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Redefining Neurodiversity : Autism / ADHD - The Hyper-Focus Duality

Updated: Jun 16

Over the past several years of working with Neurodiverse and Neurotypical learners in a wide variety of settings, instruments, abilities and ages, I developed a suspicion. This suspicion became a hypothesis, and through extensive testing my confidence in the hypothesis grew into a framework of support. This framework has proven useful countless times, and I am now satisfied that my hypothesis is true.

Please feel free to test it yourself using my Method books, available as free PDF downloads here.

That hypothesis is :

1. The Cognitive Neurotypes we currently define as Autism and ADHD are fundamentally related to each other, to Flow State and to Hyper-Focus,

2. Our misidentification of their defining characteristics has become a barrier to support.

3. Their current labels are misleading at best, and seriously damaging at worst.

The word ‘Autism’ serves no purpose. It does not clarify, explain or define. It is associated with stigma – my experience as an un-masking Autistic adult of 2 years in the UK reinforces this on a daily basis; when I say that I am Autistic, I am often told, “Oh don’t say that, you’re just eccentric.”

To this I reply, “No, I’m Autistic. It’s my superpower.”

The label ‘ADHD’ – ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ is far worse, as it is fundamentally misleading. It misunderstands both the nature of ‘ADHD’, and the relationship between the category and the person for whom the categorisation is supposed to serve. ‘ADHD’ is a category created by Teachers and Parents, to define a cognitive neurotype that is unable to Focus on the thing they want it to, because it is hyper-focused on the thing it wants to be focused on.

Autism and ADHD are meaningless labels. Those who are defined by these categories share a Fundamental trait: Hyper-Focus.

Hyper Focus : Explosive - ADHD vs. Organic - Autism

These Neurotypes share a fundamentally different relationship with Attention than neurotypical archetypes. This attention is characterised by Flow State.

When Hyper-Focus Neurotypes are focused on something, they are doing so with their entire brain in Flow State. To be pulled out of this Flow State manifests in neurological sensations that are consistently described as ‘painful’. This is where Focus and Hyper-Focus are distinct. Being pulled out of Focus may be uncomfortable or jarring, but being pulled out of Hyper-Focus manifests as Pain and can have significant neuro-cognitive and emotional impacts.

For an Organic Hyper-Focus neurotype, Flow state will build up over time spent focusing on one thing. Their attention is a laser that builds up strength over time, and if attention is pulled away from the target, it will cause the laser to lose all this strength. This Neurotype will start a book, and  finish it 4 hours later without a break. It will spend hours drawing a picture, and days, weeks, years refining a craft or process.

For an Explosive Hyper-Focus Neurotype, Flow State will start at maximum strength on the target of Focus, and quickly deplete. When Focus is moved to a new subject/object, the Laser will regain full power, only to deplete again quickly.

This Neurotype may not be able to engage in a book for long, but will be mesmerised by films and other dynamic media, where their attention is redirected with visual and auditory stimulus, keeping their Laser at full strength.

Each of these Neurotypes can learn from the other. As an Autistic person, for many years I struggled to get good promotion photos for my various projects and myself. I would spend so much time thinking about it, trying to get the perfect photo, trying to ‘get it right’.

It was through the development of the above hypothesis, that I deliberately changed my approach – adopting an Explosive Hyper-Focus framework to a photo shoot, taking hundreds of photos from all angles, without any kind of screening or forethought as to what the ‘perfect shot’ was. The results delighted and surprised me. By adopting and learning from students, friends and colleagues with Explosive Hyper-Focus, I got the best promo shots of my life, effortlessly.

Wasted Gifts

I want to end this post by recounting a story of a young girl who struggled in class, fidgeting all the time, unable to concentrate, and  ‘distracting other students’.

Her teachers spoke to her parents, telling them she had a learning disorder. The parents took her to the Doctor. After hearing all they had to say, and speaking with the girl, the Doctor took the parents out of the room. As he did so, before he closed the door, he turned the radio on.

As soon as they left the room, he said to the parents, ‘just look’.

As soon as the door closed, the little girl got up and started dancing, moving gracefully around the room to the Music, all sense of fidgeting and unease immediately vanished.

The Doctor said to the parents, “She doesn’t need medication, she needs dancing lessons.”

So they took the girl to dancing lessons. That girl’s name was Gillian Lynne. She went on to become one of the most successful and regarded dancers and choreographers in the world, co-creating the musical “Cats” with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The Usefulness of Categorisation

We have an opportunity to re-define the conversation about Neurodiversity, simply by changing our perspective. Categories are useful when they support understanding, and the understanding we need to support Neurodiverse people of all ages is simple : Compassion.

It must change. We owe it to young people, and importantly we owe it to ourselves.

I do not see attention deficits, or disorders. I see Hyper-Focus along a spectrum between Organic - starts slow, builds up - and Explosive - starts max, depletes quickly.

It is our duty as compassionate Educators to support our young people in how to develop a control of this hyper-focus, and in each case their interests will be best served by understanding and implementing strategies from the opposite type.

An example of ideas of how to do this for Explosive HyperFocus - get them a camera with film that needs to be developed. The immediate activity of taking lots of photos will suit their Explosive HyperFocus, but the process of getting the film developed and the delayed reward will force them to channel Organic Hyperfocus in order to see the results.

In this way, support frameworks can be created to cross-populate these types of Hyper-Focus between these Neurotypes.

In addition, there is the opportunity for Neurotypical Archetypes to learn a lot from Hyper-Focus Archetypes, both Explosive and Organic.

For one such support framework, please feel free to explore my Flow-State Music Method, The Dao of Jazz, Books 1 : Foundation and 2 : Freedom, free PDF downloads here.

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It’s an intriguing hypothesis and I certainly think the labels need to be revisited to reflect our understanding. I know from working in a specific culture / community that these diagnostic labels tend to be completely ignored, creating a kind of culture clash. I think some parents understandably don’t want their kids (or themselves) to be labeled, but then the struggles of any individual child can so easily get lost and/or ignored to suit the parents” needs. I’m also recognizing it would have been so useful for me to have known more about this duality or spectrum as I navigated relationships with peers and colleagues throughout my career. If some are ignoring it now in our kids, then how many…

Ed Cubitt
Ed Cubitt
Jun 11
Replying to

"then how many adults are or have been suffering silently?" For every child being told they are broken and need to be 'fixed', there is an Adult who has internalised their Mask. It hurts me to think about. These children are not a problem we have to overcome, they are an endless source of inspiration and joy for us to remember what it was like to be so amazed by the World and its majesty you don't notice time pass. They are the Dao.

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