is to rationalize the situation, or create new rules for prioritizing things.
How to manage “getting focused” when you feel–
· I CAN’T BE BOTHERED
Is there something about the task that you can find interesting? Maybe it’s the way of working, or the systems you’ll use to find the information, or perhaps you can rationalize that by learning more about the topic, it could become interesting.
· I AM ANNOYED THAT I HAVE TO DO [THE TASK]
What makes doing it annoying? Maybe it’s a good idea to rationalize on the usefulness of completing this task. Will completing the task advance your schoolwork, get the teacher/ your boss to appreciate you more/ get you closer to finishing your study? Remember, you can always create a voodoo doll of that stupid teacher and poke it with pins to take out some anger whilst completing the task 😉
· I FEEL IT WON’T BE GOOD ENOUGH
Ahh anxiety-time! How about gently reminding yourself that your version of perfect is far exceeds anything the average person can even conceive. Bolster confidence. Say “you can do it; it’s great”, or simply, “I am fantastic, and everything I do is fantastic”
A lack of focus is not inherently bad.
You just learn to go with the flow, accepting the knowledge that things will be completed in their due course. If you ditch topics or abandon jobs, don’t worry about it so much. Essentially you have gathered all there was to learn about it at that moment in time. We can always go back and try it again!
I think it’s good to always always always remember that being autistic is not a disorder (quite apart from the diagnosis label). If anything, being autistic is a “bringing-to-order”. Being autistic makes you different, and while it brings inter-relational challenges, they are not insurmountable.
Being autistic is okay; it really is.