What is Hyperfixation? How do You Stop Being Hyperfixated on things?

Hyperfixation

Lots of teens love video games. Everyone knows that. And many teens, autistic or neurotypical, play video games too often, which can interfere with daily living. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hyperfixated on video games.

But do you remember the story a few years ago about the young man who died after playing video games for too long? He stayed in the same inactive position for so long that blood clots formed. Those blood clots then traveled to his lungs and killed him. That is probably a worst-case scenario of hyperfixation.

Boys playing video games is a common theme among hyperfixations.

But how do you know? What is hyperfixation and what is just a case of “playing video games too much?”

For some people, hyperfixation is a coping mechanism. A person may hyperfixate on something that makes them happy or relaxes them. Sometimes, being hyperfixated is a welcome distraction to cope with sensory input. My son tends to hyperfixate on all things Sesame Street, but especially their videos and music.

This is helpful when we are at a noisy place that we cannot avoid or a medical appointment that would otherwise stress him out.

Hyperfixations become harmful when they turn into avoidance. If the hyperfixation is resulting in not eating, sleeping, maintaining hygiene, or nurturing relationships, then perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the situation.

I want to acknowledge that for some autistics and others, noisy situations or social situations can be extra difficult to navigate and tolerate. However, sometimes we have to do hard things. And, we can do hard things.

If you are always avoiding certain situations to participate in your hyperfixation, then other coping mechanisms should be explored.

Other times, the subject of your hyperfixation can be harmful. For example, hyperfixating on a traumatic experience.

Hyperfixations are often associated with ADHD and Autism. Let’s dig in and examine what they are and what can be done to manage them if they are a problem in the household.

What is Hyperfixation?

According to a 2021 article in PubMed:

‘Hyperfocus’ is a phenomenon that reflects one’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else. Hyperfocus is most often mentioned in the context of autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but research into its effect on cognitive and neural functioning is limited. We propose that hyperfocus is a critically important aspect of cognition, particularly with regard to clinical populations, and that it warrants significant investigation. Hyperfocus, though ostensibly self-explanatory, is poorly defined within the literature. In many cases, hyperfocus goes undefined, relying on the assumption that the reader inherently knows what it entails. Thus, there is no single consensus to what constitutes hyperfocus.

From Hyperfocus: the Forgotten Frontier of Attention

Definition of Hyperfixations

If you read the citation above, you will see that there is no official clinical definition of hyperfixation or hyperfocus.

While many clinicians and families witness behavior that they may consider a hyperfixation, there is no clinical definition or DSM criteria.

There are some criteria that, while not official, and often associated with a hyperfixation. They are:

  • Enhanced focus and attention on an object or activity
  • Diminished awareness of time
  • Diminished awareness of the environment
  • Acute or sustained effects on everyday activities such as interactions with people, eating and drinking, sleeping, etc.
  • Engaging in this activity affects their self-regulation (or lack thereof)

Have you ever worked on something, say reading a book or finishing a painting or project…and you could not sleep until you finish it?

Or, you get so engrossed in finishing something that you skip a meal or a shower? That’s a hyperfixation on a small scale.

For some people, these hyperfixations often occur to the point where their day-to-day activities get disrupted.

Since there are no official criteria for ‘qualifying’ as a hyperfixation, the timeline can be anywhere from a few hours to months or even more.

Why are some people hyperfixated on things?

The mechanisms behind hyperfixations are not yet fully understood.

A few hypotheses are being tossed around and studied as far as why people engage in hyperfixation.

  • They enjoy the feelings of success that come with that activity. For example, if a person is successful at a certain video game but not in other areas of life, they will gravitate toward success.
  • The activity or item brings them comfort. This is likely the case with my son. He finds comfort in these Sesame Street items.
  • For some people with OCD, hyperfixation is a part of their pattern of activity. The brain goes into a mode of “I have to do XYZ to prevent ABC…” and then XYZ becomes their hyperinterest.

Is Hyperfixation only for ADHD?

It is widely reported that people with ADHD experience hyperfixation more frequently than their neurotypical peers.

