The connection between sensory overload and hyperfocus abilities

Image shows refreshable Braille display, with a number of pins protruding above the surface
Image shows refreshable Braille display, with a number of pins protruding above the surface

When I’m in really rough shape, sensory-speaking, the one thing that actually helps me keep going is focusing on one thing, and one thing only. Sensations are coming fast and furious, pelting me like a Mid-western hail storm in the spring. I’m getting inundated from every direction, and I can’t for the life of me stop it. The more stressed I get, the more sensitive I become – a vicious cycle of self-enhancing sensitivity. Feedback loop from hell.

That one focused interest can be sustained. Or it can be one of a series of hyperfocus interests. In any case,  keeping my attention trained with all my might on a very select, narrow set of ideas helps me block out the crashing storms of sensory overload.

Always has, and I imagine it always will.

And I have to wonder… Considering how extreme sensitivities AND the ability to hyperfocus are some of the hallmarks of the autistic spectrum, perhaps the two are actually related. Perhaps understanding the intersection between these two traits could help people to A) better appreciate the true nature and source of our hyperfocus abilities, and B) stop pathologizing hyperfocus on narrow interests, which seems to get a bad rap.

I know that when I’m having a bad sensory day, and all my senses are going off like Klaxon alarms on a regular basis, hyperfocusing on something right in front of me is a huge relief. It gets my mind off the discomfort, the distraction, the confusing array of sensations that are constantly appearing, disappearing, rising and falling, like a hodgepodge, willy-nilly string of meaningless text rendered on a Braille machine without any apparent context or deeper meaning.

When everything is ON with my senses, it becomes very difficult to do much of anything, really. Unless I focus with all my might on what’s right in front of me. Then I can actually think. I can actually gather my thoughts. Hyperfocus is non-negotiable when I’m in sensory overload… and since overload has happened to me so often for my entire life, I long ago got in the habit of cultivating the ability to block everything else out but what I was focused on. And then hyperfocus just became part of my repertoire.

When I was a kid, my focus was on books, imaginary friends in imaginary scenarios, a limited number of highly specialized interests. Native Americans — not all, mind you, but only some tribes. It was on trees. But not all trees. Deciduous only. Coniferous just irritated me, for some reason. There was something about “switching gears” that threw me off and unsettled me. So, spending hours reading about the Iroquois Confederacy in New York State was soothing. But reading about Seminoles in Florida made me feel unsettled and off-balance. Narnia, yes. LotR, yes. Sword of Shanara, no. I tried to get into the dragonriders of Pern, but I couldn’t make the leap. I had to stick with Narnia and Middle Earth. Treasure Island, yes. Swiss Family Robinson, no. Captains Courageous, yes. Moby Dick, no. Only some things held my attention – and when they did, they held it firmly, keeping me level and soothed.

Same thing, now. Although my interests these days are about what I do for a living, they’re still narrow. And even though I know it will be good for my career, I still have a hard time branching out and elaborating on my interests. I just don’t “see” the possibilities and connections — until after I leave a job or a situation. Then, it all becomes clear to me, how I could have parlayed this into that, or that into this. But while I was in my position, doing my job, it never actually occurred to me.

Or if it did, I didn’t think it was possible.

It’s Friday. And I’m kind of worn out, so that’s all I’ll say for now. But I think there’s a whole lot more to it, to dig into. And so I shall. So I shall.

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