My son loves to play chess. He can see the entire board and can even beat his teachers blindfolded. However, when he’s focused on chess, he tends to ignore anyone or anything around him. This is an example of his autism hyperfixation, which is defined as an intense state of concentration and focus.
While an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis isn’t required for someone to hyperfixate on a subject, it’s still common among the autistic community. Both of my sons hyperfixate quite frequently. It can be challenging, but it can also be something that helps us as parents.
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CHILDREN WITH AUTISM AND THEIR SPECIAL INTERESTS
What is autism hyperfixation?
When autistic people experience hyperfixation on a particular subject, they become fully immersed in it. This includes an intense focus on the subject. They can lose track of other day-to-day activities while hyperfixation occurs. Many autistic people will completely ignore other responsibilities.
For my son, this shows itself in his focus on chess. He will watch documentaries on YouTube to learn new ways to compete. When the subject of a game is presented, he only wants to play chess when he’s hyperfixated.
He plays chess online at school and won’t leave a game early, even if the school van is there to take him home for the day. He becomes easily agitated if someone gets too close to him while playing. He is completely absorbed in chess, but it creates underlying issues of agitation, frustration, and anger.
Hyperfixaton vs. special interests
It’s important not to confuse hyperfixation with a special interest. People on the autism spectrum often develop a special interest in a particular topic that becomes a fun hobby. While a special interest will also include an intense focus on the subject, it’s less likely to impact daily life.
My son’s special interests include sports and music. He loves almost all sports. He watches almost any sport he can see on TV. During graphic design classes at school, he has created magnets of sports logos and memorable moments.
Still, it doesn’t consume him like chess does. My son can turn off a sport and not overreact to the situation. While he may not like an outcome, he doesn’t become agitated or angry.
The same is true when it comes to music. He has multiple guitars and has worked on learning drums. He wants to play music as often as he can but understands the correct time and place to play.
Sports and music serve more as coping mechanisms and special interests for him rather than hyperfixation. However, it should be noted that many hyperfixations start as special interests. Chess started as a special interest for my son.
Recognizing signs of hyperfixation in autism
If your loved ones have become hyperfixated, some signs and symptoms will let you know the situation so that you can help them. These include:
- neglecting self-care,
- ignoring loved ones,
- limited engagement with others,
- being fully engrossed in an activity,
- lacking social awareness,
- struggling to communicate openly about topics other than the hyperfixation.
In my son’s case, he only experienced five of the six signs presented. He will ignore loved ones who don’t want to engage in chess with him. He becomes too engrossed in chess to acknowledge other social interactions, and he struggles to communicate with anyone else until we can get his focus on a different topic.
Challenges of hyperfixation
Autistic individuals have long been classified as rigid and inflexible. While that can certainly be true, it takes on a new meaning when a person is experiencing hyperfixation. The subject of their focus can become all-consuming.
Many autistic people have reported losing track of time and neglecting important responsibilities due to their hyperfixation. It can impact daily living and a person’s well-being if they stop caring for basic needs and important aspects of their lives.
Positive sides of hyperfixation
While hyperfixation can present many negative consequences for autistic people, it can also be a positive experience for some. Managing hyperfixation can turn into an essential success strategy that includes the following:
- energized focus,
- ability to constantly practice and improve,
- willingness to continue and succeed against seemingly overwhelming challenges.
If you’ve ever heard someone say the phrase, “It ain’t over until I win,” you’ll know there’s a hyperfixation with winning. Hyperfixated people tend to be driven and determined.
Some of the most successful people in the history of the world have credited hyperfixation. Some of these people include:
- Steve Jobs, founder of Apple;
- Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla, founder of SpaceX, and owner of X;
- Simone Biles, Olympic gymnast;
- Albert Einstein, a scientist and theoretical physicist; and
- Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.
While all of these people have shown to experience hyperfixation, Jobs and Musk have officially been diagnosed with autism.
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As parents, it’s up to us to step in and help our child when it becomes a negative trait. Psychological research has found that if left unchecked, hyperfixation can lead to mental health problems for our loved ones.
To manage hyperfixation, we must help them acknowledge the situation and set boundaries. Find a special interest that can help distract them, like music and sports have served for my son. These special interests can serve as a coping mechanism.
If the hyperfixation becomes too much and your loved one starts experiencing mental health issues or autistic burnout, professional help may be needed to improve their well-being.
Numerous health professionals around the world can address hyperfixaton; you’ll just need to find the one closest to you.
While an extended period of hyperfixation can be troublesome, there are some positive effects it can have. Work with your child to distract them from hyperfixation when it’s becoming a problem, but also help them harness the positive traits from it to be more successful going forward.
It’s tough when your child only focuses on one topic. We may want to stop hyperfixation, but it won’t always go how we want. So, we need to collaborate with our children in a way where they benefit from their hyperfixation while stopping short of the negatives.
Q: How long do hyperfixations last in autism?
A: The duration of hyperfixations in autism can vary widely among individuals. Some may experience short-lived hyperfixations, while others may engage in them for extended periods, ranging from weeks to months.
Q: Are hyperfixations common in individuals with autism?
A: While anyone can experience hyperfixation, it is a more common trait among autistic children. Depending on how the children react, it can either be a positive or negative aspect.
Q: Is hyperfixation a symptom of autism?
A: Hyperfixation is commonly associated with multiple neurodivergent conditions, including autism, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
Q: What does autistic hyperfixation look like?
A: Hyperfixation happens when an autistic person intensely engages in special interests. While physical symptoms may present differently in each person, some include forgetting to eat and ignoring basic needs.
Q: What are common fixations in autism?
A: Fixations in autism often include intense interest in specific topics, objects, or activities. These fixations can vary widely, but some of the most common ones are a fascination with trains, numbers, or specific routines.
Ashinoff, B.K., Abu-Akel, A. Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention. Psychological Research 85, 1–19 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01245-8
Huang, C. (2022). A Snapshot Into ADHD: The Impact of Hyperfixations and Hyperfocus From Adolescence to Adulthood. Journal of Student Research, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.47611/jsrhs.v11i3.2987
Jordan CJ, Caldwell-Harris CL. Understanding differences in neurotypical and autism spectrum special interests through Internet forums. Intellect Dev Disabil. 2012 Oct;50(5):391-402. doi: 10.1352/1934-9556-50.5.391. PMID: 23025641.