Hyperfixation is a term that is used by all other neurodivergent folks. Hyperfixation is most commonly attributed to people with ADHD, but it’s not exclusive to just that disability.
Hyperfixation vs Special Interests
The line is sort of blurred between how the two differ but the consensus based on my research and conversations seems to be that special interests are more often more consistent and long-term than hyperfixations are. The two are slightly different based on their origin but share more similarities than they do differences. And of course, depending on the person Hyperfixations can be just as intense and long-lasting as special interests are. They’ve been designated different names because of the origin of their disability and not necessarily because they’re consistently different from each other in terms of expression. So because of that, I’ll be talking about them both as this sort of broad experience.
There’s a lot of overlap between multiple developmental disabilities particularly between ASD and ADHD, which is where a lot of the confusion and mix-up with the terminology comes from. For example, hyperfocusis a term that can be used both by people with ASD and ADHD but is usually considered to be an exclusive term to individuals with those disabilities. Whereas Hyperfixation is not and can be used by anyone who is developmentally, intellectually, and or mentally disabled. It’s a lot to remember and. I’ll be linking a post that I feel explains the differences rather well in the description, in addition to knowing the proper usage of these terms and who experiences them, here’s some language that you should know as well since you may face confusion surrounding the modern terms. They’re still fairly new, so I don’t really blame anyone for not knowing what they mean.
Key Definitions and Explanation
A neurodivergent person is defined as one whose neurological development and state are atypical, usually viewed as abnormal or extreme. So this means someone who may have ASD, ADHD, a personality disorder, or other mental disabilities such as dyslexia, or dyscalculia, someone saying that they’re neurodivergent doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re autistic, it just means that they’re neurologically atypical.
A reminder that while these things are disabilities they are not considered to be flaws. Disabled is not a dirty word. Neurotypical, not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thoughts or behavior.
This simply means that you aren’t neurodivergent.
We already went over this. It might become familiar now, ASD is short for autism spectrum disorder, it replaced Asperger’s syndrome in 2013.
Someone who is not autistic. You can be neurodivergent and allistic, you can have ADHD and be allistic. It simply means that you do not have ASD.
To have a deep, intense, passionate, and incredibly focused narrowed interest in a certain area of study, subject, topic, or thing, to the exclusion of other interests. This interest is something that exists for the long term most often lasting multiple months, years, or even for your entire life, less commonly, they last a couple of weeks. This is considered to be a term used exclusively by people with autism and not by those with other mental disabilities.
an umbrella term used to describe special interest, hyper-focus, perseverations, and other intense obsessions and those with developmental, learning, or mental disabilities, commonly most used by people with ADHD to substitute the term special interest, some special interest is widely agreed upon to be an ASB exclusive term. This term is not exclusive to people with ADHD and is the correct term to use if you’re neurodivergent but not autistic.
To focus intensely on something for a short-term period of time without break to the exclusion of all other things. This is to the point that you won’t process what’s going on around you, adhere to your bodily functions and needs, homework or tasks, your hobbies or interests, etc.
This is a term that’s usually exclusive for people with ADHD or ASD. Actually, ADHD can be described best by saying, you can hyperfocus on something that you’re especially interested in but you can also hyperfocus on stuff that you’re not especially interested in. That’s how you can end up playing a video game for five hours without realizing how much time has gone by and wonder why you were even playing the game, to begin with, since it’s not your favorite.
Read The Hanahaki Disease
Differences Between hyperfixation and Hyperfocus.
So, with those simple but fundamental definitions out of the way, it’s time for us to get into explaining the complexities of special interests, Hyperfixations, and hyper-focus. These terms seem to have created a lot of confusion in groups just learning about them through individual research, particularly in leftist online spaces.
They aren’t the same thing no matter how they tend to be grouped and talked about together. And while they sometimes overlap and exist side by side they are still two very different things.
A special interest, for example, can be best described as an intense and passionate level of focus on things of interest over a long period of time, sometimes lifelong. Hyperfixation is essentially the same but may be experienced differently since it’s generally the umbrella term that is used by all neurodivergent people.
Hyper-focus differs from both and can be best described as being fully and 100% immersed in something to the point of being unable to break your focus on whatever it is that you’re hyperfocused on. The difference between the two can best be described like this, hyper-focusing is when you concentrate on one activity or task for a prolonged period of time far beyond what a neuro-typical person typically does, hyperfocus can sometimes involve a topic rather than a task, but not always.