For some people, hyperfixation can be a coping mechanism. People may hyperfixate on something that makes them feel more relaxed or brings them happiness.

In some cases, hyperfixation is a helpful distraction from the things stressing a person out. My son likes to have an Ernie, Elmo, or Count doll during stressful times.

Here is Kevin holding an Ernie doll. For a while, Ernie was one of his hyperfixations.
Here’s Kevin enjoying his Ernie doll. Count, Ernie, and Elmo are still his favorites.

However, they are not limited to ADHD. Hyperfixations are also associated with and seen more frequently in individuals with:

  • Autism
  • OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia

One thing that is NOT associated with ADHD is echolalia and scripting. Autistic scripting is a behavior that can often overlap with hyperfixation.

What are the Symptoms of a Hyperfixation?

A person who is hyperfixated might:

  • Be unable to control their actions or activities, and this may be compounded by a lack of self-awareness, or the ability to recognize that you have no control
  • Lose track of time or feel like time is passing very quickly, such as staying up all night
  • Fail to recognize things happening around you, such as forgetting to feed a pet
  • Forget to do necessary things like eating or sleeping; like the story a few years ago of a young man who died from blood clots because he spent so many hours sitting and playing a video game; he was in the same position for so long that he developed fatal blood clots.
  • Become less self-aware and socially–aware, keeping in mind the person’s baseline; many autistics and others are introverts by nature, and this would be extraordinarily so
Autistic boys loving Thomas the Train and  hyperfixating on that is a common stereotype.
Autistic boys loving Thomas the Train and hyperfixating on that is a common stereotype.

Examples of Hyperfixations

A hyperfixation can be anything.

One common stereotype of hyperfixations and autism is Thomas the Train. For whatever reason, it seems that many autistic children are drawn to the TV series and toys.

It might be the soothing voice, the colors, the eye shape on the trains…who knows?

But a hyperfixation can be a toy, an activity, or anything that creates a situation where the person is hyper-focused on that thing.

Hyperfixations and Food

Food hyperfixations are very common. This means some people may only eat a specific food or meal for a while before becoming tired and moving on to a different one.

This is something that I periodically experience.

Just recently, for me, it was the Little Debbie Nutty Buddy snacks. I could not get enough of them. The Aldi brand or Tastykake would not suffice–it had to be Little Debbie. I would eat one or two a day. I had to have them. I craved them.

Then, just as quickly as it turned on, a few months later, it turned off.

Looking at the package now actually turns my stomach.

You can see below that this is common. This person’s post on Reddit r/ADHD got many upvotes, and there are many similar conversations about this online.

Discussion of food hyperfixations on reddit.

Is Being Hyperfixated Harmful?

Hyperfixations are not inherently harmful.

Something that brings you joy, comfort, satisfaction, or success is not bad.

When it becomes harmful, you damage yourself or the environment around you.

For example:

  • Your physical health is suffering as a result of your hyperfixation
  • Your pet is neglected, or your family or your home is dangerously filthy due to a hyperfixation
  • You have trouble maintaining a job or other commitments due to the hyperfixation
  • Your skill sets regress due to your hyperfixation; for example, you spend countless hours only in online gaming communities, and your coping skills in regular society or communication skills in your community regress.

Is there Medication for Hyperfixations?

The short answer is yes. But like anything else, you should talk with your medical team and whoever is helping you manage your condition(s) like autism, ADHD, OCD, and so on.

And, not to minimize anyone’s struggles with hyperfixations if they are interrupting your life, but a healthy lifestyle always helps.

That doesn’t mean that the hollow advice of “drink more water!” will stop your hyperfixations.

But, staying hydrated, well nourished, getting outdoors, and getting physical activity, plus a good sleep schedule, contribute to overall better well-being.

Hyperfocus and an IEP

Like anything else on your IEP, if you want something added, write your request and follow up with a PWN.

Yes, students can have goals that include managing hyperfocus and hyperfixations.

Hyperfocus or hyperfixation may be considered a child’s strength and may be used as a reward or incentive.

