Updated: May 18
As a neurodiversity-affirming therapist in the Hypno-CBT® field, I know that autistic people often have special interests. Repetitive behaviours, a propensity for sameness and rigid thought patterns are after all key elements of autism, so it’s no surprise that autists can become hyper-focussed on a subject. This element of neurodivergence gets a bad press, but let me tell you, it’s a superpower.
Yes, it’s a double-sided coin, but autistic people do potentially have the propensity to utilise the same brain regions that lead to restriction and repetition, and super-charge them for hyperfocus! (Climate activist Greta Thunberg and billionaire CEO Elon Musk are two examples of autistic people who have used hyperfocus to spectacular effect).
Autistic special interests
Let’s firstly say, there are negative sides to this - obsessive, hyperfocused behaviours can be detrimental to health, and may lead to issues like unhealthy patterns, e.g. counting calories and eating disorders, as well as issues like trichotillomania, or hair pulling. (Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy can incidentally be used very effectively to help stop habitual behaviours.)
However, what I want to write about here is the fact that special interests (for someone of any neurology) can be a haven of safety and expertise, and a feeling of validation. Autistic special interests can be a means of relaxation and pleasure; a way of using knowledge to overcome fear; a way of keeping anxiety under control; an energiser when exhausted or sad; and a way of offering motivation and conceptualisation.
If you’re an autistic person, it is likely you will find that you’re capable of honing in on things in a way that your friends and peers who are neuro-typical cannot. This is a superpower, without question.
Memory, and the hippocampus and cortical regions of the brain
I call this skill hyperfocus – the ability to really zoom in on a concept, and see it from all directions – including from the inside out. As a neurodivergent person, I can also tell you that this part of brain activity utilises muscle memory. The hippocampus and cortical regions of the brain are two areas that interact to support what’s called ‘associative memory’ after learning experiences. In simple terms, the amygdala processes emotion, while the hippocampus works on episodic memory. Essentially, thanks to neuroplasticity, the more you do a task, the more you get better at it, and retain the information.
Studies do point to the fact that autistic people generally have more hippocampal ‘volume’ - autistic young people also generally have more amygdala ‘volume’ (Schumann et al, 2004). Some scholars call autism ‘hippocampal dysfunction’ - we know that this issue can lead to medical concerns such as seizures and epilepsy. It’s also seemingly true that these differences in the amygdala-hippocampus brain region are what gives autistic people their social challenges and difficulties with social engagement. But it seems that in many autistic people, there’s an EXTRA ability to retain information – plenty of studies show that larger hippocampal volumes correlate to higher memory scores. However, some studies don’t (Pohlack, 2017); hence it does seem to be very individual - but there is definitely the possibility that autistic people potentially CAN tap into this neurological ability.
The caudate nucleus and hyperfocus - the holy grail of learning
Another key area of the brain is the caudate nucleus, a C shaped structure at the centre of the brain, which also develops learning, and links ‘environmental stimuli with enhanced focus’. (Yu-Chin Chiu et al, 2017). What do you know, the caudate nucleus volume is commonly enlarged in autistic people! While this can lead to varying levels of restricted and repetitive behaviours (Ting Qiu, 2016), I would postulate as an enthusiastic learner of neuropsychology that this difference can seemingly also lead to HYPERFOCUS. The holy grail of learning.
The title of this article is ‘Harnessing autistic hyperfocus’, so let me note down some ideas that may help individuals develop this skill within a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy framework:
Think about what you’re interested in and how this could apply to abundance in your life – could it be a rewarding hobby, a way to meet new people that share your interest, or a business venture? Satoshi Tajiri, the autistic inventor of Pokemon, is a good example of where hyperfocus can lead in a business sense. Maybe it is an area that you can use to make a difference to others? (Like autist Greta Thunberg’s work). Get focussed on your area of interest.