For example, the task may be of interest because it’s researching facts about dolphins for five hours, noticing that it’s 4:00 AM and you stayed up all night on a school or work night or it could simply be playing a video game all day and not noticing anything around you including your need to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom, despite your body giving you very clear indications and warnings.
It’s an extreme case of, “Whoops, I lost track of time.” And of course, it depends and varies. Both people with ASD and ADHD experience this even if it’s depicted more commonly when talking about the latter.
Read Adolescence Syndrome
Special Interest and Hyperfixation
It is the subject of intense interest that continues past active emergent of a singular task and may or may not be tied to a certain task or activity. Often it isn’t, a special interest usually falls under one specific subject, such as a series or a movie, and often times extends to non-fiction sources, such as taking an interest in a specific time period of history, a certain animal, trains, or literally anything that you can think of can become a subject of interest.
It is important to note that you can become hyperfocused on something that isn’t your special interest or Hyperfixation, it doesn’t need to be something that you’re actually interested in for you to become fixated on it. Sometimes you can even become hyper-fixated out of fear such as looking up an illness and spending all day doom scrolling and scaring yourself into thinking that you have cancer.
We’ve all been there. This can happen with literally any activity to the point that you may forget to take care of your basic needs, even if it’s to eat or sleep.
Like a patient, He can become hyper-focused on writing, even if his special interest isn’t involved. The majority of his scripts were only finished because he was able to zone in on them and write them all in one day. Even if it’s typically a struggle to reach what he called the zone. He is the type of person who writes continuously over a prolonged period of time, even if it’s skipping two days’ worth of sleep to write a 20 plus page script in one go.
He either get out what he needs in one sitting, or he takes a two-month break and comes back to it when he can focus on it again.
There is no in-between and it makes getting stuff out frequently to be difficult as you can see, but when it does work he is productive to the point of making his head spin.
While there are breaks from hyperfocus since it’s generally activity-based, special interests usually constant. Again, this varies from person to person. One frustrating quote that you’d get whenever you read about this subject is something along the lines of,
“Everyone has interests and problems focusing on stuff they don’t like. If you’re really saying that anyone who’s passionate about something is autistic that makes half the world autistic.”
In fact, I’m pretty sure people are already typing that out right now if they haven’t already. And to that, I say, no, you literally don’t understand and I think you just don’t understand people with mental disabilities.
Hyperfocus, Special-interest, and Hyperfixations
These are incredibly hard to explain to people who have never experienced the symptoms from having ASD or ADHD because there aren’t similar experiences that they’ve had that we can compare them to. And I think that’s where we’re going wrong and trying to explain it to people because there’s really nothing to give in comparison.
By virtue that makes it difficult for there to be an empathetic connection and form an understanding, these aren’t the same as a passion or general interest in something, since in those cases, I’m sure it wouldn’t have the potential of impacting every single portion of your life. And I’m pretty sure that you also wouldn’t hate a passion because some Hyperfixations and some special interests you’re hyper fixated on and you might not even like them, it’s just because you’re hyper fixated on it like (shudders).
Special interests and Hyperfixations go beyond simply having an interest in something and hyperfocus goes beyond simply being focused on something because if that’s all they were, you’re right, I would be explaining half of the population but that isn’t what either of these things is and acting like they are as a sort of ignorant.
These aren’t terms that we’ve pulled out of thin air, they’re medically recognized terms. I realized too that the difference doesn’t seem to be super large between the two and again, this is where I understand the confusion because there is a lot that overlaps. I try to avoid the word obsession here while explaining these conditions, because that isn’t really what it is, though I suppose that it is the closest definition that would help a neurotypical to understand it. Just try not to think of it automatically with negative connotations, like obsession generally is. Something interesting of note as well is that someone with ASD can have more than one special interest at one time.
I know it’s common to believe that there’s only one subject of interest per person, especially in the context of when it’s depicted in the media but that often isn’t the case. I hope that this makes sense because there isn’t really a whole hell of a lot of information out there explaining the difference. Literally, if you Google it, you’re more likely to be brought to Reddit instead of a specialized organization, and well Reddit can have good information, it really shouldn’t be the first thing that comes up in search results, if that makes sense, I’m not trying to discern Reddit or anything.
