Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s sometimes still referred to as attention deficit disorder (ADD), though this older name has fallen out of use in scientific literature.
The ADHD symptoms you experience help determine which disease specifier may be applied to your diagnosis. A specifier (sometimes called a type) is an additional description that mental health professionals use to describe the predominant ADHD symptoms you have.
- predominantly inattentive
- predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
One reported ADHD symptom, overfocusing, is the subject of some controversy. Overfocusing is also known as hyperfocus. It refers to the ability to concentrate intently on a specific project or activity, often to the extent that other activities are neglected.
Research looking at this symptom is still limited, so its existence is mainly supported by reports from people living with ADHD and their loved ones.
ADHD is often characterized by inattentiveness, so the ability to focus on one thing for a significant period of time can seem to contradict what many people know about the condition. As a result, hyperfocus hasn’t yet been included in the criteria for diagnosing ADHD.
There are three main specifiers of ADHD, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
ADHD with primarily inattentive features
This type involves a pattern of inattentive and distractible behavior. A few symptoms include:
- trouble staying on task
- difficulty with organization
- trouble paying attention to details
ADHD with primarily hyperactive and impulsive features
This type involves a pattern of behavior that often includes inappropriate movement and hasty or unconsidered actions or decisions.
Some other symptoms include:
- restlessness or fidgeting
- intruding into others’ conversations
- extreme talkativeness
Combined type ADHD
This type involves symptoms from both categories. It’s diagnosed more frequently than the other two.
For ADHD to be diagnosed, associated behaviors must cause problems and affect your ability to function in at least two settings. ADHD symptoms vary, even within the three specifiers.
If you have the inattentive type of ADHD, for example, your symptoms won’t necessarily be identical to those of another person with that type.
Are there other ADHD types?
One school of thought supports the existence of seven different types of ADHD. Overfocused ADHD is included in these, although it isn’t included in the three specifiers generally agreed on by medical experts.
Due to the lack of research supporting the overfocused subtype as a true presentation of ADHD, it’s currently considered to be more of a symptom of ADHD than a distinct type.
A primary sign of overfocusing in ADHD is a single-minded absorption in a certain interest or activity. Your concentration may be so complete that you remain engaged in what you’re doing for hours at a time, without remembering to take care of chores, assignments, or other commitments.
This hyperfocus might seem productive when your area of interest coincides with work or school-related tasks and assignments. But it can cause problems in other areas.
It might also have a negative impact on your health if you frequently continue working for hours at a time without a break.
Hyperfocus can also cause difficulty because once something you’re interested in absorbs you, it might be challenging to turn your attention to the other things you need to do.
Some indicators of hyperfocus can include:
- difficulty adjusting to change
- a rigid pursuit of goals that often seems like stubbornness
- difficulty becoming “unstuck” from the area of focus
- difficulty following directions in a timely manner
- feeling irritable when forced to change activities
- increased sensitivity
In both adults and children, hyperfocusing can be described as difficulty regulating attention and focus.
Focusing on a hobby
Children might become absorbed in a toy, video game, or art project — anything they have an interest in. They may fail to notice time passing and forget about doing other things.
Even with reminders, they may struggle to redirect their attention and focus on anything else. Because of this, hyperfocus can sometimes resemble oppositional behavior.
Adults with the overfocusing trait might become wholly engaged in their work or a hobby.
Hyperfocus could also occur in the context of a relationship, especially in the beginning stages, where it might involve extreme focus on a partner’s needs.
In adults, hyperfocusing could contribute to relationship issues or trouble in the workplace if losing track of time is a regular occurrence.
Not showing up for a planned date could lead to conflict with a partner, while neglecting to answer the phone for a teleconference could contribute to performance issues at work.
Hyperfocus can also show up in adults and children as extreme anticipation of an event.
Overfocusing in this way may involve a lot of time talking about the event, preparing for it, and making plans, and even difficulty talking about anything else or considering an outcome where the event ends up not taking place.
This can certainly happen for people who don’t live with ADHD, but when it occurs along with other ADHD symptoms it can be seen as hyperfocus.
Overfocusing on something in this way can cause distress when things don’t go as planned.
Overfocusing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some professionals experienced with treating ADHD suggest it can help you achieve specific goals, complete a project, or explore topics you’re interested in — as long as you can find a way to transition out of hyperfocus when you need to shift your attention elsewhere.
Experts haven’t identified a clear cause of ADHD, but a number of factors are believed to play a part in its development.
These might include:
It’s not clear what causes the hyperfocus symptom, but ADHD researchers have offered a few potential explanations.
ADHD involves neurological dysfunction that can affect the brain’s reward system. One theory around hyperfocus is that the activity of interest activates the reward system in the brain so strongly that it becomes difficult to stop doing that activity.
Another theory is that overfocusing is simply another behavioral symptom of ADHD. Instead of struggling to manage excessive restlessness, fidgeting, or other movement, people who hyperfocus have trouble regulating their attention levels.