I do not believe all hyperfixations should be redirected just because they exist. If they are disrupting the child’s or their classmates’ school day, then yes, they should be managed.

But, over the years, I have found many staff members annoyed with some of our kids’ quirks when they are not hurting anyone. So who cares?

How to Stop Hyperfixations

Can you cure hyperfixations? No, but you can teach your children to manage them.

Self-awareness and discipline are key. And those two things don’t always come easy to everyone.

You can do things like:

  • Have morning meetings, after-school check-ins, or whatever works for your family. Set priorities and a schedule.
  • Set timers for activities.
  • Give yourself/child ultimatums and incentives, like “If you stop ABC at 6:00, then we can do XYZ.”
  • Introduce a schedule for activities that tend to result in hyperfixations. This may involve limiting their time watching television or playing video games.
  • Try to make the child aware that hyperfocus is a symptom of their condition. This can help them understand that they need to address it.
  • Try using definitive time points, such as the end of a TV show or meal, to signal that the child needs to do something else.
  • Promote activities that remove them from isolation and that promote being social.
  • Set timers and reminders to help complete all essential tasks, activities, or chores.
  • Try sensory toys for adults or other fidget distractions if the person avoids situations and is drawn only to their hyperfocus activities or situations.

Developing self-awareness is often difficult but is key to minimizing this behavior if it is disruptive.

If appropriate, the family and a medical team should get at the root cause of the hyperfocused activity.

What “gift” does it bring the person? Familiarity? Comfort? Self-stimulating input? Why is the person engaging in this activity or pattern? What intrinsic rewards is it giving them?

If a teenager can only connect with others online or only feels a sense of accomplishment from a video game, that would be your starting point. Find other areas in their life where they can be successful or engage with others besides online gaming.

That’s not always easy and might take much trial and error. But everyone has their place on the planet, and I’m sure some healthier alternatives exist.

The takeaway is that we can all always improve. Please do not let family, friends, or anyone tell you, “Oh, it’s always going to be this way because he has autism.”

I believe we can always grow, improve ourselves and reduce our destructive behaviors (if your hyperfixations are destructive).

Hyperfocus vs Perseveration

Two other terms you will often hear associated with hyperfixation are hyperfocus and perseveration. Perseveration or perseverate is often used when discussing autistic people.

“Hyperfocus” is an overloaded word that is often used to refer to two superficially similar — but fundamentally different — mental states: flow and perseveration.

Flow is a positive, beneficial state of deep immersion and high engagement in a task or activity, and is also usually accompanied by enjoyment of the task/activity. It’s something almost all people are capable of, and specifically is not a benefit imparted by ADHD.

Perseveration, on the other hand, is often a part of ADHD, autism and other conditions. It is the inability to switch between tasks or mental activities. It’s that thing that makes you spend 10 hours doing something non-stop even when you know you need to stop and do something else.

(source: Reddit)

Is Hyperfixation the same as addiction?

No, though you will often hear the terms used interchangeably. Using my Little Debbie example above (my food hyperfixation), I believe I have even uttered the phrase, “I am so addicted to these things.”

But I was not addicted.

Addiction is not an escape; it is dependence. Whether chemical or experiential, it is an addiction if you cannot go without it for even brief periods of time.

If someone is addicted to a video game, lack of access will cause distress, anxiety, aggression, and often physical symptoms.

By contrast, hyperfixation is characterized by periods when interest in the experience, book, game, or whatever someone was fixated on is completely gone. The interest may be sparked tomorrow or next month, but there is no withdrawal. Again, one day, out of the blue, I disliked Little Debbie Nutty Buddy snacks.

A person who is hyperfixated on things may find it happening on days when they are under extreme stress or anxiety.

That’s not to say that hyperfixation cannot interfere with one’s general well-being and daily living. It can. If you are neglecting your physical health, family, relationships, jobs, or pets due to a hyperfixation, then you should work toward fixing it.

Good luck to you, and you can always join our Chat Forums to discuss any issue further.

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