Differences having now been explained though, I wanted to talk a little bit about special interest individually and some common misconceptions, and the problems that come along with them.
When I talk about special interest and Hyperfixations, it’s always difficult to do so in a way that accurately describes what it’s like having one. And again, this is really difficult to do for someone who doesn’t experience it. There’s a lot of misconceptions and I think miscommunication. So I’m going to try and clear up a few things here and paint an accurate picture.
One very common misconception, is that people choose what they want their special interests to be, and this really isn’t the case, at least in my experience, it really isn’t.
My medical experience in history with special interests has a weird pattern that it always seems to follow and I’m curious if anyone else finds it familiar.
I met a patient who’s very first special interest was on “Winnie the Pooh” when he was super little. Despite having most late 19s Disney collections and cartoons, it was always what he wanted to watch. And according to conversations with his family, He would literally watch it continuously on replay if they let him, this went beyond baby’s first favorite movie since it was more than just a favorite movie for him and he practically refused to watch and show disinterest in watching anything else.
He remembers having a bunch of poo-related stuff growing up and he can only assume that his obsession with it is what led to that.
Though, He doesn’t remember a lot about that part of his life.
A better example would be one of his other first special interests which would be his special interest in cats, not like the play or anything, cats as in the animal.
This was his special interest for his preschool, elementary, middle school, and early high school years before a certain group of gay gems decided that they were going to come in and snatch that status away. And he only says that it’s somewhat different because this is his only non-media special interest that he’d ever had and still has.
For most of his childhood, he basically consumed every bit of media on cats that he could, he didn’t really have unsupervised access to the internet growing up, so that usually consisted of channel surfing or literally going to the library that was five minutes away to look at pictures of or read about cats.
He would also spend his recess inside at the library in the school, instead of going outside with the other kids which the teachers put a stop to since they deemed it as anti-social and inappropriate, jokes on them because he just started bringing warrior books outside and read them while he was on the swing.
He had a little black and white cat stuffed animal that he got when he was five which is what kicked off the whole fixation business in the first place.
That cat’s name was Xy and he loves him a lot. He also got his first cats, Xiu and Peter around that same time. About 90% of his time when he was younger was spent with his cat while surrounded by cat plushies, books, wearing exclusively cat shirts, and watching either “Animal Cops Houston,” “Animal Planet Documentaries on Big Cats” or “My Cat from Hell.” When he got access to the internet, literally all he did was watch cat videos and researched cat behavior and health problems. He literally only drew cats and yes, he had a Warrior cat’s face, what gay person hasn’t?
I got to the point where he was unable to finish or focus on schoolwork because every page was just lined with cats or cat-like creatures, whenever there was free room. He even remembers sneaking Xy to school while in high school and keeping it in his backpack so that he wouldn’t get made fun of for essentially still needing to bring a stuffed animal with himself wherever he went as a teenager for emotional support.
Most of his conversations with his friends were about the cat or cat-related things, to the point where he earned the name crazy cat-boy in middle school and not as a senior citizen.
That patient also developed an incredibly strong hatred for dogs because of how the media and overly obnoxious dog people always depicted the mas the better companion and cats as the evil and lesser counterpart.
Now he has gotten over that to an extent even though he still doesn’t like dogs for sensory reasons but he still loathes the media perception and tropes on cats.
That was the extent that this went to if it gives you an idea of what going past a neuro-typical interest looks like and what a special interest and hyperfixation looks like because none of that behavior is neurotypical.
In what I just told you, there’s a lot to break down that will tell you a lot about what a special interest means to someone with a mental disability like ASD or ADHD.
Special interests are usually seen as a comfort to people on the spectrum. This can help them when they’re dealing with sensory overload or just, in general, may help them get out energy that may lead to sensory overload. Partaking in a special interest is usually a pleasurable experience and is incredibly fun and exciting.
You can see this in behaviors such as the person’s surrounding themselves in either merch or objects related to their special interests or info-dumping about it.
Special interests are usually heavily researched to the point of the person knowing an incredible or encyclopedic amount of knowledge on said subject. The most commonly talked about instance of this is definitely with trains since trains are a very common Hyperfixation to have among those with ASD, but popular doesn’t mean only. but more often than not, it’s mostly done out of passion and love because it does genuinely bring joy and comfort to the person who is researching it.