Many people living with ADHD have trouble keeping their attention on one task. In a way, overfocusing can be seen as an extension of this symptom. It still involves difficulty with concentration and focus. The difficulty just lies in the other direction.
Overfocusing isn’t recognized as a symptom of ADHD according to the DSM-5 criteria.
Many caregivers and parents may not consider ADHD as a possibility if a child doesn’t seem hyperactive, and demonstrates that they can focus on things for long periods of time.
When getting help for ADHD, it’s important to mention all symptoms so a mental health professional or healthcare provider can make an accurate diagnosis.
While it’s been suggested there are actually seven types of ADHD (one being the overfocused subtype), classification of the four additional types depends on a type of brain scan.
The brain scan, SPECT (single-photo emission computerized tomography), may offer insight in some cases, but health professionals still diagnose ADHD according to the DSM-5 criteria, not by looking at a brain scan.
Researchers have developed an Adult Hyperfocus Questionnaire to help identify the trait in adults with ADHD. They used this tool in a 2018 study and found evidence to suggest adults with more ADHD symptoms were more likely to experience hyperfocus in multiple settings.
ADHD can’t be cured. Symptoms may decrease as children get older, but they often persist into adulthood.
Treatment can help improve symptoms, however. ADHD treatments typically include counseling, behavioral therapy, and medication. People often benefit most from treatment that combines these approaches.
Medications for ADHD may include stimulant medications or nonstimulant medications.
ADHD therapy can include:
- skills training
- behavior therapy
- family therapy
Adults living with ADHD may find psychotherapy approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) particularly helpful. Therapy can also help by teaching skills in organization and impulse control.
ADHD treatment such as medication or therapy could help improve hyperfocus along with other symptoms, but you can also take steps to redirect focus on your own.
Try some of the below tips:
- Set aside time for each task you need to complete and use an alarm or timer to let you know when it’s time to move on.
- Ask someone you trust to help keep you from hyperfocusing at work by texting, calling, or stopping by your office at an arranged time.
- If you tend to hyperfocus on activities at home, ask a partner or roommate to interrupt you once a set amount of time has passed.
- Work together with a partner to develop a plan to check your hyperfocus if you have trouble interrupting yourself. Your partner may be able to help you identify ways you can use it productively and when it might be affecting you negatively.
- Ask a child who tends to hyperfocus what might help them have an easier time moving to a new task.
- Use schedules, visual reminders, timers, or other clear cues to help children learn to recognize when it’s time to do something else.
- Redirect a child’s hyperfocus on screen-based activities to creative pursuits and activities where they spend time with others.
- Help encourage interest in learning by offering your child books on subjects they’re interested in.
Scientific evidence doesn’t point to any specific food as a cause of ADHD. But it’s possible certain foods, including artificial flavors, food colors, and other additives may affect behavioral symptoms, particularly in children.
Excess sugar consumption has also been suggested as a factor in hyperactive behavior associated with ADHD, but this hasn’t been conclusively proven.
- limiting preservatives
- limiting artificial flavors and colors
- increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake
- increasing vitamin and mineral intake
Keep in mind that while there’s some evidence supporting the positive effect these changes can have for some people, nutritional choices don’t necessarily contribute to ADHD symptoms.
Eating a balanced diet can improve health overall, which means including plenty of:
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- healthy fats
- lean protein
- whole grains
- omega-3 fatty acids
This type of diet will also include smaller amounts of food additives and preservatives.
Supplements that help increase serotonin and dopamine in the brain, such as 5-HTP and L-tryptophan, may have some benefit for ADHD symptoms such as hyperfocusing, but
Make sure to talk to your doctor before trying any new supplements, especially if you’re currently taking medications.
It’s important to talk over any changes in diet with a trained nutritionist, especially if you plan to restrict certain foods.
Limiting sugar and processed foods is never a bad idea, but if you believe other foods contribute to symptoms, a dietitian can help you develop a safe plan to test for food sensitivity with an
Hyperfocus may be one of the symptoms that certain people with ADHD experience. However, a tendency to overfocus doesn’t always indicate a diagnosis of ADHD.
For ADHD to be diagnosed, six or more symptoms (five symptoms in adults) must be present for at least six months.
Healthcare providers also take into account whether these symptoms affect your function at home, work, or school, or cause distress in other ways.
It’s a good idea to see a doctor if you or a loved one struggles with daily activities as a result of ADHD symptoms. Even if your doctor doesn’t diagnose ADHD, they can help you identify other potential causes for your symptoms and find an effective treatment.
An intense focus on a few areas of interest can occur along with ADHD symptoms. Some people believe this trait represents a specific subtype of ADHD, known as overfocused ADHD.
Scientific evidence doesn’t yet support the existence of ADHD subtypes beyond the three main specifiers listed in the DSM-5.
No matter which ADHD symptoms you experience, working with a trained mental health professional can help you learn to cope with symptoms and any challenges related to living with ADHD. Your healthcare provider can also give you a referral to a qualified coach.