Writing While Autistic #4: Reclaiming Hyperfocus
 
Dear Patrons, I am continuing with the Writing While Autistic series while still (argh) recovering from concussion and trying catch up on my outstanding obligations. I'm glad the series seems to be useful for people; please feel free to spread the word.

Sticky Note: I am an adult autistic writer. All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. While I do make general statements and give advice, this does not constitute prescriptive advice: meaning that what I say is just one possibility in a sea of other advice. Take what you need from it and ignore the rest. 

Addendum: I'm frequently hearing "I'm not autistic, but this is really useful to me," and while I can only speak to my own neuroatypicality, I'm really glad that this generalizes and is useful to other people.

Reclaiming Hyperfocus

Most modern writing advice and research about writing and writers will warn you against binging - or writing too much in one sitting - and try to teach you how to write in small increments, instead (Robert Boyce and his extensive research on the productivity of academic writers comes to mind). There’s a great fear of “binging” in our culture, there's a cult of moderation and incremental progress, which works for many people - but it does not work for everyone. 

What neurotypicals may perceive as our “binging” might simply be hyperfocus, that blessed state of flow in which time dissolves and words pour out beautifully, endlessly, and seeming with ease - the state in which you may forget to eat, to drink, or to take restroom breaks, in which you become oblivious to the world. 

Hyperfocus is often threatening and frightening to NTs.

I have come to realize that many NTs would expect your attention to be always available, so that when they call/speak/request your attention, you are expected to be able to give it to them. Hyperfocus means you will not be always available, and I believe that our "disconnectedness" from the constant state of potential mental availability is often threatening to NTs.

In short, hyperfocus is often perceived as the canonical “autistic” state which is so frightening to many neurotypicals that they will try to break you out of it -- “for your own good”. By the time you are an autistic adult, you’ve likely internalized that hyperfocus is bad and have experienced NTs trying to “break” you out of it. You may even be constantly trying to overcome it yourself.

And then you try to write in small increments, because that’s the One Right Way. And perhaps, when you try to write in small increments, it takes you forever to start making words, and perhaps you’re anxious, and then you’re finally writing and!!! Time to stop!! Or you’ll be binging!!!

Here’s the thing: for some people, words come on a regular schedule, and you probably can train yourself to work this way, maybe. I can’t. My work comes in big bursts of hyperfocus, and then I rest.

My fallow periods can last for a while, and then I am in the flow 24/7, working and working and working. I sleep less, and wake up eager to get back to my One Big Thing. 

Call these intense working periods binges if you want to, but they are not binges - that is, they are not something horrible which needs to be exterminated at all cost as a part of an unspoken effort of “curing” autism. 

Hyperfocus is one of the greatest advantages and pleasures of the autistic mind. To sink deeply and utterly and joyously (and often uncomfortably) into the project is what autistics bring to this world, a hallmark of autistic creativity and accomplishment.

It also often alarms your NT parents, educators, partners, caregivers, case managers, therapists, and writing advisors who want your creativity to function in a way which is comforting for them rather than in a way that works for you.

Not all NTs are the same, either, and hyperfocus is not limited to autistics; but perhaps they do not feel the shadow of an abusive education system as keenly as many of us do. I know a very accomplished academic writer who writes whenever she can. She wakes at night sometimes, works for a few hours, then goes back to sleep. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would do that - and other people were present - without other people trying to norm me, tell me that it’s not ok, disruptive, weird, something to overcome. I cannot imagine myself doing this and not beating myself up later - “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I work on a schedule? This is self-harm!” 

As autistic writers, we often need to unlearn a lot of internalized negative self-talk around hyperfocus. 

The greatest gift you can give yourself is the permission to seek your own patterns, whatever they may be. If you always prefer a measured pace that’s fine, and you’re definitely not alone in that. But if you can, allow yourself to sink into hyperfocus. It’s a very autistic thing and, for many of us, a crucial, necessary state that, once reclaimed, brings joy and affirmation to our lives.

(to be continued; there's more than one installment about hyperfocus).