One theory as to why we have a special interest is because autistic people typically don’t like change or unpredictable situations, we prefer to stick to structure and routine, I mean, we’d like to know what’s going to happen and when, not knowing can cause extreme anxiety and cause discomfort, which can lead to overstimulation or even eventually a meltdown in extreme cases.
We can ensure that we know what’s going on with our special interests if we know everything about them because then nothing can catch us off guard. So we can still enjoy and consume media, but it’s in a non-stressful way that allows us to avoid overstimulation or discomfort. I think that’s a pretty solid theory given what we know and experience.
Behavior Toward Criticism
Another behavior worth pointing out in that patient’s experience with cats is that he developed a hatred towards dogs. Not because of anything that a dog did to him but simply because dogs were used to criticize or talk down on cats. And it wasn’t just dog either, he would get cartoonishly upset whenever anyone said that cats were bad or that another animal was better. And when he says cartoonishly, I mean, I’ve had full-on meltdowns over it before.
Going involuntarily mute, throwing a fit, going into a fetal position, crying out of frustration, the whole shebang. I think something not a lot of people realize is that;
people with ASD or ADHD can be incredibly sensitive to criticism.
This also extends to criticism of our special interests and we can become stubborn or very upset when someone is bad-mouthing it to the point of it feeling like a personal attack. This is also why you have a lot of neurodivergent kids getting really upset with people for making fun. Which are things that are also a very common subject of Hyperfixation. It may also cause the individual to feel like they’re a bad person since liking something to this extent can certainly become a part of your identity. And so the line is blurred between whether they’re simply insulting your interest or you for liking it. And that leads to my next point which is that you can’t choose your special interest. This makes the last situation potentially more frustrating if your interest is considered to be a problematic piece of media, such as Attack on Titan for example. There are very valid criticisms and concerns about it out there but it may be hard for someone who has it as a special interest to see the criticism as anything beyond an attack on their character, pardon the fun. Though the opposite may also be true and that some autistic people also love to critique the things that they love and critiquing maybe how they interact with their special interests. But again, autism is a spectrum disorder and it’s important that while discussing it and its effects not to confuse your experience with your autism as the definitive overall shared experience, because it isn’t. This is very much an individual-based disability which is why it’s very hard to both explain and diagnose it.
Special interests do not need to be lifelong for them to be defined as special interests. Our patient’s primary Hyperfixation on cats lasted from when he was five all the way until when he was 16, so that lasted for around 11 years.
It’s also normal if you have ADHD and also don’t have a Hyperfixation. It could just be that your problem rests strictly on social cues or having problems distinguishing between tones. I know a lot of people assume that this is something universal between everyone on the spectrum and it isn’t. It’s normal to express some symptoms while not expressing others, regardless of how common they are across the disability as a whole. A lot of times, people also assume that you’re selfish for either talking about your special interest all the time or using your struggles to relate with others. This isn’t the case at all and is usually a simple misunderstanding.
If we all share our special interests with somebody, it means that we care for each other, and we want something to enjoy and bond with you over.
A lot of times, Hyperfixations are very important to us and a big part of who we are and how we experience things and so trusting you with that information indicates that we care about you and trust you a great deal. We want you to experience something that brings joy to us hoping that it will also bring joy to you. A lot of the time too, it’s the only way that we know how to interact and we want to interact with you. You don’t want to break that trust by making fun of us or by getting angry. And while I’ve been talking a lot in the section about how
Hyperfixations and special interests can take over someone’s life in certain circumstances, I think it’s also important to mention that this is also very much a case on an individual basis.
With a lot of people, they may have minimal to no trouble at all focusing on other things. This is a very individualistic disability that doesn’t have only one way of presenting itself. It’s why we still don’t know a whole hell of a lot about it because it’s just that hard to pinpoint. And just as it varies how people experience it I’m sure that these aren’t the only problems or misconceptions about it. You can always feel free to use the comment section to dump your thoughts, opinions, and experience on these things because again, this is what I felt needed to be covered due to my point of view.
How to Deal with Hyperfixation – Remedy
I think now it’d be a good time to go over advice on how to deal with special interests that are currently dominating your life. Advice and management, as we’ve discussed in this article a special interest or Hyperfixation is something that can bring a lot of joy and provide comfort to people with both ASD and other neurodivergent disorders.
However, they can also sometimes cause you to become frustrated and neglect personal, professional, and academic responsibilities.
So what are some ways that you can try to cope with this? And if you’re either neuro-typical or just don’t deal with Hyperfixations, what can you do to help support your family members, friends, and peers who do?
There are a few things that have been found to work well for some patients but they might not always work for everyone.
The first thing that you can try to do is incorporate your special interest into your tasks. For example, if you’re doing homework try to imagine a character from your favorite show solving the problem or helping you with it, or even try to rework the problem in your head so that it’s relevant. That way you can now focus on your work without the stress or frustration of forcing your brain to choose between the two. It helps as well if you’re able to involve it in whatever creative project you’re pursuing, which is what I tended to do a lot back in English class when we wrote papers or an art class where the project was somewhat open-ended.
Another thing that I’d like to suggest is to take breaks and set goals. This isn’t as much of an option in grade school unless you have understanding teachers, unfortunately, but in college, your professor can’t stop you from leaving since you know, you’re paying them and you’re an adult. If they deny you, you can bring it to the Dean and tell them that your professor is not being accommodated to your disability because let’s be real, that’s what that is.
If you feel yourself getting distracted or struggling to focus, allow your mind to break, to go back to what it wants to think about for a little while, usually you can come back with a clearer mind.
Trying to force yourself to focus on something, just makes you more unfocused than when you originally started trying to force yourself and may lead to overstimulation and make your executive function that much worse.
You can also set goals on where you need to be before you take a break and you can usually focus better if you know that you can let your mind wander once you finish up to a certain point.
It’s sort of like a reward for what you need to get done but it’s also self-governed and allowing you autonomy. And you can still always go on a break earlier if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed about it. There’s also always therapy as an option if you have access to it, but it’s important to not get discouraged if you can’t find the correct therapist or medication right away. It sometimes takes people several tries to find either the right doctor or treatment plan and that’s fine.
You’re not really going to find instant results if this is an issue for you. I want to emphasize that as long as special interests don’t become an issue for you, it’s not really something that you need to have fixed. A lot of people have healthy and fulfilling relationships with their Hyperfixations and even turn them into careers. So oftentimes they aren’t something that should or need to be discouraged or managed. The only time it needs intervention is when you’re struggling to do everything else that you need to do for yourself and your relationship with it is more of an unhealthy and unbalanced one. There are people who don’t have problems with this at all and that doesn’t make them any more or any less of a neurodivergent person, everyone is different and their experiences are all valid. In terms of practical advice with friendships, you should always live by the code that communication is the most important thing in a relationship.
This goes for literally everyone though and this is more broad advice. If you’re unintentionally neglecting to talk to someone just be honest with them and shoot them a message letting them know that you’re thinking about them. It’s just that your mind is making it hard for you to focus on talking to people at the moment. The more honest you are with your relationships, the healthier they tend to be. It also shows which people you want to remain friends with depending on how understanding they are. If it helps or makes things easier feel free to just send this article as an explanation if you feel it did a good job explaining your situation and experience.
If I could say something to the neurotypicals who just want to support the neurodivergent people in their lives when it comes to this sort of thing, it’s that it would help if you listened every once in a while, you don’t need to listen every single time that we talk about it, but at least try to for a little bit. If it’s something that you really just can’t engage with for one reason or another, that’s fine, but what you don’t want to do is either make fun of the person for liking it, make them feel bad for wanting to share it with you or get angry that they’re interested in it.
That’s one of the quickest ways to ensure that we won’t want to have a relationship with you anymore, or at the very least, a trustworthy and open relationship.
A simple, I’m sorry, I’m not interested in talking about this right now, or I’m sorry, but I’m not really interested in this will suffice. But really the biggest thing I’m asking of you is just trying to be open-minded. That seems to be the most common thing that was unanimously agreed upon, when I asked my neurodivergent followers, what they wanted neuro-typical people to understand about special interests and Hyperfixations.
There is a lot more that could be said about ASD, Hyperfixation, and neuro-divergency and the different aspects of it but like every single portion of it, it’s complicated because of how individualized it is. Stay happy and do whatever you like unless it hurts anybody.
Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Learn From Doctor Team